History of Women Deacons

Here lies Maria the deacon of pious and blessed memory who…raised children, exercised hospitality, washed the feet of the saints, and distributed her bread to the needy. Remember her, Lord, when she enters into your kingdom.

Translation of Greek inscription on grey marble, about Maria the deacon, in sixth-century Cappadocia. Source

History

In early Christian communities and continuing for 11 centuries, there were women who were called deacons as they exercised a wide range of ministries related to liturgy, word, and charity. 

Among these women were Anastasia, Olympias, Hilaria, Anna, Theodora, Ausonia, Euphemia and Heloise. There were many others. These women served in Italy, Gaul, Greece, Asia Minor, Palestine, Egypt and other places.

These women baptized and anointed women, proclaimed the Gospel, preached, taught catechism to children, assisted at the altar, administered finances, assisted in marriage annulment investigations, and cared for women on the margins.

The earliest testimony to female deacons is found in the New Testament.

In Romans 16:1-2, Paul refers to Phoebe as a minister (diakonos) of the church at Cenchreae. The use of the noun diakonos signifies a title and a stable function. Theodoret of Cyrus (393-446), writing in the early fifth century, notes that the large Christian community in Cenchreae necessitated the ministry of a female deacon, Phoebe. 

In 1 Timothy 3:11, the author lists the characteristics of female deacons.

We know of hundreds of other female deacons through numerous references in epigraphs, letters, chronicles, pastoral manuals, legislative texts and the writings of bishops and popes.

In Cappadocia, a sixth-century Greek inscription on a gray marble tombstone reads: “Here lies Maria the deacon of pious and blessed memory who…raised children, exercised hospitality, washed the feet of the saints, and distributed her bread to the needy. Remember her, Lord, when she enters into your kingdom.” 

We also know of these women through the existence of ordination rites for women deacons. Ancient and medieval ordination rites show that bishops ordained women as deacons through the imposition of hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit.

An eighth-century Byzantine ordination rite reads, “Holy and Omnipotent Lord, You grant not only to men, but also to women the grace and coming of the Holy Spirit. Please, Lord, look on this your maid servant and dedicate her to the task of your diaconate.”

By the 12th century, however, the diaconate had become reserved to a transitional ministry for future priests, so women were no longer ordained as deacons.


 “Holy and Omnipotent Lord, You grant not only to men, but also to women the grace and coming of the Holy Spirit. Please, Lord, look on this your maid servant and dedicate her to the task of your diaconate.”

8th Century Byzantine Ordination Rite

%d bloggers like this: