With the restoration of the Permanent Diaconate in Melbourne, there is inevitably the old chestnut about whether women can be deacons. It is pointed out that there were “deaconesses” in the early Church, so why not now?
Why not, indeed? A number of the Oriental and Orthodox Churches, including the Greeks and the Copts, have reinstituted the order of Deaconesses. But what needs to be made perfectly clear is that a Deaconess is not a female Deacon. The Deacon and the Deaconess are two very different fish. I have just found a very good example of the distinction on this Coptic website:
DEACONNESSES IN THE CHURCH
In the early church there were deaconesses helping the Apostles, and later they served with the bishops and priests in various services. Initially, the service was only available to widowed women over the age of sixty. The Apostolic Canons imposed a condition that deaconess must be virgin, or widow, and over the age of sixty.
St. Paul cared about the subject of widowed deaconesses in the first church and wrote about them in the fifth chapter of his first epistle to his disciple Timothy. According to our teacher St. Paul, the conditions for a successful deaconess are :
A widow who has been the wife of one man (1 Timothy 5:9), or virgin.
If a widow, she must not be under sixty years, so that she not become a stumbling block in the service, because of her youthfulness, or intention of remarrying.
She must be recognized for her vitreous deeds, manners, and previous service. “If she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she diligently followed every good work, with a reputation for good works, if she has brought up children.”
Examples of these successful deaconesses are : Phoebe, who was commended by St. Paul for the church of Rome…(Romans 16:1,2)…
We also hear about other deaconesses, and a disciple of St. Paul, called Tekla…
From the thirteenth century, the service of consecrated deaconesses in church was abolished, but due to the urgent need for the service of women in church, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, decided to revive this rite, on the Feast of Pentecost in 1981, by consecration of a large number of deaconesses for the service of Cairo churches. Today, many bishops have also consecrated deaconesses for the service within their dioceses.
…It is well known that the rank of deaconess in church is not a priestly rank. There is no Priesthood for women. St. Mary the mother of the Incarnated God and the Lady of the heavenly and earthly did not have any priestly rank, although she was a spiritual mother for the apostles and was accompanying them in service.
…The rite is called the ‘Rite of Consecration of the Consecrated.’ [Whereas a Deacon is “ordained”.]
The consecration, which is done by a bishop, is performed without the laying on of hands, which is different from priestly ordinations.
These prayers take place in a private mass for women as their service is not for the entire congregation, but for a specific sector of them.
Unlike the deacons, their prayers do not take place after the Reconciliation Prayer, so they are not considered as priestly dedication.
You get the drift. I wonder if what Bishop Walker at Broken Bay was trying to do with his “ecclesial women” idea isn’t somewhat akin to the traditional “Deaconess” model as the Copts have it.
It is possible that some might react to this Coptic position by saying: Righto, no problem. In the Catholic Church we are just as strong on the point that the male Deacon isn’t a priest. So, even if we accept what the Copts say about there being “no priesthood for women” ordaining them as deacons wouldn’t matter.
But to be fair, I think this would be misinterpreting the above statements. The passage above seems to use the word “priesthood” in the same way we use the term “Holy Orders” or “sacramental ordination”. It is quite clear that they are wanting to say that the nature of the female deaconess is different from that of the male deacon. They are “consecrated” rather than “ordained” or “dedicated”, and a look at the original piece will show that the consecration prayers for the deaconess are quite different from the ordination prayers of the deacon. That’s always the clincher with any canonical office in the Church. The canonical office of Deaconess appears to draw entirely upon the baptismal vocation to ministry rather than the sacrament of Ordination.
So I would have no objection theologically to the reestablishment of deaconesses in the Catholic Church, but it would need to be just as clear for us as it is for the Copts that such ministers HAVE NO SHARE IN THE SACRAMENT OF HOLY ORDERS.