Africa’s New Deaconess: What’s the Bother?

Maybe you’ve heard the old Bolshevik saying, “The worse things get, the better things are.” It makes sense for revolutionaries intent on overthrowing the existing order: The worse things get, the more dissatisfied people will be with things as they are, and the more open they will be to revolutionary change.

In our case, as Orthodox Christians, we can at least say, “The worse things get, the clearer things are.” Sometimes things get so bad the choice of good or evil becomes all too obvious and impossible to ignore. (The Jews in Jerusalem were offered such a choice by Pontius Pilate: Good man, bad man, pick one.)

We are seeing things get worse and worse and yet clearer and clearer a lot these days. That explains why people are suddenly flocking to the Orthodox Church. It also explains why I am rather more relieved than distressed by last week’s news from Africa.

If you haven’t heard, a Greek bishop has just made a woman a deacon, complete with sticharion, orarion, and cuffs. Photos show her distributing communion and leading litanies, bareheaded, in a parish church. “She is going to do what the deacon is doing in the Liturgy and in all the sacraments in our Orthodox services,” the ordaining bishop, Metropolitan Seraphim of Zimbabwe, is quoted as saying. (Did I mention that he is Greek? Yet another white man teaching the natives modern Western ways.)

Other than sex and name, there is little about this new deaconess common to ancient deaconesses. Ancient deaconesses had to be celibate and over 40 (Africa’s new deaconess is neither). They always covered their heads in church, in accordance with apostolic tradition (1 Cor 11:3–16). They were not given sticharia or cuffs, and they wore their orars not over the shoulder as deacons do, but around the neck, under their maphoria, with both ends hanging down in front. They had no vocal role in public worship besides singing the hymns and responses of the people (sometimes as a separate choir, but never taking the clergy’s parts). They didn’t lead litanies or read the Gospel or Epistle, and they never communed anyone anywhere in the presence of a bishop, priest, or deacon. (Read all about it here.)

So this new deaconess is a new creation in defiance of Holy Tradition, not just in what it teaches us about deaconesses but in what it teaches us about men and women.

Why am I not much bothered by it? Three reasons:

  1. We’ve known all along that this is where things would go, despite assurances that they wouldn’t. Now it’s plain for all to see, so plain and so extreme that it moves the issue of deaconesses from the level of economía(Are they needed? What trouble might they cause? Should we have them now in some form or maybe later?) to the level of outright heresy. By making no distinction at all between male and female deacons, this bishop has forsaken all the Church has ever taught about the natural and economic order of male and female, setting women over men in the hierarchy of the Church.
  2. I’m in ROCOR, and there’s just no chance of that happening here. As far as I can tell, the general sentiment among the clergy in ROCOR is: “Fine. Let the Greeks go full woke. It will show the world that they are no longer the Orthodox Church and move the faithful more in the right direction.” There is also now less chance of deaconesses happening in Russia, where the faithful are known to react very strongly against even reasonable innovations (like the new calendar) when made by the faithless for the wrong reasons.
  3. There is also quite a lot of resistance to deaconesses among the faithful in other jurisdictions, as seen in the conclusions drawn by the makers of the documentary aired in January by Ancient Faith Radio and by the efforts by others to make a case against deaconesses that might win broad acceptance. These arguments don’t go as far as they should, inhibited as they are by the fear of offending women, but they show greater awareness of what deaconesses were and were not in the past as well as surprising certainty that we should not have deaconesses now.

My only concern is that other jurisdictions will be pressured to compromise in some way, not so much by making deaconesses of a less innovative sort, but by weakly trying to appease feminists with altar girls and other roles for women. Such attempts only accustom people to thinking the Church has indeed been wrong all along in denying women an equal role in worship, just as Carrie Frost charges over and over again in her book (which you can read about here).

What’s needed is the opposite: a formal repudiation of feminism as a heresy, with appropriate liturgical reminders of the proper regard for male and female, like churching boys but not girls through the altar. That custom is a demonstration of a truth about male and female and a teaching opportunity for pastors. By abandoning it, pastors teach the opposite: The Church was wrong, women should do everything men do, male and female doesn’t matter. (Read more about male and female here.)

About the author

Pdn. Brian Patrick Mitchell, Ph.D.
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