Carrie Frederick Frost

Deaconesses, Female Deacons, and the Agenda of the St. Phoebe Center

St. Phoebe, the Deaconess

On February 2nd, 2024, Ancient Faith Radio held a discussion about deaconesses, which was a documentary by John Maddox, interspersed with discussions between Fr. Thomas Soroka and John Maddox, and which eventually included callers, included me, among a few others.

There are a number of people whose opinions I respect who thought that the discussion was giving a platform to feminists with an agenda. Personally, I thought it was a mostly useful show, and found the full unedited interviews that John Maddox did with the various guest on the documentary to be even more revealing. Some of the interviews were more interesting than others, but in the description box on YouTube, you can select which interview you want to listen to, which makes navigating this more than 10-hour compilation manageable. 

This show reminded me of the kind of shows that Kevin Allen (of blessed memory) used to do on AFR. The only difference being that he probably would have had Fr. Patrick Mitchell on with someone from the Phoebe Center for Deaconesses, and would have moderated an informal debate designed to let people hear how the two sides compare with each other. 

I think both the shorter show and the full-length interviews make a very strong case against the push for deaconesses, and apparently the Phoebe Center for Deaconesses thought so too, because no sooner was the show over than they were claiming to have been victimized by the show, and the discussions which it sparked.

What Complicates This Discussion

There are several questions that complicate this discussion: 1. What were deaconesses, and how did they function? 2. If the office was restored, what would that look like? 3. Why did they cease to be a living part of the life of the Church and should that office be restored? 4. Is there an agenda behind the push to restore deaconesses? So let’s take a look at each of these questions:

1. What were deaconesses, and how did they function? 

We know that deaconesses were celibate women 40 years old and above. They eventually became associated with female monasticism. They certainly assisted with the baptism of women adult converts — because the practice of the early Church was to baptize everyone in the nude, and obviously this required that adult women be baptized outside of the viewing of men. So while a priest said the words of the baptism from behind a screen, a deaconess performed all of the functions, such as the anointing with oil, the triple immersion, the robing, the chrismation, and the tonsuring. 

In addition to this, we know deaconesses took communion to women who were sick. They also maintained order on the side of the Church in which women were praying during the services. They also, at least in some places formed a choir and sang parts of the services, antiphonally, with the male choir.

There is some debate about whether deaconesses qualified as minor clergy (analogous to readers and subdeacons), or whether they were part of the major orders of clergy (such as deacons, priests, and bishops). There is some good evidence that they were classed closely with deacons, in terms of rank, but this may or may not have been how they were viewed from the beginning, and in various places.

2. If the office was restored, what would that look like?

Without question, deaconesses did not function in the same way as male deacons. This is a key point upon which much confusion arises, because people like the folks at the Phoebe Center are pushing for deaconesses to be ordained on the same basis as male deacons — and so with the same age limit of 25 and older, no requirement for celibacy, and the same liturgical functions as male deacons. The problem with this is that this is not restoring the ancient order of deaconesses — this is the establishment of something entirely different. Were they actually calling for the restoration of deaconesses as they once existed in the Church, there would be a lot less controversy on this subject. But speaking of “restoring” deaconesses while actually promoting the introduction of something novel is not accidental sloppiness — it is a marketing strategy.

In the discussion on this issue, someone pointed out that the Phoebe Center was engaging in the “Motte-and-bailey fallacy.” This occurs when someone conflates two positions that share some similarities — one which is more easily defensible, and one which is not — and then go back and forth between these two conflated positions, depending on their need to retreat to the more defensible position, or their desire to push the indefensible position. I think this was an insightful observation. When people attack their push for women to function as male deacons, they appeal to the evidence for the ancient order of deaconesses, without ever actually engaging the merits of the criticisms of their far less defensible agenda.

3. Why did they cease to be a living part of the life of the Church and should that office be restored? 

It seems to me that the decline in adult conversions and thus the lack of need for deaconesses to fulfil this most important role was the biggest factor in the decline and eventual disappearance of deaconesses. The fact that they ceased to exist very early on in the Western Church was probably a factor too. I think it ultimately doesn’t matter so much why this happened as it does that it did in fact happen. That this order ceased to exist is good evidence that it was no longer needed by the Church, and so those arguing for the restoration of deaconesses have the burden of proof that there is a need for it now. But again, if they were actually talking about restoring deaconesses as they once actually were, it would not be that controversial.

For example, about an hour from Houston, there is a Greek convent. The abbess is a very holy woman, and were she made a deaconess, I certainly would have no reason to object. But the fact is, as an abbess, she already can function pretty much as a deaconess use to function. She cannot now commune in the altar, but she can do pretty much everything else. Even bringing communion to other nuns could be done when there was a need (such as when no priest is available because of the isolation of the convent), with the blessing of her bishop.

I have not asked the abbess for her opinion on this question, but I suspect that if I did, she would not be in favor of restoring deaconesses. I say this because when you look at who is pushing for restoring deaconesses, they are almost always academics.* Serious and experienced monastics that are vocally supporting the restoration of deaconesses are as scarce as hens’ teeth. 

4. Is there an agenda behind the push to restore deaconesses?

The evidence that those pushing the “restoration” of deaconesses have an agenda was made very clear if you listened closely to the full interviews. This is seen by the fact that they conflate restoring deaconesses as they once were with introducing women deaconesses that function like male deacons, but that is far from the only evidence.

John Maddex made a point of asking each of the advocates for “restoring” deaconesses whether or not they would agree that women should never be ordained as priests and bishops, and without exception, they all either dodged the question, or eventually acknowledged that this “could” happen since “women deacons would inevitably lead to a conversation about ordaining women priests.” John pressed for them to affirm they were not going to go on to push the ordination of women priests and bishops, because he pointed out that if they took the position that this was impossible, this would relieve a lot of the concerns people have on this issue, but not one of them was willing to provide any such assurance, and that is clearly because they have no intention of stopping with women deacons. You will hear the same question being asked, and the same essential answer in the interviews with Dr. Carrie Frederick FrostDr. Valerie Karras, and Dr. Helen Theodoropolous. In each case, this question comes close to the end of the interview. In fact, if you compare all three interviews, they all answer controversial questions in ways so similar that it sounds like they all have agreed upon talking points.

You can see the sleight of hand at work on the Phoebe Center website. They have a FAQ page, and one of the questions is “Does the St. Phoebe Center promote the ordination of women to the priesthood (i.e. the episcopos or presbytery)?” And the answer provided is “No, ordination of women to those offices is not part of the Orthodox Christian Tradition and the St. Phoebe Center does not promote this.” This answer at first glance sounds like they are opposed to the ordination of women as priests and bishops, but they are careful to not say that. They say it is not part of our tradition… but that doesn’t mean they think it is impossible, because if they did think that, they wouldn’t refuse to say so. All they say is that “the Phoebe Center does not promote this.” But that is because it is part of their talking point strategy. In fact, Dr. James Skedros of Holy Cross Seminary (who did not seem to be an enthusiastic advocate for the “restoration” of deaconesses, but he certainly is not opposed to it, and he has been involved in Phoebe Center discussions on this issue), said that those advocating the “restoration” of deaconesses “recognize [the need] not even to bring up the topic” of ordaining women as priests. It is important to note that this is merely a marketing strategy, and has nothing to do with taking a principled position, being honest, seeking the Truth, or striving to be faithful to the Orthodox Tradition.

Of the interviews of those who best opposed ordaining women deacons, I would recommend listening to Dr. Edith M. HumphreyPresbytera Dr. Eugenia ConstantinouKhouriah Frederica Mathews-Green, and Dr. Mary Ford.

My Part in this Discussion

I did not intend to call in to this show, but in the chat discussions on YouTube, there were many people who said that AFR should have me on to discuss the issue. Eventually, Fr. Thomas Soroka asked me to call in — he even sent me a private message. So I did call in. You can listen to my call here, but we got cut off, and I had to call back in twice. 

In my call, I began by pointing out the dishonest use of the phrase “restoration” with relation to what they are promoting, when in fact, they are promoting something entirely different from a restoration. At the end of my call, I made a comment that the Phoebe Center folks took exception to, and claimed was somehow unfit for the ears of women to hear. AFR eventually edited my comments, in a likely vain effort to make the folks at the Phoebe Center happy, but you can listen to the unedited comments by clicking here. This is what I said without editing:

“One other thing I would say quickly about the Phoebe Center, is they say, well, we’re not pushing for women priests, we’re only talking about deaconesses, and I’m very tempted to use a very crass reference to what guys often try to do to pressure women when they’re out in the back seat of a car, but you know, you say I just want to go this far, but no further, but once you get there, then what happens? I don’t trust that kind of an argument. I don’t think that is where they want to stop, and some of them have openly advocated for women being ordained as priests. We’ve seen this before. The slippery slope is a real thing, when you have people who intentionally grease it, and we just need to be really on guard.”

When I said that I was “tempted to use a very crass reference,” what I in fact went on to say was not the crass reference I was tempted to use. I instead toned it down to keep it acceptable for mixed company. Pretty much everyone above the age of 15 knows what I was talking about, and anyone under that age was not likely listening anyway. I think it is an apt analogy. The point is, like the guy in the back seat of a car, they know that saying what they really want is not going to get the desired result, and so ask for something short of that… with every intention of pushing to go beyond that point once they get there. It is obvious that they really want women priests and women bishops, but they know saying so plainly would get them nowhere.

The faux outrage over what I said is especially rich given that many of those expressing that outrage are also are pushing the LGBTQP agenda and would never object to that agenda being pushed on kids in school, nor would you likely hear them expressing outrage over gay pride parades in which men expose themselves to children and engage in lewd public acts in their presence.

If I had been able to hear Dr. Edith Humphries interview before I called in, I might have simply referred to this a “sleight of hand” tactic as she did, so that they would not then be able to avoid dealing with the substance of my criticisms, and instead deflect attention by clutching their pearls, and by unironically appealing to pre-feminist notions that women are too fragile to hear such things said.

Before my call, there was a young woman who called in and who said that God had called her to be a deaconess, and asked what she should do about it. Fr. Thomas Soroka’s answer was very pastoral, but he did not say that she should be made a deaconess in the end. And so somehow this very pastoral answer was later referred to as being unkind. The woman who called in has published articles on this subject, and when you put your thoughts out there publicly, people do have a right to express contrary opinions. Also when you claim God has told you something, people also have a right to question whether this was really God, or just symptoms of self deception. There were people who made some unkind comments elsewhere about her. I certainly don’t defend being unnecessarily harsh with anyone. But the faux outrage that was expressed in this case was another example of having a double standard. You can’t contend that women are so strong and tough that they can do anything a man can do, while at the same time act as if anyone who contradicts a woman and makes her feel bad is a “big fat meany!” One of these two views may be a correct way to view women, but both cannot be true in the same universe. 

In any case, here is what I have to say on the subject in a forum in which I have more time to lay out the case:

Now if the folks at the Phoebe Center actually agree that women can never be ordained as priests or bishops, because this would be an unthinkable violation of the Orthodox Tradition, I will gladly make a public apology in response. But I won’t be holding my breath in the meantime. They won’t say that, because clearly that is where they want to go next, and “restoring” deaconesses is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

This point was made in the full interview with Khouriah Federica Matthews-Green.

See also: 

Sister Vassa on the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood

Stump the Priest: Altar Girls?

Stump the Priest: The Churching of Boys vs. the Churching of Girls

About the author

Father John Whiteford is Archpriest and pastor at St. Jonah Orthodox Church, in Spring, Texas. He was born in Riverside, California in 1966, and lived in Grand Terrace, California. Father John and his family moved to Murray, Kentucky in 1976, and then to Houston, Texas in 1978. He was raised in the Church of the Nazarene, but began studying Orthodoxy while working on his B.A. in Theology at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Oklahoma. Fr. John decided to convert not long after graduating from there in 1990. He was baptized at St. Benedict Orthodox Church in Oklahoma City on November 10th, 1990.

Fr. John wrote an article entitled Sola Scriptura: In the Vanity of Their Minds, which laid out many of the theological reasons for his conversion. This article was published in the Christian Activist in 1995, and then was published in a revised and somewhat expanded form by Conciliar Press in 1996, under the title Sola Scriptura: An Orthodox Analysis of the Cornerstone of Reformation Theology.

Fr. John was a representative of the ROCOR Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America at the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, in Moscow, on May 17, 2007. He is currently the general editor of the St. Innocent Liturgical Calendar. He is also the dean of the southern deanery (Texas and Louisiana) of the Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America ROCOR.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an article may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that articles represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Patristic Faith or its editor or publisher.
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