The very title of this year's annual meeting - "Invisible No More?" - speaks both to the backseat role which women historically have played within Christianity and, with its interrogative punctuation, to the uncertainty regarding our roles both present and future. The increasing attention being paid to the place of women in the Church is at once both a positive development in its reevaluation of long-held practices and yet a reminder of the limitations placed on women's active participation in the life of the Church. There has never been a similar discussion of the role of men within the Church for the simple reason that men have never been limited in their ecclesial participation.

Before we can assess accurately where we are today and where we may be heading, we must know where we have been. A search of the past is not simply the satisfaction of idle curiosity. It helps us understand not only how we have reached our present state, but also what we may have lost along the way. The roles that women have played within the Eastern Church over the centuries have not been as restrictive as many believe or would like to believe. The tradition and history of Eastern Christianity is not limited to the practices of the past one or two centuries. Recovering our past is a first, essential step to tracing out our future within the Church, the Body of Christ.

Lay Spirituality


Several of the most important ministries which women have had within the
Eastern Church
have been in areas of lay spirituality.

Several of the most important ministries which women have had within the Eastern Church have been in areas of lay spirituality. Today, we tend to think of dedicating one's life to the church only in terms of ordained ministry. This is the error - I would even call it the heresy - of clericalism, which the Eastern churches in Europe and the Americas have acquired, in large measure, from Western Christianity. Historically, the laity have played an important role in the churches of the East. For instance, a priest in the Orthodox Church cannot celebrate liturgy by himself because the very word means "a work of the people"; there must be present at least one other person, male or female.

But women's historical role in the Eastern Churches has been more prominent than participation in the liturgy as a member of the congregation, although that should never be underestimated by any Christian. In the early Church, women had a variety of ministries which were expressions of lay spirituality. One of the earliest was the charismatic, or spiritual, office of prophet. Both men and women in the early Church were granted this gift of the Holy Spirit. For example, the book of Acts attests to the deacon Philip's having had three daughters who prophesied. Now, when we think of prophesying we tend to imagine ecstatic utterances of future events (an earthquake, the destruction of a city by a foreign army, etc.). Yet both the Old Testament prophets and those of the New Testament period spoke for God in a much more important way. Their role was not principally that of soothsayer, predicting future events outside the control of their people. Rather, they revealed the hidden significance of present affairs and revealed God Himself through prophetic symbolism. They challenged the people of their communities to examine their actions and beliefs and to live in conformity with the will of God, to live lives of faith, love and justice. Today what the early Church called prophesying we would call preaching.

Yes, women in the early Church were preachers. Many who do not believe that women should be allowed to speak in church point to the Apostle Paul's' first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 14, where he admonishes women to be silent in the churches. Yet, one needs to examine this passage in context. Immediately following his admonition he counsels that, if there is anything which women want to know, they should ask their husbands at home. Thus, as most modern Biblical scholars have pointed out, what Paul is objecting to is the disruption of the service by an impromptu question-and-answer session, not the vocal participation of women in the service itself. Paul takes for granted that women would be prophesying - i.e., preaching - in church; thus, his later discussion of women's not speaking in church is obviously not meant to be taken in an absolute sense but rather in the context which I have already mentioned.

Virgins and Monasticism

The charismatic ministry of prophet, for both men and women, apparently died out within the first couple of centuries. Several other ministries mentioned in the New Testament and in early church documents, however, continued. One of these was that of the virgins. This was originally a special ministry within a parish community. Their ministry can be seen as a predecessor to what we now call monasticism. In the fourth century, with the example of St. Anthony in the Egyptian desert, monasticism developed as a lifestyle independent of a parish context. In any case, monasticism began as a lay movement and remained lay in the Eastern Churches.

Virgins within the early church had a ministry of prayer. They often lived in group homes near the parish church; in fact, when St. Anthony went into the desert to begin his new life as a hermit, he first took his sister, who was under his care, to live in a group home of virgins. As female monasticism developed from the fourth century on, it acquired the same characteristics as male monasticism. Among these was a pastoral mission - the founding of hospitals, orphanages, hostels, etc. In fact, the activist monasticism which St. Basil the Great advocated appears to have been inspired by the example of his older sister Macrina, a virgin who founded what was in essence a women's monastery, with its nucleus Macrina, her mother, and their female former servants. The monastery grew into a double monastery, the women's side presided over by Macrina and the men's by her brother Peter, who had earlier joined the community. The monastery practiced constant prayer and an active social concern in a community of absolute equality with complete disregard for the nuns' and monks' previous wealth or station in life. The monastery became both a spiritual and a philanthropic center, attracting women from the surrounding area who came to Macrina for spiritual guidance. When she died, the orphans for whom she had cared wept bitterly, according to the biography of her written by her and Basil's younger brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa.2 The example Macrina set for female monasticism lives on today in many women's communities.

But women's monasticism and lay women's involvement in the Church has not been limited to social or pastoral concerns. In the Byzantine period, women were extremely important in combating a variety of heresies, especially that of iconoclasm. According to legend, the first person martyred in defense of the icons was a nun, who was executed for having accidentally killed by pulling the ladder out from under him a soldier removing the icon of Christ from the Chalke Gate of Constantinople. Both male and female monasticism was active in the cause of icon veneration. Significantly, both periods of iconoclasm were ended when empresses married to iconoclastic emperors became regents for their minor sons upon the deaths of their husbands. As regent for her teenaged son Constantine VI, Irene convoked what is generally known as the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787; she would later rule in her own right, with the support of the Byzantine Church. In 843, the empress Theodora, regent for her five-year-old son Michael III convened a council at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople which permanently reestablished the veneration of icons and which is commemorated annually in the Orthodox Churches on the first Sunday of Lent as the Sunday of Orthodoxy. Another woman whom Theodora's husband Theophilos almost married, Kassiane, became a nun and the head of a women's monastery. She was one of the Church's most prolific hymnographers, and in the Byzantine rite her hymns are sung at several of the Holy Week services.3


But the young or middle-aged were not the only women seen as having something valuable to offer. One of the more remarkable areas of women's participation in the life of the early Church concerned older women. This was the order of widows. Already in the New Testament, the writer of the first pastoral epistle to Timothy distinguishes between widows as a social phenomenon (i.e., women whose husbands have died) and those who are enrolled or listed in the Church as "real widows". This institution is an interesting one, for it seems to have given status and respect to women who were dependent on the charity of the Church. In addition to having no visible means of support from children or other family, women enrolled as widows had to be at least 60 years old, married only once, and be well-known as pious, helpful and generous. Unlike the virgins, whose vocation was personal and normally not connected specifically to a parish, the widows were considered among the church officials, although not as an ordained ministry. This is clear from the structure of I Timothy, which discusses the qualifications for bishops, deacons, widows, and elders, in that order.

The nature of the widows' ministry is primarily a spiritual one. While the qualifications include previous pastoral service to the community, a continuation of that ministry can only be implied here. What is specifically noted is that the widow prays: "The real widow, left alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day" (I Tim. 5:5 NRSV). This is remarkable, for it shows that older women were valued in the early Church not for their ability to make sweets or do other traditionally female domestic tasks on behalf of the parish, but rather for their spiritual ministry in praying for the community. (We have no equivalent to the widows in our parishes today.)

As the order of widows developed through the second and third centuries, they acquired specific pastoral duties, especially toward the sick,5 and sometimes even liturgical functions. The most prominent role for the order of widows is given in a fifth-century document of Syrian origin called the Testamentum Domini, which is derived from the third-century Apostolic Tradition. During the eucharistic offering, the widows are instructed to stand to the left and behind the presbyters, opposite the deacons, who are to assume a similar position to the right. Moreover, the widows received communion after the deacons and before the subdeacons. Even the structure of their consecration in this document is like that of the higher orders, and especially that of the deacon, rather than that of the subdeacon or reader. Perhaps the consecration appears like an ordination because the liturgical functions of the widows in the Testamentum are virtually identical to those delineated in other early church documents as the duties of another women's ministry, the ordained order of deaconesses.

Ordained Women - Deaconesses6

Deaconesses in the Early Church

The structure
of the ordination
of the deaconess
is virtually identical
to that of the deacon.

There are two mentions of deaconesses in the New Testament. The first is in the Apostle Paul's letter to the Romans, where he entrusts to them the deaconess Phoebe. The second is in the third chapter of I Timothy. In the section dealing with the qualifications of deacons, the epistle writer inserts that "[the] women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things (I Tim. 3:11 NRSV)." Early church documents use the same Greek word, diakonos, for both male and female deacons, differentiating between them only by the use of the masculine or feminine definite article.

As the Church developed in the second and third centuries, so too did the institution of the female diaconate, but its specific duties and ranking vary geographically. From the Middle East, we have two Syrian documents which elaborate on both the ordination of deaconesses and their pastoral and liturgical duties. These are the Teaching of the Apostles (Didascalia Apostolorum), which dates to the early third century, and the Apostolic Constitutions,7 a fourth-century church order which is heavily dependent on the earlier Didascalia. In the Apostolic Constitutions, the ordinations for upper and lower clergy are given; that of the deaconess is virtually identical to that of the deacons and presbyters. As for priests and deacons, the bishop is to lay hands on the woman to be ordained deaconess "in the presence of the presbytery and of the deacons and deaconesses", and to ordain her with a prayer corresponding to her female ministry (it mentions women of the Old Testament who were filled with the Spirit and served the Temple, and alludes to the Theotokos).

Because of its reference to her being "in the presence of the presbytery and of the deacons and deaconesses" the Apostolic Constitutions implies that the deaconess's ordination occurred within the altar area, which normally is reserved only for ordination to the higher clergy (priesthood and diaconate).

Both the Teaching of the Apostles and the Apostolic Constitutions set out the pastoral and liturgical duties of the deaconess. The deaconesses had a ministry which corresponded in some ways to those of the deacons, but specifically for women.

Deaconesses in the Byzantine Church

In the Byzantine Church, the structure of the ordination of the deaconess is virtually identical to that of the deacon; the only differences are that she does not kneel, she is not given a fan to fan the Holy Gifts, and that the way she wears the orarion (the deacon's stole) is different from the deacon's.

What is noteworthy, however, is that she is ordained during the liturgy after the completion of the anaphora (which is when the deacon is also ordained) and, significantly, she is ordained in the altar area. She receives communion in the altar at the end of the line of clergy, after which the bishop gives her the chalice, which she then returns to the altar. It is clear that the ordination of the deaconess is modeled on that of the deacon. This is important because several modern scholars, both Orthodox and Catholic, are attempting to assert - despite this evidence - that women were never ordained into, the clergy, and especially not into the higher clergy.8 [A fuller examination of the pastoral and liturgical duties of the female deacon is planned for future issues. Click here for an article on "Orthodox Women and Pastoral Praxis" which examines the female diaconate further.]

Where to Go from Here?

Knowing this short history of women's liturgical participation in the Churches of the East, the question remains: What do we do now? There are several directions in which we can, and need, to move. The first is education. People need to know that the early church gave women broad liturgical participation. As you now know, the Byzantine rite of ordination for the deaconess clearly occurs within the sanctuary, and the deaconess is even given the chalice by the bishop.

Education is vitally important so that our people can understand what the true theology of the Church is, and not make absolute the accretions and ideas of Old Testament ritual impurity that have crept in over time and become enshrined in the teachings of our grandmothers. Religious education is also an area where women are very strong in most of our parishes. What we need to do now is to educate the educators. Women theologians are still relatively few in number, but we are growing. Although we sometimes face discrimination and impediments, we continue in the tradition of St. Macrina, whom her brother St. Gregory of Nyssa called the "true philosopher", or, as we would say today, the "true theologian".

But women also have pastoral roles to play today. Women serve as lay assistants in some Orthodox parishes, and I know several who are chaplains serving in prisons, hospitals, and hospices. Their ministry is far more pastoral than sacramental in nature, and they work well with local priests to fill the sacramental needs of their patients. Women chaplains, too, face difficulties and obstacles, but they are convinced of their calling and strengthened by the Holy Spirit. Lay assistants and chaplains are the modern-day equivalent of deacons and deaconesses. What better path could we take than to reinstitute the historical order of deaconesses, at the same time revitalizing it for our modern needs by expanding it to married and younger women outside the monastic life.

The most important priority, therefore, is to encourage women to fulfill their spiritual calling in every way possible, which historically has included virtually every area of life the Church has to offer teaching, preaching, pastoral work, and liturgical functions. If women had such a diversity of active ministries in a time when women's societal roles were limited, what might we do in the Church of Christ in the 21st century?


1. For an overview of various women's ministries in the early Church, including not only prophetesses, but also widows and deaconesses, see Robert Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, trans. Jean Laporte and Mary Louise Hall (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1976).

2. See Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of St. Macrina, trans., intro. and notes Kevin Comgan (Toronto: Peregrina, 1989).

3. See, e.g., Eva Catafygiotou-Topping, "Women Hymnographers in Byzantium," Diptixa 3 (Athens, 1982-1983), esp. 107-110.

4. For a study of the order of widows in the early Church, see Bonnie Bowman Thurston, The Widows (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1989).

5. Ibid., p. 112 (Canon 9 of the Canons of Hippolytus).

6. Some studies dealing with deaconesses include Jean Danielou, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, trans. Glyn Simon (London: The Faith Press, 1961) (French original appeared in La maison-Dieu 61:1 (1960), 70-96); J. G. Davies, "Deacons, Deaconesses, and the Minor Orders in the Patristic Period," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 14 (1963), 1-15; C. R Meyer, "Ordained Women in the early Church," Chicago Studies 4:3 (1965), 285-308; Aimé Georges Martimort, Deaconesses: An Historical Study, trans. K D. Whitehead (San Francisco: lgnatius Press, 1986); Evangelos Theodorou, "The Institution of the Deaconesses in the Orthodox Church and the Possibility of Its Restoration," in Gennadios Limouris, ed., The Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church and the Question of the Ordination of Women (Katerini, Greece: Tertios Publications, 1992), pp. 207-238; J. Viteau, "La institution des diacres et des Veuves," Revue d'Histoire Ecclesiastique 22 (1929), 513-537.

7. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson with Cleveland Coxe, eds., Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries, "Ante-Nicene Fathers," vol. 7, reprint ed. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994), pp. 385-505.

8. Martimort, op. cit., pp. 152-156; Vlassios Pheidas, "The Question of the Priesthood of Women," in Gennadios Limouris, ed., The Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church, op. cit., pp. 186-189.