The ministry of men and women is a topic that is being discussed in many circles today. It is my intention to identify some of the significant issues related to women and to Church praxis (practice) that need to be addressed.

American-born Orthodox Christians, especially the generation of post-World War II, have been deeply influenced by the attitudes of contemporary society. These attitudes at times may or may not coincide or complement the fundamental affirmations of the Orthodox Christian faith. Much of our sense of self and perceived identity, like that of many Americans, has been significantly shaped by the "teachings" of the surrounding Western culture and society. To analyze these factors lies outside the scope of this paper. It is, however, very important that we recognize that every believer is susceptible to the influence of the diverse values of our society. Women are equally affected. Orthodox women are all too frequently forced to choose between what is often called the "traditional" or the "contemporary" understanding of women. Orthodox women often prematurely assess their position and role in the Church from either one of these two perspectives, long before they can reflect upon the entire theological, historical, and pastoral tradition of our Church. This takes place simply because they have had precious little exposure to this tradition.1

Women and the Diaconate

There has been growing interest in recent years among Orthodox in the historic position of the female deacon and in the possibility of reviving this ministry. Clearly, there has been a very remarkable development in this area of theological investigation. It is now common to find many Orthodox theologians openly discussing this issue. For the most part, they find no doctrinal reason against the rejuvenation of a genuine order of women deacons. Because these theologians see no doctrinal reason to keep the Church from reactivating the diaconate of women, this is a recognition which is, in itself, highly significant.2

The most extensive and fundamental research by an Orthodox scholar on the topic of the order of the deaconess has been done by Professor Evangelos Theodorou of the University of Athens. Through his analysis of Byzantine liturgical texts, Theodorou has clearly demonstrated that the female deacons were actually ordained at the altar and within the context of the Eucharist. While this question was once debated among Orthodox theologians, Theodorou has forcefully shown that the female deacon did not simply receive a blessing (cheirothesia) but received the laying on of hands (cheirotonia) as was the case of the male deacon.3

According to the Byzantine liturgical texts, the ordination of the woman deacon occurred as any other ordination to major orders. It took place during the celebration of the Eucharist and at the same point in the service that the male deacon was ordained. She was ordained at the altar by the bishop and, later in the service, received Holy Communion at the altar with the other clergy.4 Depending upon the need, location, and situation in history, the deaconess ministered primarily to the women in the community in much the same way that the male deacon ministered to men.5 While the expression of the deaconess' work varied in both form and content throughout the life of the Church, it is important to note that the hallmark of this ministry had always been loving service to others. This is because the female deacon, like the male deacon, was ordained to diakonia or ministry.6 And, as was the case with her male counterpart, she was ordained to unconditional service to the Lord and His Church. The woman deacon had always to be receptive to the many changing needs of the Church and the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

There is no clear evidence to explain why the order of the deaconess was gradually deemphasized sometime after the twelfth century. It should be noted, however, that there does not exist any canon or Church regulation that opposes or suppresses the order. Writing in 1954 Professor Evangelos Theodorou noted that one could find at that time convents of the Church of Greece in which there were ordained deaconesses. This observation is certainly an important one.7

Before going any further in our discussion, it is important to emphasize here that we must not misunderstand the diaconate to be merely a stepping stone to the ordained priesthood. This is still a fairly common, yet mistaken, assumption expressed by many within the Church. This kind of thinking is essentially alien to the proper Orthodox Christian understanding of ordination. The diaconate is a genuine and full order in and of itself. It has its own particular justification for existence and its own unique ministry within the life of the Church. While we know that certain male deacons may be called to pass from the order of deacon to the order of presbyter and bishop, the nature and vocation of the ministry of the ordained deacon is permanent, complete, and unique. Yet, the ministry of the deacon does not entail presiding at the celebration of the Eucharist as the father of a community of believers. Thus, it was quite possible for both women and men to be ordained to the order of the diaconate.8

The ordained diaconate is the only ministry of higher orders that has been open to women in the Orthodox Church. Although women have in fact been ordained deacons in the Orthodox Church, they have never been ordained to the orders of priesthood and episcopacy. Those persons who presently believe that there is no need for the diaconate in general and, more particularly, for women deacons, would find the prayers of the Orthodox Church of special interest. In the Orthodox ordination service of the deaconess, the following prayer is offered by the ordaining bishop.

O God, the Holy and Almighty, You have blessed woman through the birth in the flesh of Your only-begotten Son and our God from the Virgin, and You have given the grace and visitation of the Holy Spirit not to men only, but to women as well; Lord, look now upon this Your servant and call her to the work of Your ministry (es to ergon tis diakonia sou). Send down upon her the rich gift of Your Holy Spirit. Preserve her in the Orthodox faith, that she may fulfill her ministry in blameless conduct according to what is well pleasing to You. For to You are due all honor, glory and worship, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

And, as the ordination service continues, the bishop offers this prayer prior to vesting of the deaconess with the diaconal stole.

O Lord and Master, You do not reject women who are willing to offer themselves, in so far as it is fitting, to minister in Your holy houses, but rather You accept them into the rank of ministers (en taxei leitourgon). Grant the grace of Your Holy Spirit also to this Your servant who desires to offer herself to You and fulfill the grace of Your ministry, just as You gave the grace of Your ministry (charin tis diakonias sou) to Phoebe, whom You called to the work of ministry (ergon tis leitourgias).9

While a full analysis of the service of ordination of the woman deacon is beyond the scope of this paper, studies of these and other prayers clearly indicate that the witness of the liturgical life of the Church does not limit this particular visitation of the Holy Spirit to men only, nor to certain privileged women who lived during a certain time in history, never again to be repeated. There are no constraints imposed upon the Holy Spirit in these prayers! These prayers tell us that the Lord accepts women "into the rank of ministers" with no restrictions as to time and place.

The first Deaconesses-Iounia, Lydia, Priskilla
Trifena, Fivi, Tavitha

Certainly, there are a number of issues related to the order of the woman deacon that must be studied. Among these are the disciplinary canons that set various ages and conditions of life for the prospective deacon. Yet, these studies should not prevent us from seeing the great good that the rejuvenation of the order of the woman deacon would be for the Church today. We need only look around us and see the spiritual needs that exist within the parishes and in the larger society. Even with the assistance of the most devoted laypersons, our priests cannot be expected to meet the many demands of parish life. Therefore, it can be argued that the present situation requires that we also consider rejuvenating this special ministry for qualified women who, following a genuine discernment of their call, would be willing to make a permanent commitment to the ordained ministry of the Church. A decision by the Church to rejuvenate the order of the women deacons would certainly not be an action contrary to Scripture and Tradition. Rather, such an action would be in complete harmony with the Scripture and Tradition of the Church.

Those who have discussed the possible rejuvenation of the order of the woman deacon do not appear to have a clear perception with regard to how this might take place. Would it be possible, for example, for a particular diocesan bishop to simply begin to ordain women as deacons? This appears to be precisely what St. Nektarios did. He ordained at least two deaconesses for the convent on the island of Aegina for which he was the spiritual father.10 Or, some may argue, it may be necessary for a particular local church, rather than the pastoral initiative of an individual bishop, to make the decision to rejuvenate the order of the deaconess.11 Indeed, some may argue that the decision would have to be made by the entire Orthodox Church. Clearly, the issue is related to an even deeper one regarding the manner in which the Orthodox Church, either locally or internationally, is to act upon important questions that affect her life in the twentieth century.

Women and "Uncleanness"

This issue is probably the most difficult and sensitive topic to be discussed. This is so because of two basic reasons. First, the issue of the pastoral understanding of menstruation is one that personally affects every Orthodox woman during part of her life. And second, it is an issue of pastoral theology that has not been fully explored by Orthodox theologians. Because of this, it is an issue that is little understood and often associated with a form of superstition that frequently passes for Church teaching. Contemporary Orthodox women who are knowledgeable about the functions of their bodies understand the menstrual cycle to be a normal and natural part of their biological identity. These same women, however, are often taught by persons in the Church that the menstrual period is essentially evil and, therefore, unnatural. These women are prohibited by some from receiving Holy Communion during their period of menstruation. There are even those who claim that women during their menstrual period should not attend church, should not receive the blessed bread (antidoron), and should not even venerate icons.

As we have already said, this topic is one that certainly deserves greater examination. However, it is clear that even a cursory examination of the historical evidence indicates that there are divergences of opinion with regard to this issue. Central to this issue, however, appears to be the question of the proper Orthodox interpretation of the Old Testament view that regarded the menstruous woman to be ritually "unclean" because of her loss of blood.

There are two rather obscure canons that deal directly with this topic. These canons were not directly promulgated at an ecumenical synod. Rather, they belong to a collection introduced into the broader canonical corpus through canon 2 of the Council in Trullo in 692. The first is canon 2 of Archbishop Dionysios of Alexandria, a pupil of Origen, who lived during the mid-third century. Apparently answering the question asked of him, Dionysios states in his canon: "Menstruous women ought not to come to the Holy Table, or touch the Holy of Holies, nor come to churches, but pray elsewhere."12 He gives no explanation for his observation. The second canon is also a response to a question put to Archbishop Timothy of Alexandria who lived during the end of the fourth century. In response to the question, "Can a menstruous woman communicate?" Timothy responds, "Not until she is clean."13 Again, as in the first response, there is no reason given for the opinion. Subsequent Orthodox commentators, however, have related these responses to the practices of the ancient Israelites as expressed in the Old Testament.14

Let us compare these canons with other authoritative Church documents. In his commentary on Titus, focusing on the apostolic words "to the pure all things are pure" (Tit. 1:15), St. John Chrysostom condemns those who propagate a superstitious adherence to the uncleanness taboo that would include the restrictions directed against women during their period of menstruation. He goes so far as to accuse these persons of being supporters of myths. In this third homily on Titus, St. John Chrysostom compares many examples of the uncleanness taboo that the Church, under the new, or rather, the fulfillment of the law in Christ, need not follow anymore because, "things . . . are not clean or unclean from their own nature, but from the disposition of him who partakes of them." Further on in this discussion, St. John states that for the Christian:

all things are pure. God made nothing unclean, for nothing is unclean except for sin only. For [sin] reaches the soul and defiles it. . . . [And] when the soul is unclean, it thinks all things unclean. Therefore, scrupulous observances are no mark of purity, but it is the part of purity to be bold in all things. . . moral. What is unclean? Sin, malice, covetousness, wickedness.

While his discussion on this issue is a general one and does not specifically call attention to a woman's period of menstruation, St. John Chrysostom's teaching, nevertheless, seeks to address all of the practices associated with the uncleanness taboo. He affirms that all such observances from the Old Testament period are inappropriate for Christians to follow. With regard to these, St. John relates that, "many forms of uncleanness would be found, if it were necessary to recount them all. But these things are not now required of us." Even more noteworthy, St. John Chrysostom makes no exceptions in this discussion, not even for a woman's period of menstruation. He even goes so far as to discuss the uncleanness taboo as related to the female birth cycle, that concerns both the generation of life as well as the loss of blood. Referring to the Old Testament practices, he states:

You see how many forms of uncleanness there are. The woman in child bed is unclean. Yet God made childbirth and the seed of copulation. Why then is the woman unclean, unless something further is intimated? He intended to produce piety in the soul, and to deter it from fornication. . . . But these things now are not required of us. But all [concern] is transferred to the soul.15

This discussion is intimately tied to the Orthodox understanding of natural body functions. If a woman's period of menstruation is ultimately a good andnecessary aspect of human physiology, then the canonical Epistle of St. Athanasios to the Monk Ammos (Epistle 48) may offer us a more appropriate approach to this issue. It states that natural body functions are not sinful. To this, the text continues with the following discussion on bodily emissions:

For what sin or uncleanness can any natural excrement have in itself? Think of the absurdity of making a sin of the wax which comes from the ears or of the spittle from the mouth. Moreover, we might add many things and explain how the excretions from the belly are necessary to animal life. But if we believe that man is the work of God's hand, as we are taught in Holy Scripture, how can it be supposed necessary that we perform anything impure? And if we are the children of God, as the holy Acts of the Apostles teaches, we have nothing in us unclean.16

This fundamental principle related to us by St. Athanasios, that for Christians, "we have nothing in us unclean," may actually prove to be a more solid guideline for us; for if involuntary nocturnal pollutions are not considered sinful or unclean, neither should menstruation be considered unclean. It would seem that admonitions concerning all bodily emissions must be applied evenhandedly to both men and women.17

Women and the Sanctuary

Another issue that is often discussed but seldom reflected upon theologically is that of the apparent restriction of women from the sanctuary. There are those who fervently believe that women are not allowed in the sanctuary merely because they are women and "unclean." And conversely, there are those who with equal ardor believe that men, simply because they are men (sometimes even if they are not Orthodox believers), may enter the sanctuary virtually at will. Both views, of course, are incorrect.

The appropriate restriction placed upon women and men from entering the sanctuary area is actually directed to the laity in general. This is based upon two canons; the first comes to us from a local council held in the fourth century at Laodicea of which Canon 44 relates that, "The altar must not be approached by women." A second canon comes from the Sixth Ecumenical Synod and states that, "No layman except the emperor shall go up to the altar" (Canon 69).18 While some have related this prohibition expressed toward women to reasons of biological uncleanness,19 the more accurate practice applies these restrictions to all those who had no appropriate liturgical or practical business for being in the altar area. This particularly pertains to the offering of the holy gifts during the Divine Liturgy. Because "all lay persons are forbidden such action as lay persons."20

Those men and women who have both ecclesial approval and appropriate reason (e.g. for assisting the clergy with the services or for preparing the sanctuary for worship) are not prohibited from entering the altar area. What was originally intended as a practice to maintain good order and promote piety within the whole worshipping congregation, has all too often been used by some as a way of encouraging attitudes that devalue the vocation of women and their equality before God, merely because they are women.

As with every issue that we have mentioned, it is also necessary for us to consider this concern with full appreciation for the Tradition of the Church as a whole and not simply with an eye upon relatively recent local practices. Thus, we will find that there is more at stake than may have been at first anticipated. As we have already discussed in this study, we have the tradition of women deacons. They were not only ordained at the altar, but also received Holy Communion as members of the clergy within the sanctuary. Also, we have the striking example of St. Gorgonia, the sister of St. Gregory of Constantinople. She was praised by her brother for her courage and faith in God. St. Gregory notes also that when she was "dangerously ill of a malignant disease," she clutched the holy altar and prayed for God to deliver her from her illness. In telling this story, St. Gregory remembers her "declaring that she would not loosen her hold until she was made whole."21 While the story of St. Gorgonia may be somewhat unusual, the very fact that St. Gregory records the incident is a vivid reminder that we must be willing to broaden our appreciation of the various elements of the tradition of the Church that may enable us to see contemporary issues in a better light.

There are some very significant pastoral as well as liturgical concerns that center upon this issue. The first has to do with the Service of the Forty Days at which the newborn child is formally brought to the church. Why in the churching rite of infants, do most priests customarily take male infants into the sanctuary and circle the altar and only bring female infants as far as the royal doors? While some may claim that this is the "traditional" practice, it is necessary to raise the question of whether there is a valid doctrinal reason for the practice. Or is the practice simply conditioned by a cultural view that exalted the male child and devalued the female child?

Some may have heard clergy justify these actions by stating that there is always a chance that the male infant could one day serve at the holy altar as a priest. Others may state that the practice is in accord with the canon that prohibits women from entering the sanctuary. Upon closer investigation, however, both of these arguments have little merit. First, as we have already noted, is the canon that prohibits all laypersons (except the emperor) from entering the sanctuary. Thus, it would appear that even the practice of bringing a male child into the sanctuary violates the letter of the canon. And second, with regard to the "future" of the child, who is to say that perhaps the female infant could one day serve within the holy altar as a deaconess?

Such argumentation both for the male infant and for the female infant, however, leaves much to be desired. Simply stated, the arguments generally put forward in this regard appear to reflect an attitude that is culturally determined and not doctrinally based. The practice of prohibiting female infants from being brought into the sanctuary at the time of their presentation may well be an act of discrimination. Since we view both the female and the male infants as being equally valuable and equally treasured by God, then it would appear that our liturgical practices must reflect this reality.

This leads us to the issue of young girls serving as acolytes. The issue has already been boldly faced by Metropolitan Emilianos of Silybria. He recommends that more women "be admitted to the minor orders such as lectors and acolytes."22 Based upon what has already been said in this paper, especially with regard to the tradition of female deacons, there does not seem to be any doctrinal reason that would prevent girls from serving as acolytes and women as serving as lectors. Indeed, the present custom may be contrary to the Church's teaching on the dignity of the human person, and the fundamental equality of the male and female persons.

Certain members of the Church's leadership may consider the issue of altar girls as unimportant. It is a topic, however, that is discussed by many mothers and their young daughters. This issue is very important to them. Since it is a serious matter for them, so it also must be treated as an important topic by us as well.

Some of the other significant questions we will have to ask regarding this include: how necessary is it for young girls to feel just as much a part of the liturgical life as young boys? How much would an increase in the ways young girls could participate in ecclesial worship affect their future life in the Church? How would this affect the rest of their lives? This is indeed a very important pastoral challenge that we as the Church militant must face.


I have identified in this paper a number of issues that relate directly to the position and the ministry of women in the Orthodox Church today.* Each of them is an issue of great importance and pastoral concern that cannot be ignored. While this paper in no way assumes to be a complete investigation or analysis of these topics, it has been my intention to introduce some of the more important issues.

I would like briefly to conclude these observations by stating that the concern for orthopraxia [right practice] is at the heart of this discussion. Is our praxis as fully Christian as it can be? Do our present actions begin to reflect the full reality of who we are as the body of Christ? Do our current liturgical practices totally correspond to the full Orthodox understanding of masculine and feminine persons? We may need to reflect upon these questions very carefully. If women saw the Lord and ministered to Him, if they were the first witnesses of the crucifixion and resurrection, if they were equally visible in the life of the apostolic Church, then our present constraints on women may reflect a theology very much bound to the assumptions of past cultures. We must be able to reach a point where we can recognize the difference between culturally bound assumptions and those convictions based upon Christian doctrine.


1. For an interesting sidelight on this topic, see Stephen B. Clark, Man and Woman in Christ (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Books, 1980), pp. 467-506.

2. Elizabeth Behr-Sigel, "The Meaning of the Participation of Women in the Life of the Church," Orthodox Women: Their Role and Participation in the Orthodox Church, edited by Constance Tarasar and Irma Kirillova (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1977), pp. 26-27; Bishop Chrysostomos, "Women in the Orthodox Church: Brief Comments from a Spiritual Perspective," The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 26:2 (1989); Metropolitan Emilianos Timiadis, "The Concern for Women in the Orthodox Tradition," Diakonia 12:1 (1977); Alexander Golubov, "On Deacons and the Diaconate: A Response," One Church 5 (1986), pp. 194-200; Sergei Hackel, "Mother Maria Skobtsova: Deaconess Manqué?" Eastern Churches Review 1:3 (1967), pp. 264-266; Bishop Kallistos Ware, "Man, Woman, and the Priesthood of Christ," pp. 32-34; Constance Tarasar and Irma Kirillova, eds., Orthodox Women: Their Role and Participation in the Orthodox Church, p. 50; Evangelos Theodorou, Heroines of Christian Love (in Greek) (Athens, 1949); idem, The 'Ordination' of 'Appointment' of Deaconesses (in Greek) (Athens, 1954); Militsa Zernov, "Women's Ministry in the Church," Eastern Churches Review 7 (1975), pp. 34-39. See also my study on this topic in "The Characteristics and Nature of the Order of the Deaconess," Women and the Priesthood, edited by Thomas Hopko (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1983), pp. 75-96. Appreciation for research assistance is expressed to Protodeacon Michael Roshak and Hierodeacon Peter of New Skete Monastery.

3. His highly significant work, The 'Ordination' or 'Appointment' of Deaconesses (in Greek), and an earlier study, Heroines of Christian Love (in Greek), have become standard texts concerning the study of this issue.

4. Theodorou, The 'Ordination' (in Greek), pp. 40-65.

5. E.g. Didascalia Apostolorum (Syriac Version), edited and translated by Richard Connolly (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1929) 4.3.12, p.146, and 4.3.13, p.148.

6. Theodorou, The 'Ordination' (in Greek), pp. 55-56.

7. Ibid., pp. 37, 95-96.

8. Tarasar and Kirillova, Orthodox Women, p.50. For an interesting discussion on the nature of the diaconate, see Louis Bouyer, Women in the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1979), pp. 82-87.

9. See "The Ordination Rite of the Byzantine Deaconess," in Theodorou, The 'Ordination' (in Greek), pp. 55-56. This service dates from the eighth to the tenth centuries and is taken from the Barberion Codex and the Bessarionos Codex. I have offered a translation of this service in "Characteristics," pp. 93-95.

10. Theodorou, The 'Ordination' (in Greek), p. 96.

11. In this case, we note the example of the Armenian Apostolic Church in America, more specifically, the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, that recently accepted to authorize the ordination of women deacons: "Diocese of the Armenian Church of America Seeks Ordination of Women to the Diaconate," The Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, News Release, July 7, 1986. Cf. "Restoring Women to Their Proper Role in the Armenian Church," Yedvard Gulbekian, Outreach 8 (October 6, 1985).

12. Canonical Letter of Dionysios of Alexandria in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (henceforth NPNF) (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmanns, 1956), p. 600. However, in Canon 4 he leaves it up to the discretion of the man whether or not to commune, after he had experienced "involuntary nocturnal pollutions."

13. Canonical Answers of Timothy of Alexandria, in NPNF, 14, p.613. I have slightly adapted this and subsequent texts to a more readable style that conforms more readily with the spirit of the original Greek texts.

14. E.g. Leviticus 12:1-5 and 15:19-30.

15. St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Epistle to Titus, Homily 2, NPNF, 13, pp. 529-531. Cf. Women and Men in the Church (New York, 1983), pp. 40-46.

16. Canonical Epistle of St. Athanasios to the Monk Ammos, NPNF,14, pp. 602-603; cf. Leviticus 15.

17. Constance Tarasar, "Woman, Handmaid to the Lord: The Role of Woman in the Church Viewed in Dogmatic and Historical Perspective" (M.Div. thesis, St. Vladimir's Theological Seminary), p. 262.

18. NPNF, 14, pp. 153 and 396 respectively.

19. E.g. Zonaras' comment regarding Canon 44 of the Council of Laodicea, NPNF, 14, p. 153.

20. Women and Men in the Church, p. 45.

21. Gregory the Theologian, On His Sister Gorgonia, NPNF, 7, p. 243.

22. Timiadis, "The Concern for Women," p. 19.

*Editors' note: Some of the other issues that were covered in the original paper included: Orthodox women and administrative life; women in theology; and theology of the priesthood.