The office of woman deacon belongs to the earliest stratum of Christianity and may originate with the Galilean women who ministered to Jesus (Lk 8.1–3, Conzelmann) and/or the official widows mentioned in 1 Tm5.3–16 (Viteau). It is uncertain whether 1 Tm 3.11 refers to the wives of deacons or to deaconesses, but the majority of scholars favor the latter interpretation. In Rom 16.1–2 the woman Phoebe is described as a diakonos (diakonissa does not occur in the NT) of the church of Cenchreae, 15 miles from Corinth. She must have been an important and authoritative personage as she is said to be the prostatis (the feminine form of prostates, signifying governor, patroness, or defender) of many including St. Paul (cf. 1 Chr 27.31, 29.6; 2 Chr 8.10, 24.11, etc., and Josephus Bible de Jérusalem, 43 v., each with intro. by the tr. [Paris 1948–54]; single v. ed. of the complete Bible [Paris 1956] 1.385 and Ant. 7.380). Phoebe may have been the bearer of Paul's letter to the Romans.
We hear consistently of women deacons in the West until about the 5th century, and of isolated cases until the 10th. They obtained longer in the East. The church of St. Sophia allowed 100 male deacons and 40 female deacons (Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 271 v., indexes 4 v. [Paris 1878–90] lxxii, 924). We know the names of at least 25 women deacons (Church Quarterly Review 48.314, 319). Didascalia 17 commands the bishop to appoint deacons and deaconesses, and the Apostolic Constitutions 20 gives the prayers recited over both (A.N.F.8.492). The Council of Nicaea (c. 19) and the Council of Chalcedon (c. 15) speak of the ordination of deaconesses and the imposition of hands, respectively. The Council of Trullo (cc. 14, 48) also mentions the imposition of hands upon women.
The Pontificale Romano-Germanicum of the 10th century contains rites for the ordination of deaconesses; these are variously called De Benedictione or De Ordinatione or Ad faciendam diaconam. The deaconess receives the orarium (diaconal stole) and authority to proclaim the Gospel and read the homily. The duties of deaconesses have included baptizing and anointing women candidates; instructing newly baptized women; being a liaison "officer" between the bishop and women; ministering to the poor, sick, and imprisoned; presiding over women entering into Church; caring for widows and orphans; and taking the Eucharist to sick women. They may also have administered the Sacrament of the Sick.
Modern Movements. In the 19th century there was a movement in some Protestant churches to revive the office of the deaconess. In 1833 Theodor Fliedner founded a community of deaconesses in Kaiserwerth, Germany, for the purpose of training women for hospital work and other charitable ministrations. The Church of England in 1871 sanctioned a limited revival of the office and instituted a ceremony for the ordaining of deaconesses. In 1888 deaconesses were admitted in both the Church of Scotland and the Methodist Church. The principal work of the deaconesses, ministering to the sick and the needy, recalls the memory of the charitable women whom St. Paul praised as his faithful coworkers.
The restoration of the diaconate as a permanent order in the Catholic Church fueled the discussion as to whether women could be ordained deacons. In 1992 a committee was established to study the question. The committee relied on existing studies that dealt with the biblical and historical background of the order. Its report, published in 1995, concluded women in times past were ordained deacons and it would be possible for the Church to determine to do so again. It stated that "only a few derogations would be required from current church law," all within the authority of the Apostolic See to make, to open the diaconate to women.
Bibliography: anon., "The Early History and Modern Revival of Deaconesses," Church Quarterly Review 48 (1898, 1899) 302–341. j. m. ford, "Biblical Material Relevant to the Ordination of Women," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 10 (1973) 669–694; "Women Deacons Past and Present," Sister Today (1974). r. gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church (Collegeville, Minn. 1976). a. g. martimort, Deaconesses: An Historical Study, tr. k. d. whitehead (San Francisco 1986). c. vagaggini, "L'ordinazione delle diaconesse nella tradizione greca e bizantina," Orientalia christiana periodica 40 (1974) 146–189. report of an ad hoc committee of the canon law society of america, The Canonical Implications of Ordaining Women to the Permanent Diaconate (Washington, D.C. 1995).
[j. m. ford/
t. j. riley/eds.]
dea·con·ess / ˈdēkənis/ • n. (in some churches) a woman with duties similar to those of a deacon.