Widow (in the Early Church)

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The expectations of an imminent parousia, a closed group mentality fostered by the paralegal status of Christians, and the absence of centralized legislative institutions in the ancient Church led to the early evolution of a special, and possibly quasi-clerical, status for widows. Exact trustworthy documentary evidence on the postapostolic evolution of the status of widows is lacking for the West. Evidence in the East is unclear, but it seems probable that widows were regularly chosen as deaconesses, although the distinction between the two was not very great in respect to duties. However, deaconesses received the "laying on of hands" (Const. Apost. 8.19), whereas widows did not (ibid. 8.25). The institution of widows, at least as a rank (tagma ), certainly survived the public recognition of the Church under constantine i. Canon 11 of the Council of Laodicea (Mansi 2.565566) suppressed institution of presbytides, apparently, precisely that higher rank of widows who had been chosen as deaconesses, but the lower rank of simple widows was not affected by this canon. The institution began to decline as an independent class with the 5th-century rise of female monasticism and the elimination of the need of providing financial and religions security for these precariously situated Christians.

Bibliography: f. l. cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London 1957) 145758. k. pieper, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. m. buchberger, 10 v. (Freiburg 193038) 10: 950951. j. mayer, ed., Monumenta de viduis diaconissis virginibusque tractantia (Florilegium Patristicum, ed. j. zellinger 42; Bonn 1938). a. rosambert, La Veuve en droit canonique jusqu'au XIV e siècle (Paris 1923). l. bopp, Das Witwentum als organische Gliedschaft im Gemeinschaftsleben der alten Kirche (Mannheim 1950). p. h. lafontane, Les Conditions positives de l'accession aux ordres dans la premiere législation ecclésiastique, 300492 (Ottawa 1963). c. h. turner, "Ministries of Women in the Primitive Church," in Catholic and Apostolic, ed. h. bate (London 1931) 316351.

[a. g. gibson]