The Meaning of the Deaconate in the Orthodox Church

The diaconate has been a little understood ministry, in fact, often a misunderstood ministry. Although it is one of three ordained orders, most lay people have little or no contact with a deacon, no idea of the history of the diaconate or what it entails today. We hope to clarify some of the questions about deacons below.

Isn’t being a deacon just a stepping-stone to the priesthood?

No, a deacon doesn’t have to become a priest.  In fact, deacons comprise a complete and distinct order of ordained ministry within the three expressions of ordained priesthood: the diaconate (i.e. deacons), the presbyterate (i.e. priests) and the episcopacy (i.e. bishops). While deacons may, and now often do, pass through to other orders (i.e. to the presbyterate and episcopacy), most deacons originally served Christ within the life of the Church as deacons the rest of their lives. Do not accept mistaken, common stereotypes of the deacon as  “an apprentice priest,” a “liturgical decoration (or functionary)” or even worse yet, “a super-acolyte!” Over the years, misconceptions have developed regarding appreciation of the diaconate, partly because it has been used in the past as a “stepping-stone to the priesthood” in an imbalanced manner. It is hoped the resources made available through this Web site describe a more healthy and correct vision of the diaconate as a “full” or “complete and distinct order” within the ordained ministry of the Orthodox Church. This is the ministry through the activity of the Holy Spirit that brings forth in a special way, the ministry of “Christ, the one who serves.”

What would a deacon do in my parish today?

In keeping with the diaconate’s tradition of the past, deacons may serve in many capacities as circumstances, needs and talents allow:  assisting their bishop, assisting with liturgical worship, music and church order, teaching, preaching, pastoral care, philanthropy, theological education, spiritual direction, pastoral counseling, administration, monastic life, hospital, nursing home, and hospice chaplaincies, prison ministry, facilitating ministries to shut-ins, orphans, the poor and/or destitute (including  being available to bring Holy Communion, Holy Unction and other blessings of the Church to these just mentioned groups of people), etc.
Do not expect the deacons’ ministry to be exactly the same from one pastoral context to the next, even within the same diocese. Deacons traditionally and in a special way are ambassadors of their bishop. Through the course of history, deacons in particular, have served in many, many ways. Today as always, it is the bishop who delineates the limits and responsibilities assigned to their deacons based upon specific pastoral needs and opportunities, spiritual strengths, pastoral abilities and theological training required of the deacon serving under his authority, in fact, as an emissary, on his behalf. As with every other domain of Christian ministry, deacons are called to serve only within their assigned responsibilities and within the limits of the specific charism of their ordination, as well as their personal formation, training and abilities, nothing more nothing less. While any Christian, lay or ordained, of course, may be called to any one or more of these above-mentioned ministries, persons who are called to serve as deacons within these and other ministries, do so as servants who are called to bring forth “Christ, the one who serves.”

Why don’t we have many deacons serving in our parishes?

The diaconate has not been serving at its full potential for centuries, so many people neither know deacons nor the invaluable service they can give the community. This has been the situation for so long that, until recently, a man did not normally aspire to be a deacon, only a priest or bishop. The “Golden Age” for male deacons was before the First Ecumenical Council in 325, and for women the fourth through seventh centuries. The end of the Golden Age for male deacons began with a canon written at the First Ecumenical Council in 325.  The text of Canon 18 illustrates the growing tension among deacons, priests and bishops: “. . . let deacons remain within their proper place,” a symptom of growing clericalism in the church.  John Chryssavgis in Remembering and Reclaiming Diakonia explains that this canon “. . . marks both the historical climax of diaconal development and the commencement of a decline in the diaconal order.”Other local and ecumenical councils promulgated rules and regulations regarding deacons throughout the centuries.  The reasons for the decline of women deacons include the rise of infant baptism (in the early church women deacons assisted with the educating and baptizing of adult women) and other issues addressed under “Frequently Asked Questions — Were women deacons banned in the Orthodox Church?”
Gradually the scope of the ministry of the diaconate narrowed, with more emphasis on the liturgical role for men at the expense of more diverse responsibilities, perhaps a consequence of incorrect assumptions related to the deacon’s ministry in worship as being more “cultic” and a “superfluous decoration.”  Despite these developments, many deacons throughout the centuries gave invaluable service to the church and community in many areas, including:  education, pastoral care and counseling, chaplaincy ministries, writing, assisting the poor, founding monastic communities, spiritual guidance, preaching, administration, philanthropy, ecumenical witness, missions. and social service.  They can do the same today, and the proliferation of diaconal training programs at various Orthodox theological schools is encouraging.  Our priests and communities need their help, and their call is special. While any Christian, lay or ordained, of course, may be called to any one or more of these above-mentioned ministries, persons who are called to serve as deacons within these and other ministries, do so as servants to bring forth “Christ, the one who serves.”

What do I call a deacon?

It is correct to refer to him as “Father” or when introduced as “the Reverend Father Deacon” (so as to avoid confusion to which order of ministry he is ordained). The appellation “Father” in the Orthodox tradition acknowledges with respect the spiritual responsibilities of the person addressed. Do not call a deacon “deacon” as the normal manner of address (even if this is the usual custom in western Christian circles today), as the deacon is called to share in inter-personally intimate, loving, pastoral care corresponding in relationship to their spiritual responsibilities on behalf of the faithful.  We are aware of the ancient custom of calling non-ordained schema monks as “Father” as a way of acknowledging this kind of respect for them. While referring to the deacon as “Deacon [name]” is not incorrect, this is not unlike referring to the ordained presbyter as “priest [name]” or the hierarch as “bishop [name].”  None of these appellations are incorrect; nevertheless using these expressions as the normal ways of addressing these ordained ministers of the church, tends to be too casual and familiar (hence, disrespectful). Similarly, honoring the living history of the church and bearing in mind the witness and intercession of the many female saints who were also deacons, whenever God calls deaconesses to be ordained to serve within the life of Orthodox communities, in like manner, they would be addressed as: “Mother” or perhaps more formally introduced as “Reverend Mother Deacon.” 

How are the deacon’s vestments different from a priest’s?

The most distinctive vestments of the deacon are the orarion (a narrow stole) and the epimanik(i) (detachable cuffs for the wrists). According to John Chryssavgis in Remembering and Reclaiming Diakonia, the orarion is “often embroidered and covered either with the word Agios (the Holy One) or with crosses.  It is fixed on the left shoulder and rests there, passing under the right arm and hanging down in the front as well as the back.  The deacon lifts the orarion to the height of the face as he calls the congregation to prayer, leading the faithful through the intonation of various petitions.  Immediately before Holy Communion, the deacon changes the position of the stole, crossing it in the front and back as a symbol of the seraphim covering their face in the presence of the Holy One. [Thus the oriarion is sometimes referred to as the wings of angels.] The functional reason for this particular change during the Eucharist is the preparation of the deacon in a practical manner to divide and distribute the Body and Blood of Christ. . . . The epimanik(i) are . . . worn over and cover the normal clerical dress.  The cuffs further facilitate the movement of the hands during the Divine Liturgy; indeed, they are only worn in the Divine Liturgy and on Holy Friday, when the deacons handle the Body of Christ.  Each of the cuffs bears an embroidered cross.”  The orarion and the epimanik(i) are worn over the stikharion, the long garment worn by all the orders which symbolizes the grace of baptism conferred upon all baptized Christians, except the deacon’s has shorter sleeves than that of the bishop and priest.
Isn’t a deacon’s wife called a deaconess?  Is there another kind?

Yes, a deacon’s wife is called a deaconess, but in the past there were women who were ordained to the diaconate through the Sacrament of Holy Ordination. Since the practice of ordaining women deacons in the Orthodox church largely fell into disuse many years ago, “deaconess” in the public mind is a title of respect given to the wife of the deacon.  Whenever God calls deaconesses to be ordained to serve within the life of Orthodox communities, they would be addressed as: “Mother” or perhaps more formally introduced as “Reverend Mother Deacon.” The appellation “Mother” in the Orthodox tradition acknowledges with respect the spiritual responsibilities of the person addressed.
Were women deacons banned in the Orthodox Church?  If they were ordained in the past, what happened?

No, the order of women deacons was not eliminated by a canon or a council.  For various reasons, it gradually fell into disuse, but it has not completely disappeared. Scholars can only speculate about why it declined. Kyriaki FitzGerald in Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church speculates that the decline happened for various reasons: 
1) As infant baptisms increased, women were not needed to assist with the baptism of adult women. 
2) There may have been reaction against early Christian-like heretical Gnostic sects that agitated for the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopacy.
3) The rise of Islam and its even stricter separation of males and females may have influenced society, especially after the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Muslim Ottomans in the fifteenth century. 
4)  After the fall of the Byzantine Empire, many Orthodox scholars fled to the West  and were influenced by the Western Church that had relegated the male diaconate to an inferior ministry with only a liturgical role and temporary stage before ordination to the priesthood.  Most likely with a fear of ordaining women as presbyters and bishops in mind, some local councils in the West condemned ordination of women deacons altogether.
5) Orthodox canonists in the twelfth and fourteenth centuries reinforced canons of the third and fourth centuries that forbid women from entering the altar because they are unclean physically and spiritually during menstruation.  However, the twelfth and fourteenth century canonists acknowledge that women were ordained as deacons at the altar, but stood firm on their prohibition. These, and all other canons, have not been systematically examined since the twelfth century. 
By the late Byzantine era ordination of women deacons in the Eastern Church was rare, and the ministry of the female deacon virtually ended; while the ministry of male deacons continued, but in a limited way. However the ordination rites for both ministries remain in the rubrics books, describing the sacred potential, timeless calling of this blessed ministry of service to God and the community.
If women are ordained deacons, won’t they try to become priests?
There is no historical, authoritative evidence of women ordained as priests in Orthodox Tradition.  The charisms of the presbyter (priest) and hierarch (bishop) are intimately inter-related with each other and the diaconate because they concern service to the People of God.  However, discussion of these “complete and distinct” charisms of the episcopacy and priesthood are outside the limits of attention of this Web site.
Were women ordained or appointed deacons?

The most authoritative consultation of our time, the 1988 Inter-Orthodox Theological Consultation convened by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople under
His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios I assembled in Rhodes, Greece, concluded:  “The deaconess was ordained within the sanctuary during the Divine Liturgy with two prayers, she received the orarion (the deacon’s stole) and received Holy Communion at the Altar.  The revival of this ancient order should be envisaged on the basis of the ancient prototypes testified to in many sources . . . and with the prayers found in the Apostolic Constitutions and the ancient Byzantine liturgical books.”
As explained by Kyriaki FitzGerald in Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church, the issue of ordination or appointment was controversial among some Orthodox theologians, including two leading professors from the University of Athens, Evangelos Theodorou and John Karmiris. Professor Theodorou pioneered scholarly research proving ordination in two publications in Greek only: Heroines of Christian Love (Athens, 1949) and The “Ordination” or the “Appointment” of Deaconess (Athens, 1954).  His proof is an in-depth analysis of the prayers and rubrics of the Byzantine Service for the Ordination of the Woman Deacon written in the early Middle Ages and other primary sources from the first millennium of Christianity. On the other side, Professor Karmiris argued that Canon 19 of the Council of Nicaea in 325 stated that the Paulinists deaconesses were not deaconesses because “. . . they have no imposition of hands (i.e. no ordination), [and] are to be numbered wholly among the laity.” The Paulinists were followers of Paul of Samosata, a third-century bishop who was considered to have heretical views on the Holy Trinity. It is noteworthy that the Paulinist bishops, presbyters and male deacons were not considered ordained either, and the canon dealt with how they could be reinstated. Proponents of ordination argue that this canon relates exclusively to the Paulinists and did not apply to others within the church in good standing.
Would women deacons assist in the Divine Liturgy the same as a male deacons?

Since little is known historically about the liturgical role of women, it is difficult to know if it will be the same. The scope and manner of service that the female deacon will offer within the life of the worshipping community will be determined by the overseeing hierarch who will discern the specific spiritual, pastoral and practical needs of the community at large. 
Hopefully the hierarch will make this determination mindful that there is only one diaconate in the life of the church and that male and female deacons would share fully in the same love of the Source of Divine Grace who ordains them to this ministry.
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