A Letter to Catholic Women regarding the being deacons

Letter to Catholic Women

by John N.Collins

from Letters to Deacons, 1999.

August 13. Commemoration of Radegund
Queen and Deacon, 587 CE

Clotaire I fell upon Hermenfred, vanquished him, and carried home a great booty. Among the prisoners, Radegundes, then about twelve years old, fell to the lot of King Clotaire, who gave her an education suitable to her birth, and caused her to be instructed in the Christian religion, and baptized. Clotaire at length caused her brother to be treacherously assassinated, that he might seize on his dominions in Thuringia. Radegundes, shocked at this base act of inhumanity, asked his leave to retire from court, which she easily obtained. Clotaire himself sent her to Noyon, that she might receive the religious veil from the hands of St Medard. The holy prelate scrupled to do it for some time, because she was a married woman; but was at length prevailed upon to consecrate her a deaconess. She employed almost her whole revenue in alms, and served the poor with her own hands. St Radegundes went some time after to Poitiers, and there built a great monastery of nuns, in which she procured a holy virgin, named Agnes, to be made the first abbess, and paid to her an implicit obedience in all things. Being desirous to perpetuate the work of God, she wrote to a council of bishops that was assembled at Tours in 566, entreating them to confirm the foundation of her monastery, which they did under the most severe censures. The emperor sent her a piece of that sacred wood of the true cross of our Redeemer, also a book of the four gospels beautified with gold and precious stones, and the relics of several saints. They were carried into Poitiers, and deposited in the church of the monastery by the Archbishop of Tours. It was on this occasion that Venantius Fortunatus composed the hymn, Vexilla regius prodeunt. St Radegundes had invited him and several other holy and learned men to Poitiers; was herself a scholar, and read both the Latin and Greek fathers.

Dear Catholic Women

Should Roman Catholic women seek to be ordained deacons? From various quarters - sometimes from the same quarter - one gets both a yes and a no answer to this question. I suspect, however, that one would need a certain panache to carry a yes vote among most women who follow a feminist line in theology.

In discussing the question with Roman Catholic women then, I am going to pick my way carefully before declaring a position. Indeed quite a deal of what follows is going to be about the need to clarify the question before pressing for an answer.

The first factor affecting the question is the climate in the church at present. While, as we shall note, the question of diaconal ordination for women has been raised here and there for over forty years, and indeed over the last decade has been favoured at increasingly influential levels, questions about ordaining women to anything have taken on a new dimension since Pope John Paul II declared on Pentecost Sunday 1994 that "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women".

One reaction to this on the part of some women has been to seek ordination to the diaconate, "a lower level of the hierarchy", in the words of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, but nonetheless "a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy". In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the diaconate is "conferred by a sacramental act called ‘ordination’, that is, by the sacrament of Holy Orders". The catechism makes clear in the same teaching, however, that the diaconate is a third "degree" of hierarchy and lies outside "the two degrees of ministerial participation in the priesthood of Christ: the episcopacy and the presbyterate."

The question of women deacons has drawn further interest as a consequence of the pronouncement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on October 28, 1995, that in the Apostolic Letter the pope "has handed on" teaching which "has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium".

Those women who are attracted to the diaconate in the light of these doctrinal developments are variously motivated. For some who continue to commit themselves to seeking priestly ordination for women, the precedent set by Anglican women has become a model for action. Just as many of them succeeded first in being ordained deacons - and with what commitment we see from the profoundly moving statement in November 1992 of June Osborne to the General Synod of the Church of England - and then advanced quickly in some countries to attaining the right to priesthood (1987 to 1992 in the case of England) some Roman Catholic women have set themselves a similar agenda.

By contrast, other women have sensed the hopelessness of pursuing priestly ordination in their own lifetimes and have committed themselves instead to assuaging their loss by taking up the struggle to attain "the lower level". In tandem with these are others who have less trouble accepting the restrictions on women in this matter and turn with a warm commitment to seeking ordination as deacons, which they have come to see as a real possibility in the Roman Catholic Church of our times.

Some of the latter are indeed women who in any circumstances would seek nothing more than to be deacons in the fashion of women in an earlier age of the church who bore that name. But of course in such an erudite corner of church history we encounter debate here among experts. If we accept the arguments of Aimé Martimort we have little to encourage us to build a modern diaconal role for women on past practice. Against his own evidence, however, and strongly controverting opinions of an equally eminent scholar, Cipriano Vagaggini, as well as of the historian Roger Gryson, Martimort concludes that the ancient deaconess was not even ordained. In this he declines to acknowledge that for well known sociological reasons the women were ordained to a more restricted form of diaconate than men. Their diaconal role was minor, women deacons being deemed in places more appropriate ministers than the male deacons in respect of women who were sick or who were being baptised.

Close to such women who want ordination to diaconate for its own sake there are yet others who are already professionally engaged in pastoral work and would cherish the opportunity to have their undertakings blessed and commissioned in the church by ordination as deacons. The same could be said for many women voluntarily engaged in similar works. It is important to note that precisely such pastoral involvement was adduced as sufficient reason to offer diaconal ordination to men in the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity, Ad gentes (no. 16).

In all of these situations the allure of ordination does not necessarily lie in the promise of spiritual benefit from the reception of the so-called permanent character conferred through the sacrament, although the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes much of this aspect of its theology of orders. In fact at this point the English translation is most unfortunate (no. 1570): "The sacrament of Holy Orders marks them [deacons] with an imprint ("character") which cannot be removed and which configures them to Christ, who made himself the ‘deacon’ or servant of all." To apply the technical ecclesiastical term "deacon" to Jesus of the gospels in this way is to prejudge the case; the Greek term should be left translated here as simply "servant".

That piece of Vatican parti pris aside, we are all probably aware that some women see that the distinct advantage of permission for women to be ordained deacons would be the new canonical status accruing to them as a result of ordination. They would now belong to the clergy, and this is an advancement at once ecclesial and social which would, they hope, enhance their bureaucratic efficiency within official circles, facilitate their progress through the halls of power, and open eventually to an equal access for women to governance in the church.

As already suggested, among women pursuing such equality are likely to be very few of the increasing number who band together to fashion a new spirituality not dependent on a sacrament reserved to men or who pool their political skills for the purpose of achieving greater effectiveness in the male-led institution independently of male-led concessions to them.

In women circles of this kind one senses a vibrant intolerance of the whole question of who gets ordained and why. As is well known, the experience of living under an exclusively male order in the church has provided more than enough ground for many women to walk away from the institutional church. For many again, however, the experience has stirred new energies, and their rejection of hierarchical systems is not necessarily a denial of the value of pastoral leadership within the church. What gives rise to the intolerance is the perception that both the theology of the sacrament of order and the closely associated suprastructures of canon law are so deeply imbued with androcentric character as to make it virtually impossible for these women to fashion a usable image of pastoral leadership within the church they have inherited. None of them has aspirations to be a recycled cleric. Were that to provide the paradigm, the last state of the church, in their view, would be worse than the first.

Hence the earlier hesitations about rushing into answers for the question at hand. One does not necessarily know the audience one is addressing, and a satisfactory response to one part of the audience may merely provide problems for another. The ambiguities and conflicts which women have had to confront on these issues can be sampled in the collection of experiences brought together by Virginia Ratigan and Arlene Swidler in A New Phoebe.

It is truly interesting – astounding, in the view of Margret Morche in her history of the origins of the modern diaconate – that the question of women’s right to ordination into diaconate was raised at one of the very first exploratory conferences on the diaconate at the Royaumont abbey near Paris in March 1959, just two months after John XXXIII had announced the calling of the Second Vatican Council. Other initiatives prior to the council have been noted by Friederike Kukula, and the long, persistent endeavours since the council have been detailed by Ilse Schüllner in A New Phoebe and, in a thorough academic survey, in a long appendix to Diakonat, the volume of papers edited by Peter Hünermann and others for the conference on women’s right to ordination as deacons which took place in Stuttgart in April 1997.

This conference, conducted on strictly academic lines even to the extent of having arguments presented against womens’ right to ordination, put a resolution to German bishops that they request an indult from Rome recognising bishops’ right to ordain women deacons in their dioceses. Of course this conference brought together women who were seeking such an outcome, so that in fact its firm resolution does little to resolve ambiguities for those women who reject the concept or continue to have reservations on one ground or another.

In the contemporary context, the climate of discussion can easily be inhibited and is sometimes embittered by the ecclesiastical restrictions put upon the limits within which the discussion needs to proceed. In particular, consideration of women’s ordination to the diaconate is not to be entertained within the ambit of women’s potential or aspirations for ordination to the presbyterate.

An instance of these far-reaching restrictions made headlines in Australia in 1996. On the agenda of the first gathering in Australia of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations - said to be representing no less than 30 million members - had been the proposal of the French-Canadian delegation in Canberra calling for "ongoing dialogue ... within the church concerning the access of women to ordained ministries". The proposal suggested, according to the press report, that "‘vocation not gender’ should determine who entered the priesthood.’" The proposal did not reach the floor, however, because the Apostolic Pro-Nuncio, Archbishop Franco Brambilla, "successfully demanded [its] withdrawal", informing the union’s president, Mrs Marie-Therese Van Heteren-Hogenhuis, that "the issue was a ‘matter of faith’ and therefore not to be debated." The president was reported as having been "visibly shocked" at the Pro-Nuncio’s intervention.

Given the heightened tensions generated by such interventions, let us try to simplify and at the same time clarify the question of women and diaconate by looking back to the beginning of the modern diaconate early in the course of the Second Vatican Council. Here, in October 1964, the council determined that "it will be possible in the future to restore the diaconate as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy". The future was not long coming, for in an Apostolic Letter of June 18, 1967, Paul VI issued norms for restoring the diaconate, which national conferences of bishops had the option of implementing as they saw fit.

What had the modern church done here? Throughout its recorded history the church had been ordaining "deacons", and even the earliest first and second century Christian documents evidence men designated "deacons" holding an official place in local churches alongside "bishops" and "presbyters".

Although the available evidence has made the deacon’s role difficult to describe definitively, deacons survived - but not unscathed - across both western and eastern churches until the time of the sixteenth century Reformation. Within the Roman Catholic Church, where deacons as a distinct level of clergy had by this era virtually disappeared, the memory of them was kept alive by recurrent liturgical commemorations of deacons of yore, including the supposed deacons Stephen and Philip of the so-called original Seven, and others like the much honoured martyr Laurence of Rome of the third century, the scholarly Ephraem of Syria of the fourth century, and the later Francis of Assisi. But mainly the deacon was sustained in the collective memory by making ordination to the diaconate a prerequisite for ordination to the priesthood. Diaconate thus became merely a temporary status, and any theology that may have attached to it was totally overwhelmed by the medieval theology of a cultic priesthood. Deacons retained a form of their ancient ritual vestment and performed certain liturgical functions, principally singing the gospel at high mass and assisting at distribution of the eucharistic bread.

Not surprisingly the reformers, in their practicality and with their strong pastoral orientation, considered the traditional diaconate a corrupt and useless clerical appendage to the church’s ministerial body. They reacted to it in different ways, usually abandoning ordination but tending to reform this branch of the medieval order as an instrument for performing works of charity and maintenance within the local congregation. This orientation was mainly set on the assumption that in the first Christian communities such had been the role of the "deacons". John Calvin was hugely influential here, and Elsie Anne McKee has provided a definitive account of his creative influence. For a broader view of the complexities of the diaconate at the time of the Reformation Jeannine Olson’s history is particularly informative.

Across the next centuries the reformed tradition too in turn lost much of its direction until, within the German Lutheran churches, where the diaconate had not ever effectively established itself, a renewed effort was undertaken in the early and middle of the nineteenth century to create a working diaconate of both women and men for the purposes of helping the sick and the underprivileged. The initiators in this were mainly Lutheran pastors, working independently of one another, and very largely with women, and never succeeding in having their groups of deaconesses and deacons recognised in their churches by any process of ordination. Their foundations were more in the form of the Roman Catholic religious congregations dedicated to works of charity and education, to whose style the founders were in fact indebted. Progressively the new diaconate embraced a huge social undertaking throughout the country which continues to this day. Again Jeannine Olson has told this story in detail and has gone on to the story of the offshoots of the German movement in Europe and especially in the 19th century British Empire and North America.

Throughout these developments the medieval diaconate of the Roman Catholic Church, which had not been directly affected by the reforming Council of Trent in the late sixteenth century, continued to be the sacramental prelude to priesthood. Indirectly it benefited from the tightening of admission to and education for the priesthood. Thus the deacon remained a living museum of ritual and vestment, his role in the liturgies being acted out mostly by priests.

The story of the deacon’s transition from this fossilised state to the stage where, thirty years after the reintroduction of the diaconate, deacons number some twenty-two thousand easily gives an impression of success. Most of these men are married, which is the first official instance of married clergy in the Latin church for a thousand years, and most are active in pastoral and liturgical roles. As is often remarked, however, the figures can be deceptive. Both the spread of the diaconate across different countries and the rates of its development there have always been very uneven: about 12,000 today in various dioceses of the United States but only 850 in Brazil, 2 in El Salvador; over 2000 in Germany, 1600 in Italy, 1100 in France, but 1 in Ireland, 3 in Poland; 198 in South Africa but 1 in Uganda, 7 in Zaire, 23 in India, 6 in Japan; 46 in Australia, 36 in Micronesia, 3 in New Zealand, 3 in Samoa, but 18 in Samoa (US). This all reflects uncertainties among bishops arising from theological tensions we shall mention a little later.

In its origins, nonetheless, the story of the modern diaconate is truly impressive in the vision, dedication and skills of a founding mover like Hannes Kramer of Freiburg. What is useful for women to note who are contemplating a campaign for the right to ordination as deacons is that the modern story of the Catholic diaconate does not take us far from the Lutheran history just alluded to. At the end of the Second World War Kramer and some associates, with the prestigious assistance of the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner and others, saw a need for a European church, then largely pastored by sacristy-bound priests, to embody in society the kind of work which Jesus undertook on the margins of his own society. This is now a familiar line - and indeed vast secular and international organisations lay down their own philanthropic version of it. Then, however, it was a striking call in a church whose energies were channeled into dispensing and consuming sacraments and into devotional practices of a private kind.

The call for a renewed diaconate was a call for the church to institutionalise a commitment to the works of social justice by bringing those working for social justice within the ambit of its hierarchical order. The church would then perhaps be less inclined to continue its long drawn-out competition in grandeur and power with the kingdoms of this world because in its midst it would carry the sacramental sign of Jesus the servant of all.

This was how Kramer and his companions envisioned and lived a commitment which they called a diaconate. Like their Lutheran compatriots, they took the name "diaconate" from their understanding of what early Christians meant by speaking in their ancient Greek of "deacons" and "deaconing". In these words, which were variations of the Greek word diakonia (and often translated by the other English words minister and serve),they heard the summons of the one who "came not to be served but to serve (diakon-)" (Mark 10.45), the same who made it plain that his followers were to welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick... (Matthew 25.31-46).

At the sudden approach of the Second Vatican Council, Hannes Kramer was instrumental in orchestrating the support of a specialist group of theologians - in addition to Rahner, men as prominent as Congar, Häring, and Jedin - as well as of fellow founding spirits of the movement like Hornef, Schamoni and Winninger. These were among a list of 92 signatories to a letter to the world’s bishops requesting that they support the cause of a permanent diaconate at the Council. The letter (without the names, which one can see in a 1963 issue of the journal Worship) forms an appendix to McCaslin and Lawler’s Sacrament of Service. Many of these theologians also contributed, under the direction of a Freiburg professor, Herbert Vorgrimler, and with the cooperation and patronage again of Rahner, to the impressive 650 page volume of studies on the history, theology, and new pastoral possibilities of the diaconate, Diaconia in Christo. Über die Erneuerung des Diakonates [On the Renewal of the Diaconate], whose timely publication was somehow managed for 1962. A copy both of this volume and of the petition was presented to John XXIII in September 1962, just one month before the Council opened in October.

In addition to such theological groundwork, the advocates of the diaconate also cultivated the support of a broad range of sympathetic bishops and other well placed clerics. Among the latter, significant was Jean Podhain, executive officer of the official French Catholic agency of charity. In 1960 he had circulated an impassioned plea for the re-establishment of a diaconate of charitable works, and since he had also become a personal friend of John XXIII, he was both well informed about the diaconal movement and well placed within the Vatican to promote the interests of the diaconate during the council, which he attended in an official capacity.

Such clerical support was important as bishops were by no means of one mind on the idea that was gathering momentum. During the preparatory work on the issue during 1962 strong divisions appeared, as Philippe Weber’s succinct account records, and the opposition extended into the conciliar debates themselves in 1963, as interventions by Cardinal Spellman of New York illustrated. One gets the feel of the hostility in Ralph Wiltgen’s popular account of the council, The Rhine flows into the Tiber.

In the end, however, the wide collaboration and the patronage of high clerics brought Hannes Kramer and his colleagues the joy of the rapid fulfilment of their dream. As we have seen, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church duly enshrined it in the document of November 21, 1964.

In all of these preparations Kramer and Rahner were careful not to overlook aspects of diaconate beyond the works of charity which were their main interest and the pursuit of whose recognition by way of sacramental ordination to diaconate had given impetus to their undertaking. Hence the petition which circulated among the bishops included among "essential features of the proposed restoration of the diaconate" the listing of "the work of assisting in the liturgy" and "the ministry of the word" in addition to "offices of charity". These too were duly registered in the council’s decree.

Foremost in the vision of these men, however, remained the "specific function of the diaconate" named as "to serve", concerning which the petition made the following fulsome commendation:

The specific function of the diaconate ... is "to serve," as the word "deacon" itself implies.... Would it not further be a living testimony to the Church’s concern for the temporal and supernatural welfare of men to have deacons engaged in actual charitable work, bringing not only the Eucharistic Bread but also the necessities of temporal life to the poor and suffering, bringing Christ both sacramentally and in his burning care for the lowly and oppressed into the places of neglect and destitution, of hunger and sickness?

Over the following 35 years, for all the theological underpinning of the diaconate by reflection on the deacon’s connection with liturgy and ministry of the word, the "specific function" as conceived by "the Original Deacon Circle" has undoubtedly remained the focus of the new diaconate in the continent of Europe. The same is undoubtedly true of the diaconate in the United States, where over half of the world’s deacons have been ordained but where the deacons have a comparatively high liturgical profile. Their personal testimonies in the journal Deacon Digest provide ample evidence of their perceived highest commitment, just as their formation emphasises it.

That such service constitutes the preeminent value is projected by McCaslin and Lawler in Sacrament of Sevice, McCaslin having himself been a diocesan director of a diaconate programme in the United States, and is equally clearly reflected in the writings of similarly placed directors like Timothy Shugrue ("Diakonia – Essential Element in the Life of the Church ") and Theodore Kraus, Projector Director for the revision of the National Guidelines for the Formation of Deacons ("ordained into a special diakonia … understood essentially as service"), as well as in a more popular presentation by a deacon, Lynn Sherman ("prime focus of diakonia").

Why have I been emphasing this orientation of the modern Roman Catholic diaconate to service of the needy and, earlier, the signs of the prior history of this orientation in the initiatives of some German Lutheran pastors? Principally because a simple but possibly quite acute problem arises in many people’s minds about whether there is any need for an ordained minister of this kind in the church. Indeed the problems surrounding the institution of such a diaconate appeared so acute to a board of enquiry in the Anglican Church in 1974 - if I may appear to diverge - that the board’s first recommendation, as stated in Deacons in the Church, was: "The diaconate be discontinued in the Church of England", and this mainly on the following ground:

the element of service to God and man, of devoted care particularly of the poor and needy, is an element essential to the life of the Christian Church ... but the work need not necessarily be performed by officials called deacons in an order of ministry.

The fact that some fifteen years later another Anglican working party reversed this decision and in Deacons in the Ministry of the Church recommended the institution of a permanent (in their terms "distinctive") diaconate merely underlines the difficulty churches have been encountering in their modern attempts to define and establish a credible diaconate. In the latter case the about-turn was on the ground that the deacon should model to the church "Christ’s diaconate" who came "’not to be served, but to serve... ‘" (Mark 10.45).

These contrary problematical positions in regard to ordained diaconate within the Church of England exemplify the one major difficulty experienced by all churches. As stated in a study of the diaconate in the United Methodist Church (USA) by Keller, Moede and Moore, "All of ministry is service because ministry, or diakonia, means just that. What then is the unique role of the diaconate?" In the United States, as early as 1975 Richard L. Rashke revealed the range of tensions in Roman Catholic quarters in regard to identifying the precise role of the deacon. Within the Roman Catholic Church the difficulty is superficially blunted by the availability of an appeal in its foundation document, the Constitution on the Church, to the threefold function of deacons identified by the Second Vatican Council, namely, "the service of the liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity", but, as I have tried to illustrate, in practice the basic understanding of the permanent diaconate remains one of a diaconate of service.

Accordingly, if diaconate rises or falls on the credibility of a theology of service, a Roman Catholic woman weighing the advisability of working for the admission of women to the diaconate has to decide whether ordination to a role of service is really a gain for the church or for women, especially in the light of the situation that the individual would be ordained basically to perform service which every baptised Christian is called to. A further consideration is whether it is advisable for women at this historic stage of their empowerment to seek their first hierarchical endorsement in the church in the form of service. While the feminist theologians reject such a prospect out of hand – as Schüssler Fiorenza in "Feminist Ministry in the Discipleship of Equals" – a consultation under the auspices of the World Council of Churches in 1980 on Ordination of Women in Ecumenical Perspective once recommended the idea.

Outside that aspect of the question, it seems for the moment at least that the modern woman need not preoccupy herself with impediments she might anticipate arising from the existing canon law because, perhaps surprisingly, advice has been issued from the Canon Law Society of America that "ordination of women to the permanent diaconate is possible."

In her other considerations the modern woman will no doubt wish to read as widely as is realistic to expect from a busy woman among the current set of books on deacons. Here I advise her, however, that she is likely to encounter a range of views emanating from different denominational experiences and policies which can confuse a Roman Catholic.

Thus the terminology, practice and understandings in the Baptist tradition and in churches like Assemblies of God can be confusing for those from churches with more traditional ministerial structures. Thus The Deacon and His Ministry by Richard L. Dresselhaus would confuse a Roman Catholic woman by identifying deacons with the official board of the local church (Assembly). On the other hand, within the traditional but non-catholic churches one will also come across a book like The Deaconess by Janet Grierson which is not about ordained deaconesses at all but about the nineteenth century Anglican institution for women parallel to the houses of German Lutheran deaconesses mentioned above.

In much of the writing, nonetheless, the reader will recognise among the many views and practices a general acceptance across the denominations of the view of diaconate which led to last century’s Lutheran renewal. Basically this view arises from an understanding that the original Greek word for deacon meant a lowly servant. Moreover, this view presents the lowly servant of early Christian parlance as acting out of a desire to meet the well-being of the person being served. This benevolent self-giving is understood to embody the pure ideal represented by Jesus when he spoke of himself as having come "to serve, and to give his life... " (Mark 10.45), because here the Greek verb for "serve" is related to the noun diakonos/deacon.

This linguistic view pervades virtually all modern writing about diaconate. It originated in a popular nineteenth century understanding of the diaconate as a ministry to the poor and needy, the high exemplars being presented as the Seven men selected to "serve (diakon-) at tables" in Acts 6.1-6 and also, two centuries later, as the deacon Laurence of Rome. In an unfortunate but enduring development this popular understanding of diaconate flowed over into theology, and I draw attention to only two books. One is the second edition of James Monroe Barnett’s widely read The Diaconate. A Full and Equal Order and the other is Ormonde Plater’s Many Servants. An Introduction to Deacons. Both write from within the tradition of the North American Episcopal Church, which draws strongly on the Roman Catholic tradition. In the one case Barnett makes the framework of all his theology of church an understanding that diakonia, service, underlies all forms of ordination and is a common calling of all the baptised; within this framework, the essential role of the deacon is to symbolise this calling to all, both ordained and non-ordained. In fact, in the pages of the newsletter of the North American Association for the Diaconate, Barnett and I have debated the appropriateness of his book’s emphasis on the kind of diakonia underlying his conceptualisation of the church.

Views similar to Barnett’s typify most writing on diaconate, as in the popular book by the North American Epicopal writer John Booty, The Servant Church, in the report to the United Methodist Church (USA) by Keller, Moede and Moore, in the broader Protestant perspective of Alexander Strauch, and in the Anglican vision of Robert Hannaford, in a contribution to The Deacon’s Ministry. Such a list could extend indefinitely.

The weakness of this almost universally accepted position is its total dependence on the linguistic understanding of diakonia as lowly or loving service to others. This is exactly the position which my own published linguistic research has demonstrated to be untenable. Being an academic study, Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources is intimidating to some, although the book was actually written in a way that aimed to make it accessible to all who might want to pursue the questions arising from the linguistic misconceptions addressed there; in fact, its Part I should hold no terrors for the uninitiated as it sketches the mess that the theology of ministry has been in through a wrong understanding of what early Christians meant in their talk of ministry/diakonia. The second study, Are All Christians Ministers? was written specifically for the kind of women and men with such interests and includes a section on deacons.

The second writer mentioned above, Ormonde Plater, came quickly to acknowledge the relevance of the book Diakonia at a very awkward stage of the production of his own study. So convinced was he of the error of the contemporary assumptions about diakonia as a loving Christian service, assumptions on which he had operated in the writing of his book, that he held up publication until he could use the newly published linguistic findings about diakonia to modify his picture of the deacon.

These contrasting approaches to the very meaning of the deacon’s office and title naturally produce different theologies of the office and call for different job descriptions for the deacon. Precisely here commentators either acknowledge the importance of the new linguistic evaluation of diakonia in regard to diaconate or decry its nuisance value. Thus Michael Putney, a consultant to the Australian Episcopal Conference on diaconate (and himself now a member of the conference), extols the theology of diaconate which can be constructed from the new understanding of diakonia over the theologies depicted by Karl Rahner or the Bishops’ Committee on the Permanent Diaconate (USA), asserting elsewhere that "this whole area of theology can never be the same." The French-American scholar of church and ecumenism, George H. Tavard, who had been a consultant (peritus) at the Second Vatican Council, considers that had the book Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources been published at the time of the council, it "could have provided a basis for the needed theological reflection."

The outcome of these few reflections on the state of research on the origins and purpose of the diaconate would seem to be clear. Until there is a measure of agreement on what the office means, what point is there for women to seek entry into it? Career decisions can only be made on sound information. Why should pastoral vocation be different? In my view conditions for women’s decisions in this matter are not yet right. What the Directory for Deacons published in Italian by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy in March 1998 might mean for women is yet to be seen, although one press report had a curia cardinal saying the document implied the exclusion of women from diaconal ordination. Such thinking may help women determine whether it would be worth their while working for admission to the diaconate.

The clearest earlier indication of Vatican thinking on women and diaconate is in the address by the secretary of the Congregation for the Clergy, Archbishop Crescenzio Sepe, to the National Catholic diaconate Conference (USA) in New Orleans on July 22, 1994. In his only reference to "the so-called ‘female daconate’" Sepe threw cold water on any idea that ancient deaconesses were sacramentally ordained, but this, as we saw from the mention above of differences of opinion on this matter between Martimort and Vagaggini, is to take sides in an academic debate.

On the other hand, on the view of diaconate which I have sketched in some publications on the basis of the new linguistic description of diakonia, I believe that possibilities exist within the diaconate for an engagement by women and men in the real business of the ministry of the churches. This real business is in the nurturing of our life of faith, a question discussed in the final chapter of Are All Christians Ministers? Essentially the diaconate would lie in the relationship with the pastoral leaders, bishop in the first place and then the presbyters, but, as I have already intimated in the second letter above, no relationship of real pastoral relevance is likely to develop - hence no authentic diaconate - until the full pastoral refurbishment of the office of bishop is taken up.

Should women ever get the opportunity to be officially engaged in this process as deacons, what kind of enriched local churches might we have, and what kind of further ministerial possibilities might these enlivened churches encourage their women and men to explore?

Perhaps we can conclude with words of advice from the outstanding Orthodox advocate of women’s ministerial rights and capacities, Elisabeth Behr-Sigel; words from her quarter may well be heard with sympathy by women taking the trouble to read these pages.

The feminine deaconate should in no way be seen as a substitute for their [women’s] participation in the presbyteral ministry. Nor should it serve as an alibi for avoiding a serious theological reflection about the ordination of women to the priesthood.

John Collins

Overview Signs of a Vocation A woman's journey Steps to take Answering critics Writing your story

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