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Eastern Orthodoxy and the Ordination of Women by Michael A. Fahey from 'Women Priests'

Eastern Orthodoxy and the Ordination of Women

by Michael A. Fahey

from Women Priests, Arlene Sidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 107-113.
Reprinted on our website with the necessary permissions

(Michael A. Fahey, SJ, was at the time associate professor of theology and director of graduate studies in the department of theological studies at Concordia University, Montreal. He studied at the University of Louvain and received his doctorate from the University of Tuebingen. The author of a book on Cyprian of Carthage as well as numerous articles, he was consultant theologian from the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Bilateral Conversations in North America).

Not surprisingly the Declaration by the Vatican Doctrinal Congregation on the ordination of women appeals to the tradition and practice of the “Churches of the East.” For Catholics to prescind from the views of the Eastern Churches in this regard would be to undo the careful work of dialogue between these “sister Churches” begun at Vatican II and dramatically continued by the several encounters of Pope Paul VI and the late Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I.(1)

The Vatican statment notes with respect to the East: “The same tradition [namely the tradition which has never admitted that priestly or episcopal ordination can be validly conferred on women] has been faithfully safeguarded by the Churches of the East.” The expression “Churches of the East” is however somewhat ambiguous. One could at first assume that the reference is to those Oriental Christians in full communion with Rome but with different liturgical and disciplinary traditions, such as the Melkites and the Maronites; sometimes called “Uniates,” these are the subject of an entire decree of Vatican II, Orientalium Ecclesiarum. But from the context and from the examples cited in the semi-official Commentary on the Declaration, it is clear that the reference is specifically to the Orthodox Churches and indirectly to the ancient Eastern Churches, the non-Chalcedonian Churches such as the Nestorians, Jacobites, Armenians and Copts. The special status of these Churches is discussed in Vatican II’s decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, especially paragraphs 13 and 14. These Churches include those divided from the great Church since the councils of Ephesus (A.D. 431) or Chalcedon (451), but especially those Churches not in full communion because of the “breakdown of ecclesiastical communion between the Eastern Patriarchates and the Roman See.” In conformity with modern research, Vatican II assigned no date to this breakdown inasmuch as the estrangement was slow but constant after Constantinople became the New Rome.(2)

The remark in the Declaration focuses on what thc Churches of the East in our present juncture of church life think about the ordination of women. One should not forget either that millions of these so-called “Eastern” Orthodox actually live in the Americas, Western Europe and other parts of the world. The theological influence of these diaspora Orthodox is often more pronounced than those living in the East.

The Vatican Declaration provides an unassailable description of fact, namely that women in the East (apart from some fringe group heretics) have never been ordained bishops or presbyters. Thc text notes that the Eastern tradition “has been faithfully safeguarded.” In one sense, this expression is rather curious because it implies a conscious reflective guarding in safe-keeping when in fact, except for very rare cases, and up to modern times we are dealing with an unreflective practice. For that reason thc text is also misleading when it appeals to “canonical documents of the Antiochian and Egyptian traditions” (three references are given) which refer to the “essential reason” for not ordaining women: because Christ had called only men to the priestly Order and ministry in its true sense and the Church intends to remain faithful to the type of ordained ministry willed by the Lord Jesus Christ and carefully maintained by the Apostles. This is not the sort of nuanced historical statement one would hope for in a document of this moment.(3)

The Vatican text continues with regard to the Churches of the East: “their unanimity on this point is all the more remarkable since in many other questions their discipline admits of great diversity.” Actually, the exact opposite could be stated just as correctly. One could have written: Their unanimity on this point (i.e., of never admitting women to priesthood or episcopate) is not at all remarkable since today the Eastern Orthodox Churches consider themselves strictly bound to abide by previous synodal, canonical decisions, so that its theologians and hierarchs experience great difficultics in formulating new solutions to questions without direct precedents. In light of this particular difficulty it will be important to follow closely the deliberations at the forthcoming Pan-Orthodox Great and Holy Council, an event which will be for the Orthodox similar to the experience of Vatican 11 for Catholics, to see how they proceed to find creative solutions to new issues.(4)

Thc Vatican Declaration is quite accurate, however, in noting that these Churches of the East “refuse to associate themselves with requests directed toward securing accession of women to priestly ordination.” This is a crucial and critical issue for thc Vatican: thc problem of grappling with this delicate ecumenical problem of sharp and severe Orthodox opposition to women’s ordinations. It is important to cite several of these vigorously negative condemnations of the issue of women’s ordination as expressed by representative Orthodox hierarchs and theologians.

Thc semi-official Commentary on the Vatican text refers to one of these warnings made by Athenagoras of Thyateira, Archbishop for the Orthodox in Grcat Britain. “It is the same people,” writes Athenagoras, “who preach the ordination of women and who cast doubt on, deny, or ignore the mystery of the holy Eucharist, the apostolic succession, and the infallibility of the Church. ”(5)

Closer to home, Archbishop Lakovos, Orthodox Primate of North and South America, in his enthusiastic support of thc Vatican Declaration, seems to see those Anglicans and Catholics who favor this development as influenced by a Protestantizing diminution of ordained priesthood into a sort of simple pastoral directorship. Hc writes: Christ “did not choose or call women to celrebrate the Eucharist, thc principal raison d’etre of thc priesthood. If the priesthood is nothing more than pastoral directorship of the Church, then we serve neither Christ nor His people, but our own glorified and narrowed views that empty the Church of its divine mission and the priesthood of its essential charactcr."(6) Notable here is the close association of thc meaning of the priesthood with the celebration of thc Eucharist, underlining thc strong liturgical roots of Orthodox theology.

Even more strongly opposed are the Orthodox theologians. Wc will restrict ourselves to citing two distinguished Orthodox theologians currently teaching in the United States. Father Maximos Aghiorgoussis of thc Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Mass., in his booklet Women Priests? published after the decision of the Episcopal Church to ordain women, remarks: “I cannot but condemn this uncharitable act perpetrated not only against the people within the Anglican communion who do not accept this decision, but also against the Churches of apostolic tradition and especially the Eastern Orthodox Church.”(7) He judges the Episcopal Convention of betraying the gospel and the great apostolic tradition of the Church and continues: “As far as the Orthodox are concerned, the ordination of women to the Holy Priesthood is untenable since it would disregard the symbolic and iconic value of male priesthood, both as representing Christ’s malehood and the fatherly role of the Father in the Trinity, by allowing female persons to interchange with male persons a role which cannot be interchanged.(8)

No less severe are the judgments of the Orthodox Church of America in the person of Thomas Hopko, associate professor of dogmatics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, New York, who refers to the “distortions and abnormalities” of having women as priests since women have a “unique mode of human being and action” which is incompatible with exercising sacerdotal positions in the community.(9)

These Orthodox theologians, despite their appeals to earlier Church traditions, do not perceive the paradox noted by Professor Norris that their arguments about the representational role of male priests is virtually unprecedented in tradition. Rather than being a “traditional” reason for denying ordination to women it is, in Norris’ words, “genuinely novel, untraditional,” demanding the most sceptical scrutiny.(10)

We have cited some of these typical modern Orthodox objections by hierarchs and theologians because they provide a useful context in which to understand the preoccupation of the Vatican Declaration. But rather than allowing ourselves to be frightened by these strong objections, out of a sense of charitable commitment to one another, we must ask whether Orthodox and Catholics are indeed being faithful to the deepest traditions of their Churches and whether we perhaps may not have allowed our personal interpretations of historical phenomena to narrow our perceptions.

There is another sense, however, in which the Vatican Declaration is addressing not simply what the Orthodox Churches are now saying about the ordination of women but also what the whole liturgical tradition of the East both before and after its alienation from the See of Rome tells us about the nature of ordination. In this regard it is methodologically infelicitous of theVatican Declaration to have prescinded completely from the question of the ordination of women as deaconesses in the past and its possible restoration. Putting in parentheses for the time being the history and theology of the ordination of women as deaconesses has somewhat distorted the total liturgical tradition of the East in order to make it serve the present preoccupation of the Vatican Declaration. This is untypical of much of the excellent studies of the Byzantine and other Oriental liturgies undertaken by such scholars as the Roman Catholics Matheos, Taft, Vagaggini, Macomber and Gryson which approach the liturgies from the perspective of truly Eastern preoccupations.

For what has been determined by scholars, although sometimes not widely known even among the Orthodox, is that from the third and fourth century on women were ordained as deaconesses by imposition of hands (cheirotonia) and that this ordination clearly had a sacramental character. This liturgical practice lasted in Byzantium up to the twelfth century and in Syria up to the fifteenth century. We are indeed fortunate today to have excellent documentation of this material, though much of it has not yet been properly disseminated and assimilated even by theologians.

Why, it may be asked, is the question of the sacramental ordination of women as deaconesses in the Byzantine churches important in discussing a document about the access of women to the presbyteral or episcopal offices of the Church? Precisely because it illustrates that for many centuries the Church did indeed administer, to use the language of the Vatican Declaration, an ordained ministry which was not (directly at least) willed by the Lord Jesus Christ. This fact relativizes many of the Declaration’s arguments about the need to imitate the choices of Jesus Christ in regard to ordained ministers. Furthermore, the decline of ordinations of deaconesses in the Orthodox Churches presents us with an example of a living tradition which has by and large died out. We have the possibility then of a tradition not preserved rather than of a dangerous innovation being added to the Church today. The development of the ordination of women as deaconesses in the Eastern Churches illustrates tellingly the ability of the Church to respond creatively to a new situation which may not have had direct New Testament precedents. The ordination of women as deaconesses shows the freedom which the Byzantine Church perceived for structuring its sacramental ministry to meet the needs of the present.

For many centuries our perception of the ministries of women in the early Church remained undifferentiated. It was not always clear how widows, virgins and deaconesses differed one from the other. The Louvain historian, Roger Gryson, has outlined the history of our gradual understanding of the ministry of women from earliest times." In the course of this research it became clearer and clearer that deaconesses had certain ordained functions, liturgical functions we would say today, which they did not share with virgins or widows as such. The English theologian C.H. Turner has clearly separated out for us what were the roles of widows, virgins and deaconesses in the early Church.(12)

Particular attention has turned to the so-called “church orders” of the early Church, collections of liturgical and disciplinary decisions. In two of these “orders” we have clear descriptions of women being ordained with laying on of hands by a bishop. The Didascalia Apostolorum (II, 26, 6) from the first half of the third century indicates that deaconesses were ordained as deacons were with a proper liturgical imposition of hands (cheirotonia) and that these women had liturgical and pastoral ministries toward other women (though not toward men). Their liturgical “competence” was directed toward assisting in the Baptism of women through anointings. There is no indication that these women were given a commission to preside at the Eucharist. They did receive a sort of extra liturgical commission to care for sick women. But in liturgical rank they enjoyed positions of honor, axiomata, which ranked them only after the bishops, presbyters and deacons.

From the fourth century on references to deaconesses multiplied in the East (except in Egypt). In another church order, the Apostolic Constitutions (V111, 19-22), dated toward the cnd of the fourth century, we have a rite of ordination for deaconesses which mentions cheirotonia. Again, the liturgical functions of these women are restricted to the anointing of women in baptism and the welcoming of women at the door of the church and catechetical instruction. By the end of this century deaconesses were definitely considered part of the clergy; in fact, they were bound by the same strict marriage regulations as other major clerics.

It is sometimes argued by individual Orthodox theologians today that the ceremony of ordination for deaconesses was not truly a sacramental ordination (cheirotonia) but a cheirothesia, in other words not an imposition of hands but a simple blessing. This opinion has been refuted by studies which indicate that prior to the eighth century the two words cheirotonia and cheirothesia were not distinguished but were used interchangeably.(13)

Thc most important liturgical study on this question of the ordination of deaconesses in the Byzantine tradition was recently published in Italian by the liturgical scholar Cipriano Vagaggini, O.S.B., of S. Ansclmo in Rome (an article which hopefully will be soon translated into English).(14) By a minute study of the references in the church orders and especially by thc Byzantine liturgical rite of ordination contained in the Codex Barberiono greco 336 in use in Byzantine circles from the eighth to the fourteenth centuries, Vagaggini has established the important following conclusions: (l) After the distinction cheirotonia and cheirothesia (a simple blessing or ealogia) was introduced, deaconesses were receiving true imposition of hands. (2) The ordination of deaconesses took place at the foot of the altar inside the sanctuary. This rubric was as obligatory as it was for bishops, presbyters and deacons, but forbidden to subdeacons and lectors. (3)The moment of ordination for deaconesses came at the end of the first anaphora, as part of the prayer for distribution of communion. (4) The prayer of petition used in the ordination rite includes the traditional reference to “divine grace” as in the other ordinations. (5) Women were given the deacon’s horarion or stole by the bishop at the end of the cheirotonia. (ó)Deaconesses communicated from chalice right after the deacons, and this communion took place in the sanctuary itself. Vagaggini also notes that some Byzantine traditions allowed the deaconesses to distribute communion in certain circumstances which could be regarded as a form of potestas in eucharistiam(15)

We clearly have much to learn about the traditions of the past. At the same time both East and West need to grow in a more profound understanding of tradition, that it is not simply an inflexible transmission of past principles regardless of the cultures out of which they arose. The Church’s stewardship (oikonomia) requires adaptation to changing pastoral situations. The particular contribution of the Orthodox in this search will be remind us that no single Declaration from a single source can settle what needs to be explored in a synodal fashion.


1. For a history and documentation of the recent Catholic and Orthodox efforts at reunion see the volume, in Greek and French, Tomos Agapis, Vatican—Phanar(1958-1970) (Rome: Vatican City Press, 1971).

2 One of the clearest and most accurate descriptions of this estrangment can be seen in W. de Vries, Les structures ecclésiales vues dans l’histoire des sept premiers conciles oecuméniques (Paris: Cerf, 1974).

3. The weakness of this argument is cited in the text of the Jesuit School Theology at Berkeley, “Letter to the Apostolic Delegate on the Vatican statement about the Ordination of Women,” Origins, 6, No. 42 (April 7, ,77), pp. 661-665, here p. 663.

4. See Towards the Great Council. Introductory Reports . . . (London: SPCK, 19;2). A list of the topics to be explored at the coming council as worked out at the preparatory meeting at Chambésy, Geneva, 21-28 November 1976, is found in Documentation Catho!ique, 74 (16 Jan., 1977), pp. 1-92

5. This text from the Orthodox Herald is reproduced in the Osservatore Romano, June 17, 1975. See also, “Catholics and Russian Orthodox at Trent, 23-28 June 1975,” cited in Osservatore Romano and in Documentation Catholique, 71 (1975), p. 707.

6. Orthodox Observer (New York City), 43 (16 Feb., 1977), p. 1.

7. Women Priests? (Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Press, 1976), p. 1.

8. Ibid.,p. 5

9 “On the Male Character of Christian Priesthood,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 3 (1975), pp. 147-173. See also the strong reactions of the senior Orthodox colleague at the same school, A.Schmemann, “Concerning Woman’s Ordination: A Letter to an Episcopal friend,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Vol. 17 (1973) 239-243.

10. R. A. Norris, Jr., “The Ordination of Women and the ‘Maleness’ of Christ'' Anglican Theological Review, Supplementary Series, Number 6 June 1976), pp. 69-80, especially p. 70.

11. Roger Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, trans. J. Laporte and M. L. Hall (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1976). The French original appeared in 1972. The English translation also contains Gryson’s response to objections of M. Martimort concerning Gryson’s interpretation of the section cited from the Apostolic Constitutions. Martimort is opposed to interpreting these texts as proof of an ordination.

12. C. H. Turner, “Ministries of Women in the Primitive Church: Widow, Deaconess and Virgin in the First Four Christian Centuries,” H N Bate, ed., Catholic and Apostolic (London: Nowbray, 1931), pp. 316-351. A recent reliable work on deaconesses is the article by A. Kalsbach, “Diakonisse,” Reallexikon fürAntike und Christentum, 4 (1959), cols. 917-928.

13. Cyrille Vogel, “Chirotonie et chirothésie. Importance et relativité du geste de l’imposition des mains dans la collation des ordres,” Irénikon, Vol 45 (1972), pp. 7-21; 207-238. For an Orthodox perspective see the article (in Greek) of E. D. Theodoron, “He 'cheirotonia e 'cheirothesia ton diakonisson,” Theologia, Vo. XXV (1954), pp. 430-469; 576-601; Vol. XXVI (1955), pp. 57-76

14. “L’ordinazione delle diaconesse nella tradizione greca e bizantina,” Orientalia Christiana Periodica, Vol. 40 (1974), pp. 145-189. The text of the rite is found on pp. 177-178.

15. Ibid., p. 185; an important summary on pp. 188-189. An interesting study is to compare the text of this Byzantine ritual of ordination for deaconesses with a Romano-German Pontifical text dating from the 10th century available in English translation in J. Massyngberde Ford, “Order for the Ordination of a Deaconess,” Review forReligious, Vol. 33 (1974), pp. 308-314 with documentation of original sources.

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