Back to the beginnings

Back to the beginnings

Women were ‘truly ordained’ as deacons in the early Church, Mary Tanner finds

Review of John Wijngaards’ NO WOMEN IN HOLY ORDERS? The women deacons of the early Church; Canterbury Press £9.99 1-85311-507-X; in THE CHURCH TIMES, 21 March 2003, p. 18.

THIS is a fascinating book: scholarly, very readable, clearly in the Catholic tradition, and honest from the outset about its intention. It is an investigation into the evidence for women deacons in the early Church, in order to see whether they were sacramentally ordained. For, contends Wijngaards, “once the sacra-mentality of women’s diaconate in the past is established, the question regarding women’s ordination to the priesthood will have been resolved in principle.”

The author is clear that, for the Catholic tradition, the orders of ministry cannot easily be separated, and that with the possibility of women receiving sacramental diaconate stands or falls the possibility of women receiving priestly ordination.

Wijngaards admits that there is not enough evidence in the first two centuries to confirm sacramental status for women deacons. Nevertheless, the golden period of the Greek Byzantine Empire is clear. He investigates the manuscripts that preserved the ordination rite, and concludes that, set within the framework of the full Byzantine celebration of the eucharist, women deacons did receive the full sacramental holy order of the diaconate.

He engages at length with the French liturgist Monsignor Aime-Georges Martimort who reaches the opposite conclusion, and challenges him on every point, using evidence from ancient sources. The final section of the book is a detailed and impressive examination of those sources.

Wijngaards concludes, with the Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware, and many others, that women were indeed “truly ordained” as deacons. Moreover, what the Church has done it can do again.

The book is much more than an examination of texts and the refutation of arguments of opponents. It opens a window into the life of the early Church, to ordinations, baptisms and the events of Holy Week. We meet Olympias in Hagia Sophia around the year 400, sense the awe that early Christians felt at the baptisms of new converts, and get a glimpse of the dedicated lives of women deacons from inscriptions on tombs.

The book presents a particular challenge to those opposed to women’s ordination to respond in an equally scholarly way to the evidence set out in this engaging book. As the author says the past needs to be faced up to for the sake of the future.

Dr Mary Tanner
a former Secretary of the Church of England’s Council for Christian Unity.

Go to:

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars’ declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

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