A Resurrecting, Remembering & Re-enacting
Reconstructing the ordination of Women Deacons during the First Millennium
This document is a script for the commentated reconstruction/dramatization of the ancient liturgical rite through which women were ordained as deacons in the Catholic Church. The rite we have derives from the Greek-language, Byzantine part of the Early Church (Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, Cyprus, Crete, South Italy).
Discussion in the Roman Catholic Church on admitting women to Holy Orders has found a new focus. It revolves around a seemingly obsolete historical fact: did the tens of thousands of women ordained as deacons during the first millennium of the Christian era receive a true ordination or not? One of the key arguments the Vatican handles against the ordination of women is the assertion that women were never admitted to Holy Orders. Historians point out they are wrong. For women did receive a valid 'sacramental' ordination to the diaconate, and the diaconate is part of Holy Orders.
According to Catholic doctrine: if women can be deacons, they can be priests, and bishops for that matter. Read a fuller explanation here.
A word about sacrament. According to Catholic terminology, 'sacraments' are signs through which Jesus Christ continues his presence in the Church. Most people are familiar with two sacraments: baptism and the eucharist. The Catholic Church recognises five more sacraments: confirmation, marriage, confession, the anointing of the sick and holy orders. Church Councils (Trent, 16th cent. and Vatican II, 20th cent.) taught the unity of the sacrament of holy orders, with three ministries: the diaconate, the priesthood and the episcopacy.
The model we are here proposing, was celebrated by the Women Priests' Website and the Catholic Women's Ordination UK at St. Jamess Church, Piccadilly, London, on the 18th of January 2003. See review and poem here.
The ceremony has three parts:
- Calling on the first-Millennium Women Deacons to
During the first millennium the Church ordained tens of thousands of women. Many of them are known to us from tombstones, historical records and the calendar of saints. We call on them to testify to their ministry.
- The rite of ordaining a woman
Basing ourselves on what we known from ancient liturgical sources, we reconstruct how women were ordained deacons.
- A woman deacon assisting at the baptism of an
Since assistance at baptism was one of the main tasks of women deacons, we reconstruct what happened and show why it was appropriate that this ministry was performed by women deacons.
Lala Winkley designed the choreography of the celebration.
The photographic illustrations throughout the script were provided by Doreen Wyatt. Please, click on any thumbnail to see its enlargement.
Credits: the script for this part was written by Lala Winkley, based on research by Dr. Mary Ann Rossi and John Wijngaards.
Background reading. For this section read:
- Women deacons in historical records
- Only a rare and local phenomenon?, = chapter 11 in No Women in Holy Orders? The Women Deacons of the Early Church.
[Silence, solemn music to slow crescendo]
[Each woman, at their turn, stands to declaim the given story of the Woman Deacon they are representing and sits when she has finished.]
1. [St. Phoebe]
I am Phoebe, the deacon (diakonos) of the congregation at Cenchreae [ken-cray-ay], a suburb of Corinth. I lived and ministered during the first century. I like to be thought of and maybe remembered by you, my sisters, as what I was, a co-worker of Paul, though later church historians kept trying to describe me as his assistant.
Paul was respectful of us, he admonished the people here in Corinth, telling them " be subject to every co-worker [like me] and labourer."[iCor.16:16ff] He also commended me and other women for our evangelizing and teaching. I was fortunate also to have considerable wealth, which I chose to use to help Paul and the work. My high standing in society also came to his aid on a number of occasions. I was able to carry some of his letters to the Romans, where he liked to introduce me as his co-worker and patron. In fact, I have been graced by being called by many, an apostle. Remember me as his co-worker, an equal partner in the early church.
2. [ Junia]
I am Junia, a woman as you can see, an apostle of the church, working as a deacon with Andronicus, my missionary partner. We became Christians before Paul but we worked together with him and even shared imprisonment with him. Paul in his letters always held us up as outstanding members of the circle of the apostles. Later there was an attempt to change my name to Junias (a Greek masculine name). What could have been the thinking of those who did this? Did they imagine that if they suppressed my true identity of a woman it would make my work more validated ? Maybe ! Well, I greet all you women of today . Be proud to be a woman and thank you for recovering my womanhood and recognition as a true woman apostle.
|[The women who represent deacons wear a scarf (the ancient maphorion) with a purple stole underneath. These two photographs, showing Alison Gelder right and Pia Huber left., are courtesy of John Hatfield.]|
I am Thecla, a woman missionary in Iconium in the 1st century. I was impressed by that fellow, Paul, and what he was asking of us and how we could change our lives. I was of noble birth. I rejected my position and marriage, my fiancee was not pleased! In fact both he and my family became very cruel towards me and persecuted me to the point of condemnation to death. I somehow escaped and accompanied Paul to Antioch. Times then were different I expect, I was once condemned to fight with wild beasts, does that happen now?! I threw myself into a pit of water praying to God for baptism. The beasts after that refused to harm me. I like to think it was more than the odour I gave off. I was set free and again went with Paul to Myra. I preached, healed and baptised. I built a teaching Centre and hospital and inspired many I hope.
4. [St. Nonna -4th c. Cappadocia;]
"I am Nonna, I lived in Cappadocia during the 4th century, you call it Turkey today. I was blessed with marriage to a very good man. His name was Gregory. Though I say it myself, I was responsible for helping Gregory to discover the Christian faith. And how he flew with it. He became a priest, and later was chosen to be the bishop of Nazianzus. I was also ordained to the diaconate. We then worked closely together helping each other in our apostolate."
5. [St. Gorgonia, 4th cent. Cappadocia.]
And I am Gorgonia, daughter of Nonna and Gregory that same Bishop of Nazianzus. I only became a Christian later in life, after I had raised my family. I was baptised and ordained a deacon which led me to convert my house into a shelter where there could be good care for the poor and homeless.
6. [ Maria, from Cappadocia in Asia Minor .] (on TOMB STONE)
"I am also from Cappadocia. My name is Maria, as you can see on my 6th century tombstone. Read it and you will see I was ordained a deacon and how I devoted my life to supporting the poor, welcoming strangers, washing the feet of all the needy and caring for orphan children. Though my name has been lost for 1600 years, I bring greetings to you all from my name sake of Magdala."
7. [ St. Macrina of Cappadocia.]
I am Macrina, also from 4th century Bythinia. After my mother died I helped with the raising of my nine siblings. I could only begin my own ministry as a deacon when that was job was completed. I worked as a deacon in a town called Annisa of Pontus. Two of my brothers were to become Bishops. One was Basil, some called him Basil the Great. Oh dear he wasnt that great, still, well maybe great, sometimes. I should know: I raised and educated him. The other was Gregory. He became bishop of Nyssa. He was a good husband to Theosebia, who was also a deacon. I was rather unusual for my time too, for I was an excellent theologian. I was only 20 when I felt an overwhelming urge to set up a religious community for women. I know I influenced my brothers. Basil modelled his monasteries on the one I started, but for men of course, and Gregory was a good scholar. He helped translate the Scriptures and included our thinking on the Holy Spirit in the Creed. So if these advantaged men attend to what insights we women can give them, they can be really inspiring.
8. [ St. Theosebia, Bythinia.]
"A number of us you will find come from Bythinia in Asia Minor on the Black Sea. Today you call our country Turkey. I am Theosebia, born in the 4th century. I married Gregory, brother of Macrina, priest, theologian and later Bishop of Nissa. I was ordained a deacon and did much catechesis, ministering to catechumens learning the faith, I baptised them. Also, as a deacon, I did a lot of visiting and serving the sick in their homes."
9 .[ Lampadia of Pontus].
"I am Lampadia also serving as deacon in Pontus in Asia Minor with my good friend Macrina. My ministry as an ordained woman deacon took place in the 4th century. I focussed my attention of ministering to women in their homes."
10. [ Eugenia; Bithynia]
"And I too am from Bithynia in Asia Minor. My name is Eugenia. I lived in Gargathis in the 4th century. I was ordained a deacon and worked for all, caring for the poor and nursing their sick. I would take them communion and anoint them when they were dying. I think they found my healing ministry helpful."
11. [ Martyrs of Bithynia .]
"There were two women deacons whose names have been expunged by Roman authority. They were leaders of their local Christian community in Bithynia during the second century AD. They were tortured by the Roman Governor, Pliny the Younger, in 112 AD. I ask you to remember their nameless witness.
12. [Leta, Presbytera, a Priest, in Tropea, Italy.5th C.]
I am Leta. I served as a priest in a small town in Italy that has revealed many ancient secrets and testimonies. See the inscription on my tombstone, Leta, the Presbyter lived 40 years, 8 months, and 9 days, for whom her husband set up this tomb. My husband referred to himself as Maritus(husband). Some have suggested that I was the wife, not the priest of Tropea. But if that were so, my husband would have called himself presbyter not maritus. Proof is there, my priesthood cannot be denied any longer. I honour you who are priests too and you who are called but denied the chance to try your vocation.
13. [Theodora, Bishop, [Mosaic in the church of St.Praxedis].
I am Theodora, Episcopa (Bishop). My image may be seen today in the Church of St. Praxedis in Rome. A scholar of your time, Joan Morris has helped to redeem my story and my connection with that Church. The Pudens Family, known by Paul (2 Timothy 4:21) used their home as a house church later to become one of the earliest church buildings. St.Pudentiana of the family and St. Praxedis in the same mosaic, were brave, endangered leaders of house churches before Christianity was legalized in 313 A.D. Let us honour them. You will see me in this mosaic with a square halo, indicating that I was living at the time it was made, 820 A.D. St. Praxedis of the Pudens household, 700 years earlier is standing next to me. We are both wearing our episcopal crosses. I, Theodora, am veiled in white, with my name inscribed and my title above my head: Episcopa , the use of the feminine Latin-ending means a bishop who is a woman. I give you all my episcopal blessing.
14. [St. Apollonia-3c.Alexandria;]
"I am Apollonia. I was ordained a deacon in Alexandria, a wonderful city in Egypt, during the 3rd century. It was however a perilous time for Christians, for many were being persecution with awful cruelty. I too was brought to trial. When I refused to worship the pagan gods, I was handed over to a lynch mob who, I know, enjoyed beating me up, eventually killing me by pushing me into a fire. A terrible death. I died for what I believed in.
15. [Sophia- Jerusalem; (on TOMB STONE).
"I am Sophia from Palestine. I was a 4th century religious sister as well as an ordained deacon. I was much honoured, for on my tomb stone, over there, was written the name the people of my community often called me, namely their second Phoebe .
16. [Eneon Jerusalem] (on TOMB STONE).
"I too was a deacon in Jerusalem during the 4th century. My name is Eneon, daughter of Neoiketis. I served as a deacon in our local hospital. I especially cared for the sick and dying, bringing them communion and anointing them, as it says on my tombstone over there.
17. [Theoprepia Macedonia ] (on TOMB STONE).
"I am Theoprepia, from Macedonia in Greece. I lived in the 4th century in a religious monastery, but I was also ordained a deacon so that I could serve at the local parish church. I was able to support and guide many people. You know of me because my tombstone was by chance not destroyed. Only about 32 of all the thousands of women serving as deacons are similarly identified. Could it be that some in the long history of the church and even today do not want us and our contribution to the life of the church remembered and honoured?
18. [Athanasia-Delphi] (TOMB STONE).
"I am Athanasia, also from Greece but I came from Delphi in the 5th century. Bishop Pantamianos ordained me a deacon to assist with the baptism of many women who were joining the Christian Church. Read my epitaph on my tombstone over there. The Bishop erected it and was most insistent about the wording. He honoured me greatly.
Much of my work was also caring for the poor. It was important, as many of you know here, to bring both material and spiritual relief to the sick and dying.
19. [St. Xenia, Kos.]
"I was born in Rome under the name Eusebia during the 5th century. My father was a Roman magistrate. When my family wanted to force me to marry, I escaped in a shabby pilgrims dress and landed up in Kos, a Greek island. I adopted the name "Xenia", it means: "stranger". Bishop Paul of Milasa ordained me a deacon. I found much of my ministry was with others also escaping a cruel homeland. People are seeking refuge in your country just now, I am hearing, I hope some among you are strengthened in you ministry as I was with the blessing of ordination.
20. [St. Olympias-4c.Constantinople; ]
"I am Olympias, born in Constantinople in the 4th century. I was ordained a deacon by Patriarch Nektarios and became coordinator of the women deacons attached to the cathedral of Hagia Sophia. I was a firm ally of St. John Chrysostom's when he resisted attempts by the Emperor to interfere in Church affairs. When John was sent into exile, I supported his cause publicly, in spite of persecution by State officials. I was also instrumental in continuing the running of the cathedral. Naturally, we proved perfectly capable.
21. [St. Domnika- Rome/Alexandria/Constantinople]
"I am Domnika, born in Rome during the 4th century. I migrated to Alexandria where I became a Christian. I also learned the art of medicine. I resettled in Constantinople, where Patriarch Nektarios saw fit to ordained me a deacon. My ministry consisted mainly in healing and spiritual guidance as I know do many of you.
22. [St. Poplia]
"I am Poplia, from that rich cultural city, Antioch in Syria, 4th century. I was married and had a son. When I had been ordained a deacon only a short while, persecution broke out under Emperor Julian. I was able to council many, strengthening them in their faith and resolve and then my turn came, I was tortured by Roman soldiers for refusing to relinquish my beliefs. Be strong my friends, all such abuse from those in authority is very undermining but we can stay strong, especially if we engage in action together.
23. [St. Melania the Younger, travelled.]
"I am Melania the Younger, 4th century from Rome. I was married and had two children. Later in life I travelled to Egypt. I was ordained a deacon, and finally settled in Jerusalem. There I spent much time studying and teaching Scripture, and organising the copying of the Bible. Many intellectuals were converted to Christ by my work."
24. [ St. Genevieve, Paris]
"I am Genevieve, 6th century, Paris in France. As an ordained woman deacon my chief service was to women catechumens whom I instructed and prepared for baptism. When Viking longboats approached the city of Paris, I went out to plead with them. They turned away. I am still recognised today as the patron saint of Paris."
25. [ St. Radegunde- Poitier, France.]
"I am Radegunde. I lived in 6th century Thuringia in France. I tried to escape marriage but was forced to wed King Clothaire when I was eighteen. My husband, the King, was a frightening, violent man. Eventually I escaped from him and I managed to get to Poitiers where Bishop Medardus of Noyon ordained me a deacon. I used my wealth to found a convent and I am really pleased because it became in time a great school of womens learning. My monastery was also a "free" convent over which not even the local bishop had any authority. Our work was dedicated to peacemaking, something much needed in that Frankish Kingdom, and I understand, much needed with you all, especially at this time.
26. [ Martyrs of Persia.]
"I represent the seven women deacons who died for their faith in Persia during the 5th century, together with their Bishop Abdjesus, and a group of priests, male deacons and monks and nuns. We were massacred. The lands of the Indus valley are burdened with such killings today. We remember them.
27. [ Women Deacons from Greece.]
"I represent the women deacons who ministered in Greece, many of whose names we know from historical records: Agaliasis of Melos, Agrippiane of Patras, Posidonia and Agathe of Philippi, Agathokleia and Theodosia of Edessa, and many, many, many other loving, erudite, capable leaders whose names have been allowed to be erased from our memories. Was it because they were women?
28. [ Women Deacons in the West.]
"I represent the women deacons who ministered in parishes of Italy, France and Britain from the fourth to the ninth centuries. In particular: Anna of Rome, Ausonia of Doclea, Theodora of Ticini in Gaul, whose names have been recorded. Let us remember also those with no record.
[All the women deacons now say together:]
29. On this auspicious occasion let us not conclude without also remembering those later women who were Mountains in their time, yet rarely respected for the valiant work they have done and continue to do today for Christianity: Julian of Norwich, Margaret of Scotland, 11thc. Brigitta of Sweden, 14thc. Hilda of Whitby, Hildegard of Bingen, the Theresas of both Avila and Lisieux, Catherine of Sienna, and women who have started and led many congregations of women, initiating work that needed to be done often against heavy odds. We honour too women who are now serving as ordained deacons in the Anglican Tradition, many of whom are also priests. Especially we pray for Una Kroll, Priest Anchorite in Monmouthshire, and lay woman Monica Furlong who died this week. They with such inspiring dedication and humour took on this cry for justice at the beginning of this period of struggle in this country.
Sing, She is like a mountain/Tall and strong/She goes on and on and on/She is like a mountain/ tall and strong /She goes on and on and on/ She is like a Mountain/ Tall and strong/ She goes on and on and on ..cont.
The script for this section was written by John Wijngaards, choreography by Lala Winkley.
Background reading for this section:
- Women were sacramentally ordained
- The Rite in Barberini Gr. 336
- The Rite of ordaining a woman deacon, = chapter 4 in No Women in Holy Orders? The Women Deacons of the Early Church.
Commentator; [from an ambo at the side with mike.]
From apostolic times, sacred ministers have been enrolled into their services by ordination. The apostles prayed and laid their hands on them (Acts 6,6). This practice has continued throughout the centuries until our own day. The deaconate has always been part of the Churchs sacramental order, even if there have been changes in the diaconate ministry from one period to the next.
During the first millennium not only men, women too were ordained as deacons. This is a crucial fact for Church reform today. For one of the key arguments the Vatican Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith offers against the ordination of women is the assertion that women were never admitted to Holy Orders. Well, they are wrong. Women did receive a valid sacramental ordination to the deaconate.
Since the Council of Trent, the Church acknowledges one sacrament of Holy Orders. If women were deacons, they can be priests too and bishops for that matter.
The ordination rite we will reconstruct is found in the ancient ordination rituals used by bishops. The rite is confirmed by manuscripts in major libraries: Oxford, Paris, Cairo, Athens, Mount Athos and Rome. [All the texts are published in full in John Wijngaards book: No Women in Holy Orders? The Women Deacons of the Early Church.] From contemporary records we know that at any one time, thousands of women served their parishes as deacons.
In the ancient Catholic liturgy of the Greek-speaking part of the Church, a sacred screen, the so-called iconostatis that is, icon bearing screen divided the body of the Church, where the faithful were, from the sanctuary which surrounded the altar. This screen was about six feet high. It owed its name to the icons of Christ, Mary and the Apostles that adorned its front
[All making up the screen slowly turning to their left, coming to face forward and the people, still remaining in the line. Hold stance very still and in silence for a little while to gain the significance of this and the women present.]
For our purposes today our iconostatis is to be constructed of those representing our remembered women who were called to the diaconate in the period of the 1st Millennium but kept in the lost silence of their tombs. Instead of paintings hung on the screen of Christ, Mary and the apostles, we see the faces of women of today the 3rd Millennium, our icons, women who are working, though so often unrecognised and still un-named, as deacons serving our church today.
2.2 The opening of the sacred screen
[The row of women deacons splits in the middle and the two flanks of women walk right and left, so opening the doors of the iconostatis. The women turn sideways so that they can see what is happening in the sanctuary.]
We see the bishop standing before the altar with the archdeacon on his left side. The ordination ritual is on a lectern before the bishop. In this reconstruction, the actions of bishop, archdeacon and ordinand are mimed. What they say is spoken by voices overhead.
While the commentator speaks, the archdeacon leaves the sanctuary, seeks out the woman candidate at the back of the church and brings her slowly up into the sanctuary.
The ordination took place after the readings and the homily, at the heart of the Eucharistic celebration. The ritual tells us: After the sacred offertory, the doors [of the sanctuary] are opened and, before the [arch]deacon starts the litany of All Saints, the woman who is to be ordained deacon is brought up.
It is significant that women deacons were ordained in the sanctuary, before the altar. This was done, not only to indicate the deacons access to the altar, but to mark the ordination as one of the major orders, to distinguish it from minor ministries such as the sub-deaconate and the lectorate. The fourth-century Father of the Church, Theodore of Mopsuestia, explains that readers, sub-deacons and-so-on were ordained in the sacristy. Only bishops, priests and deacons were ordained within the sanctuary because they minister to sacred things.
For the sake of this reconstruction we call todays ordinand Sophia.
2.3 The public election of the candidate
[The candidate comes up to the bishop, makes a bow to him, makes a deep bow to the altar on the right hand of the bishop, then turns round to face the congregation. The archdeacon stands on the left side of the bishop.]
Women deacons were ordained before the whole congregation and in the presence of the priests, deacons and deaconesses (Apostolic Constitutions; 380 AD). This public character of the ceremony marked the ordination as one of the higher orders. Moreover, a study of the procedure at ancient ordinations shows that a public election of the new minister belonged to the ordination itself. Bishops, priests and deacons were publicly designated through the so called Divine Grace proclamation through which the bishop announced that so-and-so was elected to this-or-that ministry in a specified locality. This proclamation was only used for the major orders.
Divine Grace which always heals what is infirm and completes what is missing chooses Sophia to be deacon of this parish. Let us therefore pray for her that the grace of the Holy Spirit may descend upon her.
Amen! Lord, have mercy on us!
2.4 First ordination prayer
The bishop signs the candidates forehead three times with the sign of the cross, then lays his right hand on her head.
Throughout the centuries the actual ordination was performed by the imposition of hands accompanied by the invocation of the Holy Spirit. In the text that now follows, notice how clearly and explicitly the ministry of the deaconate is bestowed upon her.
Holy and Omnipotent Lord, through the birth of your Only Son our God from a Virgin according to the flesh, you have sanctified the female sex. You grant not only to men, but also to women the grace and coming down from above of the Holy Spirit.
Please, Lord, look on this your maidservant and dedicate her to the work of your deaconate, and pour out into her the rich and abundant giving of your Holy Spirit.
Preserve her so that she may always perform her ministry with orthodox faith and irreproachable conduct, according to what is pleasing to you. For to you is due all glory and honour.
Amen! Amen! Amen!
Notice that the granting of the ministry to a woman, is justified with an appeal to the fact that in Christ, God has sanctified the female sex. The bishop knows what he is doing. Clearly and explicitly he calls down the Holy Spirit on the woman for the ministry of the deaconate. She is therefore sacramentally ordained. Note also that the laying on of hands is performed for all the faithful to see and the sacramental prayer is said aloud for the whole congregation to hear and is endorsed by them.
2.5 The Intercessions
[ The person acting the archdeacon steps forward and mimes as if he is reading from a sheet of paper]
The archdeacon now intones a long litany of intercessions. We will only listen to a part of it since it mentions the newly ordained woman deacon among prayers for the clergy.
Archdeacons voice [sings]
For heavenly peace and the welfare of the whole universe, let us pray the Lord.
People (sung response)
Lord have mercy.
Archdeacons voice [sings]
For our Archbishop, for his priesthood, help, perseverance, peace, well-being, health and the works of his hands, let us pray the Lord.
People (sung response)
Lord have mercy.
Archdeacons voice [sings]
For Sophia, who has just been ordained deacon, and for her salvation, let us pray the Lord.
People (sung response)
Lord have mercy.
Archdeacons voice [sings]
That the most merciful Lord may give her a sincere and faultless deaconate, let us pray the Lord.
People (sung response)
Lord have mercy.
2.6 Second imposition of hands and ordination prayer
[The bishop still imposes his hand on Sophias head.]
The bishop who still imposes his right hand on Sophias head, now says a second ordination prayer. Only the three major orders have two ordination prayers. Note also that candidates of minor ministries were only blessed. Only a true ordination contained the invocation of the Holy Spirit.
Lord, Master, you do not reject women who dedicate themselves to you and who are willing, in a becoming way, to serve your Holy House, but admit them to the order of your ministers.
Grant the gift of your Holy Spirit also to this your maidservant who wants to dedicate herself to you, and fulfil in her the work and the office of the ministry of the deaconate, as you have granted to Phoebe the grace of your deaconate, whom you had called to the work of this ministry.
Grant her, Lord, that she may persevere without guilt in your Holy Temple, that she may carefully guard her behaviour, especially her modesty and temperance. Moreover, make your maidservant perfect, so that, when she will stand before the judgement seat of your Christ, she may obtain the worthy fruit of her excellent conduct, through the mercy and humanity of your Only Son.
This second ordination prayer by itself, with the imposition of hands, would constitute a complete sacramental ordination. Why have two ordination prayers? Probably because in the case of bishops, priests and deacons the Church wanted to make sure that the sacrament had been truly imparted!
[The archdeacon fetches a large tray with a deaconate stole lying on it. He offers it to the bishop who imposes it on the deacon, lifting her veil and sliding it under her veil over her shoulders with the two extremities hanging down in front.]
According to ancient practice, the newly ordained minister now received the diaconate stole, the distinctive vestment by which she could be recognised as a deacon. The ritual explains that the stole should rest on the deacons shoulders, under her veil, but with the two extremities hanging in front so that people could see it.
Only ordained deacons were allowed to wear the diaconate stole. The fourth-century Council of Laodicea forbade subdeacons, readers or singers to wear it, and threatened non-ordained persons who presumed to wear the stole with excommunication.
[The doors of the sacred screen are closed for a while].
The ordination itself is almost completed. Now the central eucharistic functions begin with the various rites characteristic of the ancient liturgy. The sacred screen is closed. Only the bishop and the clergy are in the sanctuary. The newly ordained woman deacon also remains in the sanctuary. We pick up the ordination again at the time of Holy Communion.
The doors of the sacred screen will only be opened when the people receive Holy Communion. For this reconstruction we will open the screen now to show what happened in the sanctuary.
[The doors of the sacred screen are opened.]
At that time it was the custom, as it still is in the Orthodox Church today, for the faithful to receive holy communion from a chalice in which the bread had been soaked in the wine. Part of this mixture was given them on the tongue with a spoonlet. The priests and deacons on the other hand received communion under two species and directly from the bishop. This also applied to the newly ordained woman deacon. She would bow before the bishop who would give her communion under both kinds.
[The woman deacon bows before the bishop. He holds the tray with sacred bread in his left hand and puts part of the bread into her hands. Before he does so she kisses his right hand.]
To you, deacon Sophia, is imparted the precious, holy and immaculate Body of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, unto forgiveness of your sins and unto life eternal.
The bishop takes the chalice from the archdeacon and offers the chalice to the woman deacon to drink from. Before he does so she kisses his right hand. Afterwards the archdeacon takes the chalice away.
Unto you, minister of God, deacon Sophia, is imparted the precious and holy Blood of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, unto forgiveness of your sins and unto life eternal.
It is highly significant that the new woman deacon was present in the sanctuary with the other clergy, that she was given the host on her hand by the bishop as her male colleagues were, and that she drank from the chalice as they did.
2.9 Handing over of the chalice with bread soaked in wine
Now a special rite was added. For it was customary for a new male deacon to be introduced to his task by making him share in the distribution of Holy Communion to the laity. The woman deacon did not normally distribute communion in church. It was the male deacon who assisted the bishop or priest at the altar simply because in most parishes there were only two ministers, and it would not be proper for a priest and woman deacon to be screened off from the congregation for any length of time. Women deacons brought communion to the sick.
To show that the woman deacon too received the ministry of distributing communion, the bishop handed her the chalice with its mixture of bread and wine. The ancient rite tells us: At the time of the partaking of the sacred mysteries, the woman deacon shares of the divine body and blood with the other deacons. When the newly ordained has taken part of the precious body and blood herself, the bishop hands her the holy vessel. She accepts it and, without distributing it to others, puts it back on the holy altar. Hereby she was empowered to have access to the altar and to distribute communion.
[Other women deacons now enter the sanctuary and congratulate the newly ordained deacon. Meanwhile the commentator speaks.]
Thus we conclude that the ordination rite of a woman deacon was a full ordination.
- Publicly performed within the sanctuary,
- with the proclamation of election by divine Grace,
- followed by the imposition of hands with two explicit ordination prayers each calling down the Holy Spirit for this ministry,
- and the investing of the diaconate stole
- and the handing over of the chalice of holy communion: It all proves without doubt that women deacons did receive the full sacramental holy order of the deaconate. Moreover, male deacons were ordained with exactly the same rite of ordination and no one has ever called their sacramentality into question.
Let us round off with the words of the Council of Trent:
If anyone says that, through sacred ordination, the Holy Spirit is not given, and that therefore the bishop says in vain: Receive the Holy Spirit, or that through this ordination the character [of holy orders] is not imprinted . . . , Let him be anathema.
Amen! Amen! Amen Amen[applaud]
The script for this section was written by John Wijngaards, choreography by Lala Winkley.
[We see the outlines of a baptismal font on the floor. The bishop stands in front, the newly ordained woman deacon at his side.]
During the first millennium the sacrament of baptism had a far more prominent place in Christian life than it has in our own day. Through baptism new believers entered Christs Kingdom. Thousands and thousands of adults were baptised every year.
Catechumens went through a long period of preparation: of instructions, prayers and exorcisms, of fasting and penance, of examinations and personal guidance. Here women deacons played a role, especially regarding the women. In this reconstruction of their ministry we will focus on the last phase: baptism itself.
After final exhortations and a renouncing of the devil, the catechumens were taken to the baptistery. The bishop would baptise the men first, assisted by a male deacon. Then the women too were led into the baptistery.
[The first millennium women deacons come from the body of the church and form a half crescent round the baptistry area, symbolising the screen round the baptistry.]
Ancient baptisteries were like small ponds, sunk into the pavement, with steps leading into the water. The area around the font was screened off so that the baptising minister and catechumen enjoyed some privacy. In this reconstruction we will use our women deacons again to represent that screen.
The officiating bishop would take up position at the entrance to the baptistery. He would anoint the female catechumen with a sign of the cross on her forehead, speaking an exorcism.
Be anointed [Agatha] with the oil of gladness which overcomes all violence of the enemy and by which you will be protected in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Then the woman deacon would take her into the baptistry itself. There she would help the catechumen strip herself of all her clothes and ornaments. She would untie the womans hair to ensure that nothing partaking of an alien spirit should descend with her into the water of second birth.
3.4 Anointing with the oil of catechumens
The woman deacon pours some (imaginary) oil from a larger jar into a small phial which she can hold in her left hand. Pouring some oil on her right hand, she begins symbolically to anoint the naked catechumen over every part of her body.
The woman deacon would pour some oil from a small phial onto her right hand. She would anoint the naked catechumen over every part of her body. Ancient rubrics leave no doubt about both the stripping and the anointing being total. The person to be baptised is stripped naked . . . All silver and gold ornaments, and clothes, are taken off . . . Anoint that person on breast, arms, stomach, back, in the middle of both hands, etc.
The anointing was itself an exorcism, implying a healing from all evil related to the body. It is obvious that no part could be omitted. The massaging of the aromatic oil on the skin of body and limbs, culminating in the rubbing of the oil on the scalp and the hair, was a deeply satisfying sensual experience, a feeling of being totally vulnerable and yet wonderfully wanted. It evoked emotions of utter cleansing, of being wholly accepted body and soul, of being moulded for rebirth in a new life. The anointing of a woman in this intimate way demanded the service of another woman. Moreover, since it was such a key ceremony within holy baptism itself, it required with preference the service of a woman minister who had been ordained for this function.
3. 5 The baptism itself
The woman deacon now led the catechumen down the steps, from the west to the east, so that the catechumen faced east. In the middle, the font was about waist deep. The woman deacon would also descend into the font. For men, this was a function which the main baptiser, the bishop or the priest, would do himself, namely, to immerse the catechumen three times, using a trinitarian formula.
For women the immersion was done by the woman deacon while the baptismal formula was usually spoken by the bishop or priest who stood outside the baptistry, or perhaps behind a curtain inside the baptistry.
This handmaid of God [named Agatha] is baptised in the name of the Father.
Woman Deacons voice
[The woman deacon performs a second immersion of the catechumen.]
This handmaid of God [named Agatha] is baptised in the name of the Son.
Woman Deacons voice
[The woman deacon performs a third immersion of the catechumen.]
This handmaid of God [named Agatha] is baptised in the name of the Spirit.
Woman Deacons voice
Imagine the physical excitement of the sign applied to the catechumen. Though mentally prepared, she would still feel the shock of chest and face being plunged into the cool water, head and hair totally submerged, then coming up gasping for breath and dripping. And this happened three times! Immersed in God! Frightening like being enclosed in a tomb, and yet strangely thrilling and invigorating. Here was a sacrament whose symbolism was imprinted on the memory.
The woman deacon would now help the newly baptised woman step out of the font, walking towards the East. There she would receive her, welcome her, in the words of the ancient texts. This meant: dry her with a towel. Again, we should appreciate the exhilarating experience for the newly baptised. The woman deacon would gently rub her limbs dry, seeing to it that the oil that had soaked into the skin would still cling to it, making the neophyte feel healthy and whole and new all over. She would dry and comb her hair, thus completing a spiritual grooming that sealed the new Christians admission into the community of faith.
The woman deacon would now dress her in a white robe, saying a prayer:
Woman Deacons voice
The handmaid of God [Agatha] is clothed with the garment of righteousness, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
3.8 Anointing with chrism
[The woman deacon leads the neophyte to the bishops who imposes chrism on her forehead.]
The woman deacon then conducted her to the bishop. The bishop anoints a sign of the cross on her forehead with holy chrism, a special oil mixed with herbs and blessed for the purpose.
The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit!
3.9 Welcome by the community
[The woman deacon introduces the neophyte to members of the congregation who embrace her. Meanwhile the commentator speaks:]
At the completion of the baptismal ceremonies, the newly baptised were welcomed by the other members of the Christian community. As St. John Chrysostom tells us:
When the neophytes emerge from the sacred waters, all the congregation embraces them, greets them, gives them the kiss, congratulates them, and shares their joy. For once they were slaves and captives, now they have in an instant become free persons, children invited to the royal table. As soon as they ascend from the waters, they are led to the awesome table, the source of a thousand favours [that is: the altar], they taste the body and the blood of the Lord and become the dwelling of the Spirit: they are clothed with Christ himself and, as such, everywhere they go, they appear, like terrestrial angels, as radiant as a burst of sunlight.
It is clear from this sketch how important the role was which women deacons played during the baptismal liturgy. The female deacon was not the main celebrant, but like her male counterpart, assisted the bishop or priest in administering this crucial sacrament. She was associated with the most sacred moments of baptism, the anointing and the immersions. It is understandable that the Church ordained ministers who had been sacramentally dedicated to this task.
See also the script for the simple model!
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