by Dorothea McEwan

Review of John Wijngaards: No Women in Holy Orders? The Women Deacons of the Early Church, Canterbury Press, 2002, £9.99; in RENEW (2003) March, pp. 5-6.

The book is a first class example of a very well observed custom in the R.C. church: those who do not conform are left standing in the cold. Extra muros, outside, people are not heard and try as they might, cannot become audible to those who are inside, whose ears and eyes and minds remain firmly shut. And yet, church history is blessed with examples of people who were serious in their religious practice and who, because of the time and place and circumstances they found themselves in, started to point to practices more in tune with the Christian gospel than opinions proclaimed by the rulers of the church. St. Francis springs to mind, whose views on poverty and action were condemned at first and took many years to be accepted; but there were and there are many others, individuals, parents, founders of orders, congregations, politicians, scholars, educators, communicators, healers, thinkers, campaigners, who, by their insights and convictions, were and are able to change religious thinking and practice.

Will the scholarship presented in this book suffer the same fate? Will this comprehensive survey be taken seriously and be the springboard for a metanoia of the clerical legislators? The author has brought together a rich panoply of examples of the ordination of women deacons in the Eastern Church in the first thousand years of Christianity conveying the message so cherished by the church: there is a tradition for ordaining women. It happened over many centuries and it therefore can be re-activated. The establishment of ordained women deacons in the Western Church now would simply follow this tradition.

Wijngaards’s methodical treatment of ancient sources is an extremely helpful tool for pursuing further research. Clear footnotes – at the end of the page and not at the end of the chapter – are helpful, a bibliography, glossary and index, in English and Greek, make one feel at home in a scholarly piece of research. The really important work, bringing together passages from 33 manuscript sources, ranging from St. Paul to the Xenophon Codex in the 14th century, will mark this book out as a must for any further discussion on the ordination of women to the sacramental diaconate.

By quoting ancient texts, by putting them into the context of local and contemporary church practice, Wijngaards presents a tapestry of texts, meticulously comparing the wording of the ordination rite for male deacons with the wording of the ordination rite for women deacons. It is very illuminating to have both texts side by side, as the reader can see that the texts are near identical. Whilst male deacons assisted the bishop and were ordained to do so by the laying on of hands, women deacons assisted the bishop in the work with women catechumens and baptised women; the ordination rite for women deacons was also conferred by the laying on of hands. What is especially valuable in Wijngaards’s book is a short history of the development of the sacrament of orders. He contrasts the clear remit of women deacons with modern scholarship which denies the task and thereby robs women of their status, of having been ordained following the laws of the church.

The role women deacons played – often wrongly translated or rendered in Western writing as ‘deaconesses’ – was that of having access to Christian women in non-Christian households, of ministering to sick women in their home, something a man could not have done. Their work was intimately bound up with healing, seeing and touching women’s bodies. As such, the cultural context is very important, the heritage of the mores of classical antiquity in the Mediterranean basin. Wijngaards does not refer to the Jewish custom of the mikvehs, women’s baths, where women attendants played an important role in washing women and supervising their immersion. It would be important to research whether the Jewish practice was followed and enlarged by the Christian communities. I mention this only as an example of the cultural context in which both religions functioned, which made it necessary that women minister to women in an accepted and ordained ministry.

The fact that there were fully ordained women deacons in the Eastern church is irrefutable. The question, however, is why this practice was not seen as necessary in the Western church? Why did it not take root or, if it had taken root in Greek-speaking Christian communities in Italy, why was it not practised in the non-Greek speaking Christian communities? Why was it allowed to wither away in the Eastern church? One can only wish for a companion study, as the ordination to the diaconate is, of course, only one ordination from which women are now barred in the Eastern as well as the Western church. What about the texts in which women featured as ‘presbyterai’, elders, the same title as priests? There were texts which expressly forbade the practice of women to continue as priests, consequently there were women who functioned as priests. Why was the priesthood of women discontinued and more importantly, when circumstances of pastoral care and educational opportunities are radically different, what is stopping the church today from ordaining women to the episcopacy, priesthood and diaconate? And what is stopping us using first-rate scholarship like Wijngaards’s, to act on our conscience and put right what is obviously wrong?

The first poster for the Decade on Women, proclaimed by the World Council of Churches to run from 1985 to 1995, featured the famous peristyle in the Acropolis. There women were carrying the roof of the building on their heads. I can do no better than quote the words of Reverend Ana Karin Hammar, one of the main leaders for the Decade: ‘Sisters, let’s walk!’

Dorothea McEwan

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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.

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