Mary, Phoebe, Sophia: the evidence we can’t ignore

Mary, Phoebe, Sophia: the evidence we can’t ignore

No Women in Holy Orders? The women deacons of the early Church, by JohnWijngaards, Canterbury Press, £9.99.

review by Margaret Hebblethwaite

THE TABLET 26 October 2002, p. 20.

Tablet Bookshop price £9 (see below)

John Wijngaards (whose real name is Hans) is a Dutch priest who resigned in protest at the Church’s current position on women’s ordination. Unlike many resigned priests who have slipped out of sight, he has been exercising a more visible and hard-working ministry than ever before, as a theologian specialising in the question of women priests. His contributions to the subject have been exceptionally valuable, not only because of the solidly Catholic nature of his theology, but also because Wijngaards believes in hiding nothing and in enabling the reader to make up her or his own mind.

A year ago Wijngaards published a classic book, The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church (DLT), which argued convincingly that the ban on women’s priesthood was a “cuckoo’s egg” that did not spring out of Catholic theology but had slipped in as an alien element from secular culture, and particularly from Roman law. It is the best book I know of to date on the subject of women’s ordination – clear-headed, well-informed, fair, logical, and thoroughly Catholic. His new book develops a couple of chapters from the previous book, concerned with just one small aspect of the question -the ordination of women deacons in the early Church – but it exhibits Wijngaards’s habitual method of comprehensive openness, as well as being extremely readable.

This means that the book does not just present Wijngaards’s own view and conclusions, together with the usual critical apparatus of illustrations, glossary, bibliography and notes. It also includes the original texts of all the important documents, in an accurate translation with all the sensitive terms (deacon, deaconess, ordination, etc.) given also in the original Greek. This more than doubles the value of the book, as well as making it much more run to read, for the reader can make up her or his own mind not only on the answers to the questions but also on what the questions should be.

The question that Wijngaards focuses on is “Were the women deacons of the early Church sacramentally ordained?” He argues: “If the diaconate of women was a true diaconate, if it was one valid expression of the sacrament of holy orders, then women did in fact receive holy orders and the priesthood is open to them.” He does not say a great deal to justify the second part of this argument, and I have some doubts about its logical validity.

True, there is a unity among the threefold ministry, in that there is one sacrament of orders and not three. But married priests are not eligible to be ordained to the episcopacy in the Orthodox Church, nor are married permanent deacons in the postconciliar Catholic Church eligible to be ordained to the priesthood. So there is no intrinsic reason why women should have to be eligible for the priesthood if they are eligible for the diaconate. Nor indeed would it follow, if women had not once upon a time been sacrarnentally ordained to the diaconate, that they should not be admitted to holy orders today. I am not convinced, then, that Wijngaards’s question is quite as important as he thinks.

Nor am I as convinced as he is that his question is to be answered by such a thump-ingly positive one-hundred-per-cent “yes”. From the texts it seems evident that women deacons received an ordination comparable to their male counterparts in the Greek-Byzantine Church of the first millennium, but that there were certain differences both in the words and in the resulting ministries. The woman deacon’s ministry was not identical to that of the man deacon’s.

What are to be the criteria for “full sacramental ordination”? If it is a matter of being public, solemn and lifelong, with the laying-on of hands, the invocation of the Holy Spirit, and the placing of a stole, then clearly women’s ordination qualifies. If it is a matter of admitting a woman to a ministry called the diaconate, then again it is clear that women were deacons. But if it is a matter of admitting women to the same ministry as we now mean when we talk about the diaconate, then it is not quite so clear. Why, not even the male deacon’s ministry then was the same as it is today, for then they were not allowed to baptise (cf. Apostolic Constitutions ).

For me there are other important points that emerge from a reading of Wijngaards’s sources, relating to patristic awareness of New Testament women. First, I had never registered that Mary of Magdala and other women in the gospels are called “women deacons” in the third-century Didascalia. For that scriptural reason, says the Didascalia, “the ministry of a woman deacon is especially required and urgent”. What does the Vatican have to say to that?

Secondly, I did not realise that so many patristic sources had drawn attention to the fact that the deacon Phoebe (Rom. 16:1) was quite unambiguously a woman. Modern feminists have drawn attention to her, and have rightly objected to the translation of her title as “deaconess” when the Greek is quite clearly “deacon” – the male noun diakonon (in the accusative case). Phoebe is explicitly invoked as a model in the Greek-Byzantine ordination rite, and there is a fourth-century tombstone in Jerusalem to “the woman deacon Sophia, the second Phoebe”. What is more, the third-century Origen drew a quite explicit lesson: “This text teaches at the same time two things: that there are, as we have already said, women deacons in the Church, and that women, who have given assistance to so many people and who by their good works deserve to be praised by the Apostle, ought to be accepted in the diaconate.” And what does the Vatican have to say to that? Why will it not allow women deacons today? (We know why: because it would be the thin end of the wedge.)

Thirdly, I had no idea that the fourth-century St John Chrysostom had waxed eloquent about the apostle Junia (Rom. 16:7), precisely because she was a woman apostle. (In many translations the name is rendered, possibly wrongly, as “Junias”, to make it sound like a man’s name.) He says: “To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles – just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They [Andronicus and Junia] were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle!” Now what would the Vatican say to that? If bishops are the successors to the apostles, then according to St John Chrysostom’s reading, women could also be bishops.

I have one regret about this work, and that is its final sentence, which speaks of “the final and clinching factor, the factor of historical practice”. Historical practice has been too much invoked as a clinching factor in the argument against women priests, as Wijngaards would be the first to admit. The clinching factor, rather, is the way the theology of one particular question fits into the wider pattern of Christian theology – in relationship to key doctrines such as the incarnation and redemption. And for that the reader would be best advised to read Wijngaards’s earlier book.

Margaret Hebblethwaite

Tablet Bookshop
Postage and Packing. UK & Europe: Add £1 per book (5 books or more: add £5); Rest of the world: £1.50 per book
Call: 01420 592 974 Fax: 01420 888 05
Post: The Tablet Bookshop, Alphonsus House, Chawton,
Hampshire GU34 3HQ, UK.

How to Order Internationally

More information on the ancient Women Deacons?

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.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Please, support our campaign
for women priests

Join our Women Priests’ Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:

An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.