Review by Pat Pinsent

No Women in Holy Orders?
The Women Deacons of the Early Church

by John Wijngaards , Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2002

Reviewed by Pat Pinsent in Network no 73 (March 2003) pp. 18 – 19.

There are, I would guess, relatively few Roman Catholic women whose ambition is to become deacons. No doubt many of those who are already carrying out the service associated with deacons, such as preparing converts for baptism, bringing the eucharist to the sick, and performing the ministry of the word at Mass, might wish to see their service recognised by the church in a formal way, but whereas to encounter women who say `I want (or would have liked) to be a priest’ is not too rare, I have yet to meet a woman who has said, `I want to be a deacon.’ Why then should John Wijngaards write a book assembling the evidence that during the first millennium a number of women, especially in the Byzantine rite of the Catholic church, were formally ordained to this ministry? Isn’t this a matter for the ecclesiastical archaeologists rather than for advocates of the priesthood for women?

The answer lies in the fact that, at least since the Council of Trent in 1563, most theologians regard the sacrament of Holy Orders as a unity, so that if women can validly be admitted to ordination at one level, the diaconate, they are equally admissible to the others, the priesthood and the episcopate. Hence proving that there really existed women deacons, ordained in a rite virtually identical to that for male deacons, is a very substantial step towards showing that women can be ordained to the priesthood. And this book by John Wijngaards amasses a formidable dossier of evidence to justify the case.

People today may find it difficult to understand why, in a society where women must have had few opportunities, a church in which the power has always lain in male hands should bother to ordain women to the diaconate. Couldn’t male deacons have done the job just as well? To say this would be to display ignorance of a society in which men would find it difficult to minister to women when they were sick. More notably, the rite of baptism for adult catechumens involved the anointing and immersion of people who had been stripped of all clothes and ornaments. In a period during which many adults were received into the church and baptised, it would have been unthinkable for men to have performed this kind of intimate service to women.

Hence female deacons were ordained to fulfil this duty. Some historians have however alleged that even if women were ordained as `deaconesses’, the rite was a limited one and not in itself sacramental in the same way as that for male deacons, generally regarded as en route to the priesthood.

Wijngaards’ careful assemblage and provision in this book of a range of texts documenting rituals from the fourth century onwards, together with the comparison which is made between the words and actions performed over male and female ordinands, makes it very difficult to deny the equal sacramentality of the ceremony ordaining the women. He has also collected a considerable number of references to the way in which the women deacons should behave. They should not be addicted to gossip or drink and must have a good reputation, not mingling with unsatisfactory company. Several Councils forbid women to be ordained before the age of forty (although a man could be ordained from the age of twenty-five), while one sixth-century code requires them to be at least fifty.

On the basis of these documents and others, Wijngaards offers a systematic refutation of the arguments of those who claim that women had only a minor role in baptism, did not take part in the anointing of the sick, and were in effect a superior form of nun. The fact that they were ordained in the sanctuary, in a public ceremony, with two ordination prayers, invoking the Holy Spirit, should dispel any suspicions that the bishops involved in such rites meant the rituals to count for something inferior to the ordination conferred on male deacons.

In spite of the weight of scholarship, this is not a dull book. What makes it live is the fact that it is a memorial to the unknown women deacons who faithfully and obscurely performed a function for the church which, as the years went by and society changed, was no longer needed. Fewer adult women sought baptism, while access to the sick became easier for male clerics, so, as is always the custom, women were presumably told that their service was no longer needed! Their funeral inscriptions show the esteem in which sixth-century they were held; for instance, one from Cappodocia reads:

Here lies the deacon Maria of devout and happy memory who, in accordance with the words of the Apostle, cared for children, welcomed strangers, washed the feet of the saints and shared her bread with the needy. Remember her, Lord, when she arrives in your Kingdom. (pp.106-7).

Pat Pinsent

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.

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