References to female deacons in the early Church are not hard to locate. Admittedly, the initial biblical glimpses are confusing. Is Phoebe, in Romans 16:1, being depicted as a specific official, or as a “servant” in a more general sense? 1 Timothy 3:11 isn’t much more helpful: the text, depending on whom you ask, refers either to deacons or deacons’ wives.
Things become clearer as the centuries roll by. Funeral and memorial inscriptions for women deacons have been located across Asia Minor, Palestine and Greece and, while the female diaconal presence was always much stronger in the East, scattered inscriptions have also been found in France, Italy and Dalmatia.
Female deacons crop up in the writings of, among others, Origen, Clement of Alexandria and John Chrysostom. They are mentioned in conciliar documents, legal compendia such as the Theodosian Code and the Code of Justinian; and, in c 112, we even find Pliny the Younger interrogating two female slaves from Bithynia who appear to have been Christian deacons.
Pinning down the precise duties allotted to female deacons is trickier. The Didascalia Apostolorum, a 3rd-century text from Syria, provides some useful insights. With houses “where you cannot send a [male] deacon to the women on account of the pagans … you may send a deaconess”. And when an adult woman was baptised, propriety demanded that “when women go down into the water” they “ought to be anointed by a deaconess”, though a man should still “pronounce over them the invocation of the divine names”. Female deacons were also free to instruct women after they had entered the Church and minister to them during illnesses.
A century on, the Apostolic Constitutions reveal details about the ordination of female deacons, and we also learn that the deaconess was charged with showing female worshippers to the correct seats. A church was like a ship, “but also like an animal pen” in which “the shepherd places each of the animals … according to species and age”.
The young and the old, the virgins and the widows, all had their allotted locations and, once they had settled in, the deaconess was expected to “make sure that no one whispers, dozes, laughs or makes gestures”.
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