Women’s Ordination: A Way forward?

The recent disappointment over the failure of the Church of England Synod finally to approve the ordination of woman bishops has brought the matter under a political spotlight, with suggestions that parliament should remove the exemption of the CoE from the provisions of equality legislation, the removal of the existing (all male) bishops from the House of Lords, or both. Any such removal of the equality exemption would have implications for ordination as Anglican bishops not only for women, but also for gay men and transgender priests. There could also be implications for the Catholic Church: in a posting at the UK Call to Action website, one contributor has described how she has written to her MP on the subject:

 It is very interesting that my excellent MP, Frank Field, has introduced a Bill to Parliament seeking to remove the temporary exclusion granted to the Anglican Church regarding sexual equality. Frank sees to remove that so that the Church cannot exclude women priests from becoming bishops. I wrote to ask if he could extend the removal of the exclusion also to the Catholic Church. It would be interesting to know what effect this could have in the UK.

Phoebe – the only deacon named in the NT!

The issue of women’s ordination is an important one – which the Vatican claims we cannot even discuss. Politically, Frank Fields’ motion is interesting, but I suspect the politicians will draw a clear distinction between any exemption for the CoE, which is the established church, and the Catholics.

For ordinary British (or other) Catholics, the challenge is rather different: it is a burning question for many, which we certainly need to discuss in spite of Vatican resistance . However, it is not one where we can hope to make any progress with our bishops, who have no choice but to operate within the rules set by Rome. There may be another approach, which is more feasible: discussion of women’s ordination not as priests, but as deacons.

There is some historical jusification for this. Although there are claims that there existed women priests in the early church, these are controversial, and the evidence is not universally accepted. There is clearer evidence, including some from Biblical texts, other important Church documents, and tombstones, that there were many women deacons ordained in the early church, some of whom are officially recorded as saints, with designated feast days.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.

(Romans 16: 1-2, New International Version)

The pious Deaconess Athanasia who was ordained a deacon by his holiness Bishop Pantamianos. He erected this stone on he spot where her body lies.

Women Deacons website

 This is not a matter of introducing radical new practices, but simply of re-introducing one that has been lost.

There are some bishops who have proposed this as a way out of the impasse. Just one among several is Bishop Emil A. Wcela, a retired bishop of Rockville, USA, who wrote about it for America magazine in October, 2012. He first gives a discussion of the historical nature of the office, and the biblical evidence, noting that Phoebe, a woman, is the only individual in the New Testament explicitly designated as a deacon. (Should we conclude from this that only women should be deacons?) He goes on to caution, though, that we should recognize that the specific tasks or functions of deacons then were not as we understand them today, but were intimately connected with the specific practices and cultural customs of the day. Baptism, for example, was of adults and by immersion, with the candidate fully naked, so that is was more appropriate for women to baptize women – and even in visiting sick women, at a time when male visitors would have been frowned on. As customs changed, it is not surprising that the need for women deacons declined, or was taken over by orders of nuns – but then, the male diaconate also differed from the modern version, and also went into decline until it was revived at Vatican II.

The ordination of women deacons was in fact explicitly prohibited in 441 – but continued thereafter, nonetheless:

The decrees of three church councils in France, in 441, 517 and 533, prohibiting their ordination are testimony that the institution continued for at least 80 years after its prohibition. It is remarkable to note that in 1017, Pope Benedict VIII wrote to the bishop of Porto in Portugal giving him authority to ordain presbyters, deacons, deaconesses and subdeacons.

America magazine

 In more recent times, with the revival of the male diaconate, the ordination of women deacons has been receiving more attention. Bishop Wcela notes that this is especially so in the Eastern Orthodox church, but although Vatican rules still restrict the diaconate to men, the door is by no means closed on discussion of women deacons. Such discussion was explicitly proposed in an early draft of a 1998 pastoral letter by American bishops:

 It stated, “we recommend that the question of the admission of women to the diaconal office” be submitted to thorough investigation and that “this study be undertaken and brought to completion soon.” Differences of opinion emerged as the letter worked its way through discussions by the full body of bishops. When the letter was finally approved in November 1992, it noted that admission to the diaconate was among the concerns women had brought to the committee. The letter acknowledged “the need for continuing dialogue and reflection on the meaning of ministry in the church, particularly in regard to the diaconate, the offices of lector and acolyte and to servers at the altar.” The document was approved for release not as a pastoral letter of the episcopate but as a committee report. The sense of urgency or priority had disappeared.

 – America magazine

He also notes that although the Vatican rhetoric against “sacred ordination” of women is strong and raises formidable obstacles, in recent years there has been some softening of the language over deacons, with the emergence of a greater distinction between the ranks of bishops and priests on the one hand, and deacons on the other. He also notes rumours that “more than one” bishop has raised the issue directly with the Vatican:

The International Theological Commission advises the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on important doctrinal matters. In 2002, it issued the results of its study on the diaconate under the title “From the Diaconate of Christ to the Diaconate of the Apostles.” This study also anticipates the change in Canon 1009 by emphasizing that “the unity of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, in the clear distinction between the ministries of the bishops and priests on the one hand and the diaconal ministry on the other, is strongly underlined by ecclesial tradition, especially in the teaching of the magisterium.” As for the ordination of women to the diaconate, it concludes, “It pertains to the ministry of discernment which the Lord established in his Church to pronounce authoritatively on this question.” It leaves the ordination of women to the diaconate an open question. It is rumored that more than one bishop, from the United States and other countries, has raised the issue during ad limina visits to the Vatican.

 It is clear that unlike the position with women priests, this is something that is at least up for discussion.

This is also not something that is restricted to debates in the Vatican, or between bishops. In at least one American parish, this is very much something that is being seriously debated, right down at parish level:

In 2010, not long after he started at St. Nicholas, Tkachuk was approached by a man asking about entering the diaconate. Around the same time, Tkachuk also became aware of questions about women, the diaconate and ordination within the parish.

The parish held various meetings to see how parishioners felt and what they thought about the diaconate. The meetings allowed both men and women to share their opinions on a man entering the diaconate, which led to more questions about women’s role in the diaconate process.

Interested parishioners, with the support of Tkachuk, planned four education nights:

  • The first education night focused on lay ministry in the church since the Second Vatican Council.
  • The second explained the diaconate itself: What it is and how the formation program begins in a parish.
  • The third discussed why the issue of women’s ordination into the diaconate remains an open question within the church.
  • The fourth examined the question: “How does the prophet (person receiving a call) maintain their energy in a time when they are feeling called to things that the church or the world doesn’t agree on?”

Following the third education night — on women and the diaconate — Tkachuk had a conversation with one woman who didn’t know that she and other parishioners could be talking about the topic. Tkachuk knew this was an unanswered question in the church and told her that conversation was allowed.

In the summer of 2010, a few parishioners approached Tkachuk and asked if a parishwide conversation could begin, to which Tkachuk agreed.

In fall 2010, the man who previously approached Tkachuk entered the diaconate program for the Chicago archdiocese. Women who wished to know more about the process were also invited to explore the role of the diaconate alongside the man who entered into the program.

– more at National Catholic Reporter

Half measures are seldom satisfactory, but getting some serious discussion going, leading to the implementation of the idea, would at least be a useful beginning on the way to women’s equality in the Catholic Church.

The question that occurs to me is, “How many more local parishes are willing to follow the lead of St Nicholas. and begin a serious discussion?”

Women Deacons – Slide Show Presentation



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