Below are Prof. George Demacopoulos’ answers in a series-of-3-panel-discussion, conducted by James Martin, S.J., Editor-at-large for America Media, on “Deacons, Women and the Call to Serve,” initiated by the Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture.
George Demacopoulos is an Orthodox theologian and founding co-director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.
All three videos and the transcript of the discussions in http://www.americamagazine.org/issue/deacons-women-and-call-serve.
Q: What is the history of the deaconate? How did it come to be, and maybe someone can trace it through 2000 years of Church history?
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: In the early Church, whether you are talking Christian East or Christian West, you really did have a permanent deaconate. The deacons in the biblical period were very much in charge of service, but once the Church became more institutionalized — after the reign of Constantine where Christianity was legalized — deacons of a variety of forms took on a whole host of administrative roles within the Church: They served as secretaries; they served as property managers, what have you.
In fact, there was a period of time for about 200 years in the city of Rome — from approximately the year 400 until the year 600 — where you had a very sharp dividing line between the order of priests and the order of deacons. The election of a pope for that 200-year period typically alternated between the senior-most deacon and the senior-most priest, and you had a kind of rivalry between the two classes and the ordination.
Deacons had an enormous amount of influence in the Church. They helped to set policy; they would preach on behalf of the bishop or the pope, what have you; and historically they controlled the administration of the Church as well as its philanthropic arm.
Q: Were the priests administrators at the time as well? Was there a kind of conflict of interest?
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: No, much less so. Typically what would happen is at the time — we’ll get to the women in a minute — when a man was ordained to the deaconate there would be a decision: Was this person going to be on the administrative track or was this person going to be on the priestly track? If he was going to be on the priestly track, then the time in the deaconate would be very short-lived, and he would immediately go to the priestly track, at which point he would primarily have a pastoral and liturgical role.
If he was going to be on the permanent deaconate route, then he would be an administrator of sorts, whether it was the Church’s philanthropy or its administration.
Q: The role of deacon has changed throughout Church history, as has the role of the priest and the bishop. What happens to the permanent deaconate? Where does that go? Does that get suppressed or does it just sort of fall away, and when did that happen?
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: In the Orthodox Church it never went away. It certainly diminished. During the Middle Ages you had a permanent deaconate that was so large actually that the Roman Emperor Justinian capped the number of deacons assigned to the Church of Hagia Sophia at 150 because they were paid from the imperial treasury and he was tired of paying for them. The Church was a huge institution.
In the modern world, the Church has retained a permanent deaconate, but only a small one. So an archbishop might have two deacons who are career deacons or who might become priests at the time the archbishop resigns or passes away, but there will be a twenty-year or thirty-year lifespan in the deaconate, or a patriarch. You no longer have an office staff of fifty permanent deacons; you have an office staff of two or three.
So the Eastern Church never really lost the permanent deaconate, but it has certainly diminished from the time of the Middle Ages.
Q: In the West, though, the Latin rite in the Catholic Church, what happened to the deaconate that made it become a transitional role? What happened to make it less of a permanent function?
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: Let me propose that I think, in the same way that we think about the changing nature of the deaconate be tied to his relationship to the bishop, the disappearance of a permanent deaconate is also tied to the changing role of the Church vis-à-vis the state.
In the early Middle Ages, when the state in many places was the Church, you needed administrators; you needed lifelong servants who were committed to the project. As the church’s relationship to the state, particularly in terms of providing social services, diminished with the rise of the nation-state, you simply no longer needed the same number of administrators. You still needed the sacraments, but you no longer needed the bodies to run an institution that was simply no longer as large.
Q: It has been more than 50 years since Vatican II. How has it been received by people? Is it something that is part of the lived life of Catholics, at least in the West? And that deacons were somehow brought in to fill that gap.
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: [Responding to other panelists comments about popular perceptions of the difference between the priesthood and the deaconate in the Catholic Church with respect to the impact of Vatican II] Especially when you have a married deaconate and a celibate priesthood. That presumption sort of invites itself. In the Orthodox Church it is certainly different in the sense that we do have married clergy and the vast majority of our priests are married. The way it works in the Orthodox Church, a deacon or a priest can be married as long as they are married before the ordination to the deaconate. Bishops are selected from the celibate clergy.
I think some of the warm receptivity that you have for the deaconate could be a kind of pastoral thing, where people feel a certain shared livelihood with a married deaconate. And so, in the Orthodox Church we do have that pastoral opportunity, if you want to call it that.
[Then a little later] We do not really have a very active deaconate. It is certainly there, but we don’t really have an active one. In the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States, they did start a program about ten years ago of a lay deaconate. Typical parishes do not have the resources to employ somebody full-time who is not a priest, so they allowed men to do a certain amount of training, maintain their jobs “in the world,” so to speak, but then take on a kind of deaconal role.
The ones that I have met who have done this I think are absolutely perfect. It is going really well. But it is a kind of slow step.
Q: Why aren’t there women deacons?
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: Without question, we have the greatest amount of evidence for a female deaconate from Byzantium; you have evidence in Jerusalem; you have it in Constantinople; you have it in Thessalonica; you even have it in southern Italy when it was controlled by the Byzantines.
It does die out, probably in the 11th or 12th century, and people have put forward the arguments you are putting forth as to why. Let me propose that there is a third reason for that. At the exact same time that this is happening, the liturgical rite in Constantinople is being transformed. The cathedral rite that was used in the Great Church of Hagia Sophia, which had very specific rubrics for female deacons, became replaced by a Jerusalem rite that came out of a male monastery.
I am not so sure that it is a specific choice to remove women from the service of the altar so much as it is for a variety of geopolitical reasons — you have the Crusades, you have the rise of Islam, you have all of this — you have the appropriation of a new liturgical rite in Constantinople that is based on a space in which they did not have women serving.
In other words, in Eastern Christian tradition, where we have the best attestation for a female deaconate, we had a replacement of the Liturgical rite that allowed for female deacons. I believe that it was this gradual change in the Liturgical rite, more than a purposeful decision to remove women, that explains the disappearance of the female deaconate.
Q: Is there any difference between the East and West?
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: I think the case about the difference between the East and West here is very important. There really is very little evidence for a female deaconate in the city of Rome. In fact, you actually have a pseudonymous decretal attributed to a fifth-century pope that forbids it (which, of course, almost certainly means that it is active). The decretal is attributed to Pope Gelasius, but it wasn’t actually written by him, and we know that. But there is clearly an attempt by someone to shut down the female deaconate in the early sixth century in the Roman Church. In the Eastern Church at the same time, the female deaconate is very active. It would just be ridiculous to claim that there isn’t a female deaconate. What is open to question, though, is what was their role. As we talked about in our previous segment, the role of the male deacon has transformed so much over time. If you come to these questions with present concerns and the role of the present deacon is potentially different than it was in the fourth century, so too with the female deacon.
Two more points about Byzantium that I think are worth noting. The oldest ordination rites that survive, the ordination rite for the male and the ordination rite for the female, are almost identical. There is one prayer that is different. But that’s it. Everything else is the same.
The other thing that is interesting to note, though, is that the canons set a minimum age of twenty-five for a male deacon and the initial canon treating female deacons was sixty, and then it was reduced to forty. They were probably widows. Other than Phoebe, who we just don’t know anything about, we do not have any extant sources that speak of married deaconesses. The evidence we have concerns celibate women who may or may not have been nuns but celibate women nonetheless. Of course, the fact that the female deaconate has historically been celibate will necessarily play a part of any contemporary conversation.
Q: What are the arguments for and against women deacons? We have heard some of the reflections on the historical basis, which would be a restoration basically. You can take history or pastoral or ecclesial or ecumenical.
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: The pastoral just seems so obvious. How does it not seem obvious that there are good, legitimate pastoral reasons to do this?
Q: Well, can you explicate them? What are those reasons?
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: Well, sure. Young women today in contemporary American society are confronted with every possible reason not to believe in God, and they are confronted with every possible reason to no longer buy into an institution that is said to be outdated and so forth.
It just makes so much logical sense that a young woman struggling with her faith, as a first level of pastoral conversation, would benefit from a woman in her community who had genuine theological training and was seen to be in a position of authority to give counseling.
Now, could you do that without the ordination rite? Of course you could. But it just seems obvious to me that this offers a great pastoral opportunity.
Q: Could also lot of men benefit from that as well?
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: Of course. In Orthodox history it was the Byzantine Church that had the most pronounced experience of this. But in the Russian Church on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution, there was agitation from all sides — from the aristocracy, from the people, even from the bishops — to renew a female deaconate in Russia.
There was a year-long council in 1917-1918 of the Russian Church, one of the most significant councils in modern history, and one of its marching orders was to commission a study on the actual history of the female deaconate. And then the Bolsheviks took over and the entire thing collapsed. So you had the largest Orthodox Church in the world at the time ready to go back to it, and then they lost ninety years.
Q: Other pastoral concerns that people have?
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: Speaking for the Orthodox Church, I think the issue — even though we have the history of doing this — the idea of bringing it back now — again it gets talked about all the time. In fact, the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, is on record saying “this needs to be restored.”
But what you have in the Orthodox Church are some people who look at an issue like this and they see it not for its history and for its pastoral opportunity, but they see it as a kind of manifestation of a creeping secularism brought on by godless feminism and so forth. So, in other words, who have people who say “We are going to hold the line on this, even though it is not historical, because we don’t want to capitulate to the feminists.”
Q: There is a sense that, “Well, once we start down that road then we’re into relativism,” and we are given the story of relativism for it.
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: Even though there’s a history. That is what is so destructive about the kind of conversation such that it exists in the Orthodox Church.
Q: How the introduction of women deacons, which the papal commission is looking at, might transform pastoral ministry. When you think about the possibility of women serving as deacons, how does that change or shake up the Church?
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: From the Orthodox perspective, obviously we have married clergy. In fact, my wife is the daughter of a priest, so she grew up in this very fishbowl you are talking about.
What you do have in a lot of Orthodox parishes — certainly not all — is the wife of the priest does very much take on a very active ministry. In the old country they literally might run the administration of the parish. Here in the United States they might take over the Sunday school or some youth program or something like that.
It is interesting that you propose that you would have both a husband and wife serving as deacons. In the Orthodox Church that is not likely to happen when it gets reintroduced — and it will get reintroduced — because the way the Orthodox Church works is you have fourteen independent churches and they can make these decisions on their own because there is already a historical precedent for it, and it was in existence in the 19th century.
It will come back, but it will almost certainly come back exclusively with nuns. At least in the beginning it will be women who have been in monastic vocation for many years. It will be almost a sign of merit a recognition of spirituality, of leadership, and so forth. What is unfortunate is they might just stay there, they might just stay in the convent, rather than really be active in the diocese or active in the parish the way they should be.
Q: Is there a difference in terms of freedom between a lay ecclesial minister and a woman or a male deacon?
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: I think we are missing one of the most obvious differences between the two, though, which is the liturgical role. I mean, a deacon, at least in the Orthodox Church, actually has more speaking parts during a Divine Liturgy or Mass than the priest or the cantor. Whether it is male or female, the deacon would have the primary liturgical role there. They are leading the petitions; they read the gospel. I see that as probably the single greatest difference.
Q: In what ways is the deaconate suited or not suited to the needs of Church communities today?
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: Speaking again for the Orthodox Church, I think the revival in the United States of a lay deaconate is really important. A typical parish in the United States might have 300 families; historically — we think long, 2000 years — a parish that size would have four priests and eight deacons; today it has one priest. It is just pastorally impossible for one individual to serve all the pastoral needs of 300 families.
The recreation, or the reinstitutionalization, of a deaconal program is a vital need for the Church. These communities have needs, they are trying to negotiate a modern world, and this is something that the institution can do to meet the reality of the needs of its believers.