Being a male in the Coptic Orthodox Church, and specifically, the Liturgy, means that there are duties that we can be called to perform, that is, being a deacon (inside or outside the altar) and if God wills one day, the role of a priest. Aside from these deacon or priestly duties, men are called to join the women in fervent prayer and repentance during the Divine Liturgy as part of the congregation and this role certainly does not take any less precedence than others.
In the Coptic Orthodox Church, priesthood is comprised of three discrete orders:
- The order of Deacons
- The order of Priests
- The order of Bishops
These three orders serve different roles in order to minister to the Church and the congregation: the deacon is the servant; the priest is the teacher and the bishop is the overseer and shepherd. The deacon is therefore on the front line of serving the needs of the Church and acts as the priest’s helper. Yet despite being a blessing and a privilege, the role of a deacon is not one of superiority or entitlement. The position of a deacon is one of responsibility, service and duty, earned through virtue and labour. However, just like those of the congregation, those in the canteen, those who raise incense and those who clean the Church, we must remember that every position of service in the Church is carried out for the glorification of God.
Let’s take it back a few centuries first to understand the roots of deaconship:
The word ‘deacon‘ finds its origin in the Greek word ‘diakonos‘, which can be translated as meaning ‘servant‘.
As the etymology of the word suggests, the deaconate has existed for many centuries and its origins can be traced back to the time of the apostles. In the book of Acts, we read that the multitude of the disciples struggled to meet the needs of those they were serving and were therefore instructed by the twelve to appoint seven men to assist in the service (Acts 6: 3-6).
Within the order of deacons exist five discrete ranks, to each of which is traditionally assigned specific duties to perform in the Church. These ranks are:
- ‘Epsaltos´– the Hymnist
- ‘Anaghnostos’ – the Reader
- ‘Epideacon’ – the Subdeacon
Although each rank of deacon has specific roles (with none being greater than the other but working together in unity), they are primarily called to assist the priest in helping to serve the needs of the congregation. This can range from helping the priest to prepare the altar and oblations for the Divine Liturgy to maintaining peace and order in the Church during times of prayer to reciting Scripture during the service. The deacon is also expected to lead the congregation during prayer, which not only requires knowledge of the Church’s hymnology, but also a humble and prayerful attitude to serve the congregation.
His Grace Bishop Mettaous in his writing, “Sacramental Rites in the Coptic Orthodox Church” warns deacons that they must constantly remind themselves that their position within the Church will bring a stricter judgement. It is therefore crucial that deacons serve with the utmost love and reverence for God, remembering always to show love to those they serve and pray meticulously that God may work through them despite any shortcomings.
So I guess this begs the question, “Why not women too?” It is interesting to note that the controversy over the ordination of women is a rather recent one with roots outside the Orthodox Church. It is also interesting to note that, while the controversy rages in other denominations and has been a source of division, enmity, and schism elsewhere, it has garnered far less interest among Orthodox Christians. While the matter surely warrants thorough study, discussion, and dialogue, especially within cultures such as our own, and while there are certain related questions which indeed beg serious discussion – such as the role of deaconesses in the early Church – care needs to be taken not to create an artificial issue.
If we truly believe that all that happens within the body of Christ is directed and inspired by the Holy Spirit, we should question why calls for the ordination of women only surfaced some 1,950 years after Christ. If the early Church was in agreement on a matter, if that consensus continued unbroken over the centuries, then that seems to be the Holy Spirit’s leading. It’s not always easy to discern a clear consensus, but throughout the history of the Church, this matter has been clear.
In the history of our faith we see the exemplary ministry of the myrrh-bearing women who served Our Lord and also the first missionary, also a woman. Can a woman be a theologian? Yes, there’s St. Cassiane. Can she be an apologist and debater? Yes, St. Catherine, St. Perpetua, and others were brilliant debaters. Why then not the ordination of women? Simple, it is a matter of holy tradition, as well as a vision of ministry as something not limited to the ordained priesthood. While there may be no strictly theological objection to the ordination of women, holy tradition has never supported it. The problem is the way supporters of this issue see it, is from an entirely different view point from that of our Orthodox Church. Unlike the thoughts of modern times, the Church does not understand ordination to the priesthood as a matter of justice, equality, political correctness, or human rights. No one, not even males, has the “right” to ordination and no one “chooses” ordination; we believe that it is God who does the choosing, even if His will in this instance seems completely contrary with the understanding of this world or this culture or this era. It is not seen as a matter of inequality but simply has to do primarily with setting someone aside to be a minister of the sacraments. Non-sacramental ministry, such as preaching, is open to non-ordained people, as long as they are continuing in the faith and worship of the Orthodox Church, and in obedience to a spiritual father or confessor.
But as women have begun to be ordained in other Churches, the question of why Orthodoxy has never done that is being raised. We need to remember that the Church is not a democracy, but rather a theocracy and if the Holy Spirit is leading us to make a change in regards to women’s ordination, it will become undeniable. Jesus said, “When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). We pray “Thy will be done” by the millions every day, and if His will is that we begin ordaining women, we will be unable to avoid recognising it.
In our Coptic Orthodox Church however, the prominence of deacons in our liturgical services sparks the debate of why women are not ordained as deacons, especially since there is clear Biblical evidence that they were in the early Church. But to approach this argument, we need to first understand the exact role of female deacons during that time. In the patristic era, there were three specific offices in the Church in which a woman could serve: deaconess, widow and virgin.
The office of deaconess was consecrated by the bishop in a special ceremony. They were not ordained since the laying-on of hands was not involved. Their ministry included charitable work and in attending to the sick, poor, and all women and children, who needed help. They also prepared women for baptism, as well as assisted during their baptism. In the early Church there were deaconesses helping the apostles, and later they served with the bishops and priests in various services. Initially, the service was only available to widowed women over the age of sixty. The apostolic canons imposed a condition that deaconess must be virgin, or widow, and over the age of sixty. St. Paul cared about the subject of widowed deaconesses in the first Church and wrote about them in the fifth chapter of his first epistle to his disciple Timothy. An example of successful deaconesses are Phoebe, who was commended by St. Paul for the Church of Rome (Romans 16:1-2).
From the thirteenth century, the service of consecrated deaconesses in Church was abolished. However, due to the urgent need for the service of women in Church, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, decided to revive this rite, on the Feast of Pentecost in 1981, by consecrating a large number of deaconesses for the service of Cairo Churches. Today, many bishops have also consecrated deaconesses for the service within their dioceses. During the Holy Synod’s meeting on the Feast of Pentecost in 1992, the Synod established certain rites and conditions, pertaining to the order of consecration for the consecrated deaconess. Although the rank of deaconess in our Church is not a priestly rank, it is an integral part of our Church and the body of Christ. With that said, it’s hard to argue that women are not therefore involved in some level of deacon duty, despite having other roles within the Church too!
So, my friends, let us not focus on why we have been assigned the role that we have but rather focus on how we can best fulfill our duties. Whether you have been called to serve inside the altar, or a Sunday School class, or perhaps in hidden service like cleaning the Church, we must pay close attention to our own spiritual well-being and learn to follow the example set by our Lord who came to serve us rather than to be served.
SAYG ~ Andrew Francis.