Yin and Yang in the Altar

Without doubt there were deaconesses in the early Church. What you call the “liturgical and pastoral functions” of these women never included, however—and in an Orthodox context never could include—“leading a service”. An all-male priesthood has always been the norm and the rule.

The women’s “liturgical functions” would have included assisting the priest at the altar, and their “pastoral functions” would have involved ministering to women in labor, visiting the sick, and perhaps also baptizing women (for, as you probably know, in the early Church one was baptized naked).

There is some debate at present among Orthodox Christians as to whether this early office should be restored. Some worry it would send the wrong signal and lead certain people to suppose that a female diaconate can, and should, serve as a path toward a female priesthood. Others say, no, this was always understood to be a very different office and role.

Some  argue that menstruation is an issue—that blood must be kept away from the altar. As you may know, in the strictest of Orthodox contexts, women are asked not only not to receive communion during their time of the month, but not even to remain in the nave during the consecration of the Mysteries. But this has nothing to do with the fact per se that they are women. It’s about the relationship between communion and blood.

During a visit to a monastery some years ago, when I was working in the gardens after communing that morning—with the Blood of Christ still “in my system”—I accidentally cut myself. A monk who saw what happened immediately rushed to my side, whipped out a cloth to wipe the cut, and told me he would later dispose of the cloth by burning it, this being a traditional Orthodox method of handling sacred things no longer in use.

Frankly, though, I don’t think menstruation was, or is, what’s at stake in this context. For women, and not only older women, can and do serve the priest in the altar in women’s monasteries, where (of course) there are no other men beside the clergy.

You ask for my “personal” opinion. I suppose I’m in favor of deaconesses, though I readily admit there may be aspects to this question that I don’t understand. It seems to me, however, quite apart from the usefulness and practicality of having women serve women in the specific contexts I’ve mentioned, that the presence of deaconesses—the presence of a responsive yin moving at the behest of the initiating yang around the altar and about the church—could only add to the symbolic power of the Liturgy.

Leave a Reply