On Being a Deaconess

Yet the Bible is equally clear that God calls all of His people, male and female, to serve faithfully in His Kingdom. Therefore, it is important to have a sound answer for those who assert that any service by a woman puts the Church on a “slippery slope” toward disobedience. In fact, the opposite is true. The Church is diminished if any member is wrongly disqualified from exercising his or her gifts (within the proper authority structure) in response to the Great Commission.

The appropriate response to the widespread acceptance of women’s ordination is not to impose an overly restrictive view of Christian ministry on the Church and relegate women to the kitchen and the nursery. Rather, the answer is for us to take a courageous stand in every area of life by forbidding what God forbids, requiring what God requires, and allowing what God allows. And the simple fact is that God requires everyone, both male and female, to be active in ministry to the extent that He has provided gifts and opportunities.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of this requirement is the baptismal charge in the liturgy of the Reformed Episcopal Church, which is based on the baptismal liturgy in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. When a baby girl is baptized, the priest signs her with the Sign of the Cross, “in token that hereafter she shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end” (REC BCP, page 465). Though the responsibilities of men and women are different, we are engaged in the same spiritual warfare, and we are jointly building the same Kingdom.

Since God requires women to be active in ministry, fighting manfully under his banner, and allows women to serve as Deaconesses (as demonstrated by Scripture and by records of the early Church), it would be profitable to explore what a Deaconess does and how this office fits into the structure of the Church.

A woman who has been set apart for the work of a Deaconess in the Reformed Episcopal Church serves at the will of the Bishop Ordinary and as his representative in the venue where she is assigned to serve. In a parish, she operates under the authority of both the Bishop and the Rector to assist with many facets of the life of the Church, including teaching (though not sermons at the Eucharist), preparations for worship, visiting the sick, and ministry to women and children. One important function of a Deaconess is to assist women in situations where the presence of a man might cause both parties some unnecessary embarrassment, such as visiting new mothers in the hospital and counseling women on private and personal issues. Though there have been some minor differences in the duties of a Deaconess throughout the life of the Church, and though the office was lost in the western Church for many years, the duties that have been approved by the REC bishops are in line with the practices of the historic Church.

I’ve been told more than once that it’s “too bad” I can never be a “real Deacon” or a Priest, as though my office was an indication that women are inferior to men. To that statement, I would offer two observations regarding ministry.

First, none of us is worthy even to gather up the crumbs under God’s table, yet we have been made heirs with Christ, and we are invited to gather at His table to join the family feast. What a remarkable privilege that is! I am just so glad to be a part of God’s family that I am pleased to serve Him in any capacity that brings Him glory and demonstrates my gratitude for His grace. All Christians, including non-ordained men who faithfully serve Christ, should share that same joy.

Second, most of the work to be done in the Kingdom of God does not require ordination. Christians don’t need Apostolic “binding and loosing” authority to visit those who are sick or imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to comfort the sorrowful, to lift up the downtrodden, or even to teach the Gospel in a variety of settings. We do need a heart inclined toward loving service rather than a head filled with visions of wielding power. Too often, Holy Orders are sought only for the purpose of gaining honor and authority in the Church. While it is true that the Church should honor the representatives of Christ and should be obedient to their authority in Christ, it is equally true that Apostolic authority is neither a battleaxe nor an emperor’s wreath.

Rather, Apostolic authority is best viewed as a shepherd’s staff representing the solemn responsibility to bear witness to the sacrificial love and unyielding truth of Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd who gave His life for the sheep. The example of loving leadership should then disseminate through the Church so that all the members of the Body of Christ are free to use their gifts to the glory of God, for each other’s edification, and for the advancement of the Kingdom in the world. Only when we develop a right view of authority and of Holy Order can we fulfill our solemn duty to bring the light of Christ to the world.

And that is precisely where women who hold the office of Deaconess can assist the modern Church in preparing other women to fulfill their calling. By maintaining a proper relationship to the authority structure within the Church and by being an official, representative of those who are called and duly ordained in Apostolic succession, Deaconesses have the opportunity to demonstrate within the Church what Eve should have been, a helper to Adam in the pursuit of the purpose of God.

Even before the Fall, God’s intended authority structure was for men to have primary authority and for women to serve as their vice-regents. Eve’s ministry was to be a helper suitable to Adam in his work in the world (Genesis 2:18), an argument that St. Paul also uses in I Corinthians 11:9-11. He refers to this authority structure as one in which women do not approach God without a covering, which consists of her recognition that she, like the angels, is never to act on her own volition.

This situation in no way demeans women, for St. Paul indicates that there is order even within the Trinity; he says that the head of Christ is God. The Son willingly submits to the Father, as can be seen in Matthew 20, where we read that the mother of James and John asked that her sons be considered for top honors in the Kingdom. Jesus stated that such honors were not His to give but belonged to the Father alone. If our Lord was pleased to operate within the economy of the Godhead, how much more should we be willing to maintain the order that God intended for us!

Wherever women in the New Testament Church are mentioned as being in any sort of ministry, it is always evident that they are operating within God-given boundaries. In Acts, we are told that Apollos was taught by the husband-and-wife team of Aquila and Priscilla, not by Priscilla in defiance of her husband’s authority. In Romans, St. Paul commends Phoebe because she had been “a helper of many,” including himself, and in Philippians, he mentions other women who had labored with him in the Gospel. This language echoes Genesis 2, in that Phoebe was a help-meet, not a free agent. St. Philip’s daughters prophesied, but only under the covering of his authority. We are not told their names, just that they proclaimed the Gospel.

So in exercising the office of Deaconess, I am testifying to the great truth that God is an orderly Ruler; I am not saying that women are inferior to men. Similarly, the Son is not inferior to the Father, nor is the Spirit in any way inferior to either. Based on the order that exists within the Trinity, Holy Order in the Church is established by God for His own glory and for our own good.

Discerning a Call

How does a woman know she is called to the office of Deaconess? I have answered this question many times since I was Set Apart in 2003; some of the women who inquired found the answer too difficult, and they decided not to pursue the office. But that is as it should be. It is a serious matter to make vows that take us into greater service to Christ and into a more formal and accountable relationship with His Church. I purposely do not try to encourage a woman to pursue this path. What I do encourage her to do is count the cost and allow God to lead her in the path in which He wants her to go.

The first question that the Bishop asks a woman who is being set apart is, “Dearly beloved in the Lord, who are minded to take upon you this service in the Church of God, have you duly considered how weighty an undertaking this is, and are you prepared with a willing mind to take upon you this office?” While God makes His will known in a variety of ways, the discernment process of “due consideration” should begin with a self-examination that includes the following questions:

Have I demonstrated steady growth in grace and Christian character, evidenced by a life that is increasing in the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?
These foundations are important for any Christian, but they are non-negotiable for anyone who wants to take on more responsibility in the Church.
What is my level of commitment to Christ, as expressed by my attendance at worship, my connection to the life of the Church, my prayer life, and my desire to study the Bible?

Take a few courses from Cranmer House or at least begin studying theology, Church history, and Christian ethics. See if you are eager to learn and apt to teach others what you have learned.

Am I already involved in many activities related to the ministry of a Deaconess, such as Altar Guild, works of mercy, teaching, and support of the work of the parish?
A related question is whether your life is overflowing with activities and obligations unrelated to Church life which you cannot give up and which would hinder your ability to serve as a Deaconess.

The preceding questions are fairly straightforward, and the answers should be evident to you. The next questions are a bit more difficult, as they are focused on assessing with your relationships with others, and as such, they require additional soul searching as well as consultation with your spiritual fathers and others among whom you currently serve. These are the points that often prevent women from pursuing the office any further.

Am I willing to submit myself humbly to the order of the Church?
There are many people who view themselves as being devoted individually to Christ but not to the Church, and who are specifically unwilling to submit to the direction of Bishops and/or Priests. One of the vows taken in the Setting Apart of Deaconesses is this: “Will you be obedient to those who are over you in the Lord, cheerfully and faithfully performing the service that shall be appointed to you as Deaconess in singleness of heart?” In one sense, as a Deaconess, I have less freedom than other parishioners, but I took my vows joyfully because in the service of Christ and His Church, there is perfect freedom.

Do my fathers in Christ see a potential in me for this ministry?
If your Rector, your Bishop, and other spiritual leaders suggest that you may want to consider the office, then you have an important road sign that validates your own assessment of a possible call. However, if you have some notion that you want to be a Deaconess, but your pastor is hesitant to support you in this decision, you should reconsider your decision. Perhaps the answer is “not yet,” not until you have developed some of the characteristics already discussed. Perhaps the answer is “not at all” because God has other plans for your life. Either way, rest in His goodness.

Are my peers confident in my ability to pursue this ministry?
If those to whom and with whom you minister are encouraging you to consider the office of Deaconess, then your desire to be Set Apart is most likely confirmed by the witness of the congregation. That is not to say that everyone you meet will believe that you should be a Deaconess. It is to say that most of the people who have been touched by your ministry should be willing to support your decision to pursue candidacy and should almost see it as the logical outcome of your loving service.

A woman who is called to the office of Deaconess will say with the Psalmist, “One thing I have desired of the LORD, that will I seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in His temple” (Psalm 27:4). Yet her desire for the presence of the Lord is to be turned outward in service to the Church. Her awesome responsibility, as well as her enduring joy, is to support her spiritual fathers in the care and teaching of the people of God. A Deaconess can be the official representative of the Church in situations that are made awkward by the presence of a man, and her insight can often enable a priest to provide better care to the flock.

Finally, it would be dishonest for me to close this discussion without offering a sufficient warning: the closer you get to Christ and the more committed you become to serving Him, the more Satan will torment you. If you do become convinced through prayerful discernment that you are called to be a Deaconess, expect resistance and spiritual warfare like you have never seen. Satan will try to convince you that you are unworthy, unable, unprepared—in short, he will do anything to turn you back from your commitment to service. But Christ is sufficient even in times of persecution.

So if, after all of the hurdles I’ve presented, you are still convinced that God is calling you, talk to your parish priest to see if it’s time for you to start the process of submitting an application.

— Dss. Teresa R. Johnson
Adjunct Professor of Deaconess Studies, Cranmer Theological House