The recognized service of women in the Church dates from apostolic days. The term diakonos—literally, “servant”—used both for deacons and, in the early days, for deaconesses, is applied by St. Paul (Romans 16:1) to “Phoebe, a diakonos of the Church which is in Cenchraea.” Through the letters of St. Chrysostom we know that forty deaconesses were attached to the principal church of Constantinople about the year 400 A.D. There are other records of deaconesses at Antioch and throughout the East, and evidence that the Office was well known in the Church by the 4th Century. In the Middle Ages, the Office fell into disuse for a variety of reasons.
Because of the social reforms that occurred in the 19th Century, a great need became apparent for such a ministry of women. Following the lead of Lutherans in Germany, the Order was revived in the Church of England by the Bishop of London in 1861, and in America by a canon of 1889 (PECUSA – Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America). In 1920, the Lambeth Conference urged restoration of the Order throughout the Anglican Communion. During this period Deaconesses led the way in missionary work, especially in America.
In America, the Order was subsumed into the Diaconate in 1976 when the Episcopal Church approved the ordination of women to Holy Orders. In other jurisdictions of the Anglican Communion, the Order of Deaconesses continues to serve alongside the clergy, even though some of those jurisdictions have also accepted the practice of ordaining women.
When several thousand traditional Anglicans met together at the landmark Congress of St. Louis in 1977, to object to the abandonment of apostolic order in the Episcopal Church, the issue of Deaconesses was addressed. At that meeting a fundamental confessional charter, known as The Affirmation of St. Louis which binds Continuing (Traditional) Anglicans worldwide, was adopted. Recognizing the continuing need for a specialized ministry of women, it declares as one of the “essential principles of evangelical Truth and apostolic Order: The ancient office and ministry of Deaconesses as a lay vocation for women, affirming the need for proper encouragement of that office.” Since that time, a number of women have been admitted to the Office in traditional Anglican jurisdictions. In 2002, The Reformed Episcopal Church adopted a Canon to officially recognize the Order of Deaconesses and established requirements for candidacy (Canon 22, “Of Deaconesses”).