The prospect of women being ordained as deacons may now be a giant step closer to reality, since the Patriarch of Alexandria, who presides over the entire Orthodox Church in Africa, followed up on his 2016 decision to reintroduce women deacons and last month appointed six nuns to be subdeaconesses within the church.
In a symbolic ceremony, the patriarch blessed the women and used other religious symbols to effectively restore women’s ordination within Orthodoxy. The move follows years of discussions within different branches of Orthodoxy on whether to reinstitute women deacons, and it comes at a time of growing interest around the issue within the Greek Orthodox Church, the largest Orthodox denomination in the U.S.
James Skedros, dean of Holy Cross seminary and professor of Orthodox history, believes appointing female deacons will have a positive impact by showing people that “there are plenty of ministries in the church that women can and should participate in.”
“When we see that happening to a woman, even if it’s in Alexandria, that’s a powerful image for us Orthodox.”
While women in several Protestant denominations have succeeded in becoming ordained ministers, their sisters in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church continue to push for recognition and acceptance. While the Orthodox Church says its theology has not changed in centuries, the role of women members is now in flux.
Marilyn Rouvelas, chair of Orthodox Deacons, a women’s ordination ministry in Virginia, said deaconesses are desperately needed in the U.S.
“It’s hard for a priest to serve an entire community,” said Rouvelas. “They’re already overworked.”
But each branch of Orthodoxy doesn’t necessarily recognize that need. Rouvelas has monitored and contributed to the discussions since 1992. She said women couldn’t be ordained unless the synod of bishops agrees to it.
“It’s sort of like whack-a-mole,” Rouvelas said with a laugh. “We get going with the issue, and they keep whacking us down.”
Even though discussions seem to be at an impasse, Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald, a professor at Holy Cross who has worked her whole life for women being ordained, added: “The critical mass is coming. We’re not going back.”