Project Canterbury

What is a Deaconess?

By Royden Keith Yerkes

Sycamore, Illinois: The Central house for Deaconesses, no date.

Strange as it may seem the following conversation occurred between a priest of our Church and an elderly woman who had just heard the word deaconess.

Inquirer: Just what is a deaconess?

Priest: A deaconess helps with parish visiting, teaches in the Sunday School, and does some social service work. She does not have the training of a professional DRE, or that of a social service worker, but she might be useful in a small parish which cannot afford a professional. She usually wears a garb; the professionals do not do this.

Inquirer: Thank you. I understand their work, but I cannot understand why they wear a garb.

Priest: Well, most dioceses do not have deaconesses.

To the extent that the participants in this conversation represent the clergy and laity of the Church, it indicates ignorance of the office and work of a deaconess, and an opinion that deaconesses provide second-rate, makeshift assistance in parish work.

In the Church of England the Order of Deaconesses is recognized as "the one existing ordained ministry for women, in the sense of being the only Order of Ministry in the Anglican Communion to which women are admitted by episcopal imposition of hands." (From resolutions adopted by both Houses of the Convocations of Canterbury and York during the years 1939-1941 and confirmed by the Lambeth Conference of 1948) Deaconesses may "in case of need, read the services of Morning and Evening Prayer and the Litany, except those portions reserved for the priest. They may also instruct and preach, except during the service of Holy Communion."

In short, except for liturgical ministration which has always been limited to men, the diaconate is open to both men and women. Deaconesses are recorded as members of the clergy; they are ex officio members of all meetings of the clergy; a minimum salary is guaranteed for them, and provision is made for their proper retirement.

In the American Episcopal Church the status of deaconesses has never been squarely faced; a commission has been recently appointed upon their work. Until as late as 1946, deaconesses were ordained by imposition of hands and the words, "Take thou authority to exercise the office of a Deaconess in the Church of God, whereunto thou art now set apart." The alteration of the last section of the sentence of ordination to the diaconate seemed to leave a small loophole to make a distinction between ordination and "setting apart."

[3] Seven years later, in the same diocese, this was changed. The Bishop was directed to lay his hand (not his hands) upon the head of the candidate and, after a prayer of blessing, to say "N, I admit thee to the office of Deaconess. In the Name of . . . etc." Thus it was made a little easier to say that she had not been ordained and that her Office was not part of the official ministry of the Church.

The present canon 51, adopted by the General Convention leaves the whole subject bathed in mist.

Section 1 states that "a woman of devout character and approved fitness, unmarried or widowed, may be appointed Deaconess by any Bishop of this Church. Such appointment shall be vacated by marriage." The word ordained is not used. Instead, the impression is given that the Office (not Order) of Deaconess is an appointment like any secular appointment, with the addition that her marriage will automatically cancel the appointment. If her husband should die, and she should desire to return to the work of Deaconess, she can apparently be "Appointed" again; she would qualify by being widowed. In short, she is not ordained; she is but temporarily appointed.

Section 2 outlines "the chief functions which may be entrusted to a Deaconess." With the single exception of assisting at Holy Communion, they are the duties for which a deacon is ordained, including officiating at Morning and Evening Prayer and the Litany, and making addresses. Marriage does not vacate the appointment of a deacon.

The Church thus places itself in an embarrassing situation. It delineates certain duties. If these are to be performed by a man, he is solemnly ordained for the purpose. If they are to be performed by a woman, she is simply appointed. One cannot help wondering just how important these duties are.

Section 4 outlines the subjects in which a woman must pass an examination before she is admitted to the Office. These are similar to those in which a man must be examined before he is ordained deacon (listed in canons 29 and 34), but with differences sufficient to warrant comparison.

(1) The man must be examined in "Holy Scripture; The Bible in English, its contents and historical background," to be ordained a "perpetual deacon".

The woman must be examined in "Holy Scripture; The Bible in English; introduction to and contents of the various books; special knowledge of at least one Gospel and one Epistle."

(2) The man must be examined in "Church History: a general outline." The woman must be examined in "Church History: a general outline, [3/4] including the history of the Church in the United States, and special knowledge of the first five centuries."

(3) The man must be examined in "the missionary work of the Church", unless he is dispensed by the Bishop under the provision of Canon 34.

The woman must be examined in "Christian Missions: history; present extent and methods; at least one missionary biography."

(4) The man must be examined in "Doctrine: the Church's teaching as set forth in the Creeds and the Offices of Instruction."

The woman must be examined in "Doctrine: Contents and teaching of the Book of Common Prayer, including preparation for the Sacraments."

(5) A separate subject for the man is "Liturgics: the contents and use of the Book of Common Prayer."

This examination is not required of a woman, although the canon specifies that she may be assigned to "read Morning and Evening Prayer and the Litany in the Church or Chapel in the absence of the Minister."

(6) The man must be examined in "Principles of sermon composition and delivery" unless he is dispensed by the Bishop (Canon 34).

This is not prescribed for the woman, although she may be licensed by the Bishop to give instruction or deliver addresses, apparently without training.

(7) The man must be examined in "the Office and work of a Deacon."

The woman must be examined in "Ministration: the office and work of a Deaconess, Parish work and organization."

(8) The man must be examined in "Principles and methods of Christian Education in the Church", unless he is dispensed by the Bishop. (Canon 34.)

The woman must be examined in "Religious Education: psychology; educational methods; Church School management."

(9) The woman must be examined in "Social Service: Principles involved in the adjustment of individuals to each other and to the community; familiarity with the recognized standards of the work of social organizations, including institutions.

Nothing similar to this is required of a man.

The woman is supposed to master this curriculum in two years. Part of this time must be spent in "field work". No specific time is set for the man who wishes to study for the perpetual Diaconate.

[5] (10) The woman is "required to furnish evidence that she has had at least nine months (!) of field work under competent supervision, or satisfactory previous experience in social service, educational, parish, or mission work."

The canons do not require this of a deacon, of a priest, or of a bishop.

It would not have been surprising if, to this medley of unco-ordinated requirements, had been added the requirement that the candidate must have taken a course in practical nursing and first aid to the injured. It is prescribed that a deaconess is "to care for the sick, the afflicted, and the poor."

Confusion of thinking, in the American Episcopal Church, upon the status of the Order of Deaconesses may well be compared with the clarity of statements in the Church of England. This may be due to the fact that in America the subject has been approached from desire to answer two questions: (1) "What does a deaconess do?" and (2) "What is a deaconess not?" In England the desire has been to answer the question, "What is a deaconess?"

It seems clear that deaconesses formed a definite part of the ministry of the early Church. Only men could be made priests and bishops; both men and women could be made deacons. The word deaconess was not used until the fourth century; men and women were both called deacons. Women deacons addressed their ministry primarily to women and children.

Deaconesses disappeared in mediaeval times, when the diaconate ceased to be a real Order of the ministry and became a last step to be taken toward the priesthood, which had absorbed the duties of the diaconate. A deacon became a "priestlet" and he remained so for as short a time as possible. Women were naturally excluded from this.

From the middle of the nineteenth century efforts were made in the Church of England to restore the diaconate as an Order of the ministry for women. These efforts have proceeded gradually, but certainly to the goal which has been attained after a hundred years of work and many disappointments.

In America the word deaconess seems to have been first used by Bishop Wilmer of Alabama who, in 1864, "instituted" three women to the office, but without laying on of hands, and without defining just what a deaconess is. Some years later he supplemented this "institution" by solemnly laying hands upon those whom he had already appointed; he used this form of "institution" with all whom he appointed later.

[6] By 1889 the General Convention recognized that there were enough women called "deaconess" in the Church to warrant legislation upon the subject. Accordingly a canon was passed regulating admission to the office, but without defining in any way just what a deaconess is, except that she is "a devout woman of proved fitness, unmarried or widowed."

Thus a deaconess was placed in an anomalous situation. She was not a member of a religious order; she took no vow of celibacy or poverty and she was required to observe no prescribed rule of life. She was not ordained to the ministry of the diaconate; the majority of deacons, priests and bishops of the Church practise Article XXXII. If she married, her appointment was vacated. She spent her whole time in Church work, most of which could be performed and was being performed by laymen and women without any formal appointment by laying on of hands.

Nevertheless, deaconesses took heart. At least some sort of official recognition had been given them. In the next few years eight schools had been established, most of them under diocesan foundation, for preparation of women for the office and work of deaconess. At first most of the students of these schools were "set apart" as deaconesses. Within twenty years many of them began to realize that they could do the same work without being "set apart" and that marriage would not automatically vacate their appointment.

Meanwhile, official American education continued the direction of development started at the turn of the century. The object of its devotion gradually changed from cultivation of Being to an aggregate of apprenticeships for all kinds of ways of increasing salaries. Pedagogy and social service became secularized and achieved the distinction of college degrees invented for the purpose and requiring no particular religious practice for their attainment. Holders of these degrees could hope for larger salaries than would ever be paid to a deaconess. Fewer and fewer graduates of the training houses were "set apart" as deaconesses. The schools themselves had been inspired by cultivation of worship, thinking and living as means of preserving and extending the Christ Life. They were not equipped to become universities of "things in general". The Church lost sight of their importance and, within the last twenty years, every one of them has closed or changed the direction of policy.

At the present writing (March, 1957) there are 100 deaconesses in the Church. Forty of these are in active service in twenty-five dioceses and missionary jurisdictions. Sixty are retired, although several of these are doing part-time work. Two are invalids and two have taken secular work.

[7] Personal acquaintance with most of the active deaconesses and with many of those who are retired, has convinced this writer that these princesses of character and faith have rendered invaluable service to the Church, and that they form a nucleus of which the Church might well take advantage, before it is too late, to restore the diaconate as an honored Order of its ministry.

Thus far our Church has hesitated to say what a deaconess is, although it had adopted a congeries of unco-ordinated requirements which must be satisfied before a woman can become one. It would seem that, after a hundred years of experimentation and observation, it could say frankly what it thinks a deaconess is and whether it wants that kind of person. If it does want her, it should provide for her training. If it does not want her, it should be ingenious enough to say so, without consulting its fears, as men are so wont to do. For it to lay the subject upon the table once more is to forget that the table is full and shaky.

It has been suggested that women who thought of the work of a deaconess would do better to enter one of our religious orders. A few, but a very few, deaconesses have done this; so have a number of priests. The very small number who have done so indicates that the majority of deaconesses, like the majority of priests, recognize their vocation to the secular life rather than to the regular life. They work as individuals rather than as members of communities. The nature of parochial work in the Church makes this necessary.

The essential difference between the regular and the secular life lies in the fact that living in community makes it possible for the members to devote more attention to worship, prayer and meditation, and therefore to understanding and developing control of temporal things by the power of the Spirit. Manifestly only a minority of people can do this, and human beings are so constituted that only a minority have the vocation to do so. The immediate contact of the Church with the world must be the vocation of the secular ministry. Of this ministry, the diaconate is the most confused.

The following recommendations are made for consideration by authorities of the Church:

1. To restore the diaconate as an Order of the ministry of the Church. Whether it will continue to be necessary for a candidate for the priesthood to spend a few days or weeks in the diaconate can easily be determined. If it is necessary and it probably will be, that period could be before the candidate's graduation from seminary.

2. To endorse and adopt the resolutions of the archbishops and [7/8] convocations of both provinces of the Church of England, and thus make the diaconate open to both men and women, with the obvious exception of ministry in the Liturgy, which everybody agrees is limited to men.

3. To make it plain that a few years in the diaconate is not a surrogate for any part of the preparation for the priesthood. This subject itself deserves further special study based upon the answer to a question to which our Church has never addressed its official attention: "What is a priest?"

4. To enroll deacons, both men and women, as clergy of the Church, and to make appropriate provisions for their membership in diocesan conventions, for their salaries, for their retirement and for their pensions. All deacons should be directly responsible and subject to the authority of the Bishop for appointment to work, as they are today.

Men and women who have had experience in medicine, or in nursing, or in psychology, or in business, or in social service, or in military service, or in domestic economy, or in any kind of secular specialty, may easily find opportunity to make use, in the ministry, of the knowledge gained therefrom. They may be appointed to specific work in which that knowledge will be an invaluable asset. Any human talent may be consecrated to the work of the Church. No one of these talents, however, should be selected as a general requirement for ordination as a deacon. Nor should it be substituted for other required subjects.

Hesitating steps for restoration of the diaconate for men have already been taken by providing for a "perpetual diaconate". This institution once existed in the Church, but was discontinued many years ago because it became a back door to the priesthood. Its restoration is a good step, provided the canon is strictly applied, and provided no loopholes are left in it.

The nucleus for restoration of the diaconate for women is found in the forty deaconesses who are today in service. The majority of these women think they have been ordained, despite the fearsome words appointed, admitted and set apart used in the canon. Many persons who are entitled to an opinion on the subject agree with them. If they are correct in their opinion, the ordination of these women has but to be recognized. If the Church decides that any or all of them have not been ordained, it would be easy to ordain them; they certainly have the necessary training. Any of them who do not desire ordination could continue to serve as lay Church workers if they wished, but they would no longer be known as deaconesses.

There are several differences between the deacon and the Church worker.

1. A candidate for the diaconate is officially accepted by the Bishop.

[9] A Church worker just decides for himself to be a Church worker.

2. A candidate for the diaconate must spend two years in a manner prescribed by the canons of the Church.

A Church worker may spend a year or five years in studies in schools of his selection, or he may find a position which he can fill with no training whatever. '

3. A deacon is inducted into his office by a solemn act of ordination in which the Church, acting through the Bishop, exacts certain vows from him, and commits to him authority to do a certain work as an official representative of the Church.

A Church worker announces, by school diplomas and/or friends that he is ready for employment.

4. A deacon is examined by diocesan examiners and appointed to his work by the Bishop, to whom he is directly responsible throughout his diaconate.

A Church worker is employed by the rector and/or the vestry of a parish and is responsible only to them for his work.

5. A deacon, as teacher or visitor or nurse, does this as the official representative of the Church, and is expected to comport himself as such.

The Church worker is an individual employed by the Church, and need expect only personal approval or disapproval of his words and works.

6. A deacon has solemnly vowed to obey his bishop, and to make his own manner of living a "wholesome example to the flock of Christ". This is positive.

A Church worker must protect himself from scandal. This is negative.

If a woman were ordained to the Office of Deacon by a service similar to that used for ordination of a deacon, with only those changes made necessary by the fact that she does not assist at the Holy Communion, she would share in all these differences. As a matter of fact, most of the present deaconesses already share them and are thoroughly conscious of being something more than a Church worker.

A deacon (or deaconess), to fulfil the duties of the sacred office, should prepare the "manner of life" to be followed, and adopt a rule of the character of the following:

Of every day, an hour should be appointed for worship. This would include the Eucharist, where it is possible, and Morning and Evening [9/10] Prayer. He should appoint a part of each day for private prayer and meditation; is a half hour too much? An hour of intellectual study or reading, and a half hour of spiritual reading would stimulate his growth in grace. Some time should be given to intercession, especially for those to whom he is ministering. To do this will certainly affect and develop his whole character. Eight hours of sleep, eight hours of work, and two hours for eating would leave something over an hour for recreation. A majority of the deaconesses and many of the deacons of today already have a rule of this kind. For such a rule or life, training is absolutely necessary. Details of necessary academic requirements and the method of attaining them will have to be worked out. For the program of spiritual training the proposed four-week program of the Church of England might well be studied.

The Church already has a Central House for Deaconesses located at Sycamore, Illinois, not far from the population center of the country. This house is equipped with all the necessary accessories for training women for the diaconate. If it should become inadequate for training larger numbers, a branch house could easily be established. If it should prove to be in the wrong location, it could easily be moved to a more convenient place. The deaconesses who direct this house, and the students who are at present with them, live by a rule similar to the one suggested. The atmosphere of this house presents that marvelous combination of happiness and reverence which is necessary for training.

We have first to define clearly the goal of the training required. Problems of detail can easily be solved. If the solution by our Church follows the pattern of the Church which gave us our whole pattern of religion in a way which unmistakably links us with the historic pattern of the ministry, there will be no uncertainty or hesitancy in answering the question, "What is a Deaconess?"


A Statement from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.

In the revising of Canon Law, the Convocations of Canterbury and York have recently re-affirmed their earlier resolutions that "the Order of Deaconesses is the one Order of Ministry in the Church of England to which women are admitted by prayer and the laying on of hands of the Bishop." Thus it becomes clear that while for men there is the threefold Holy Order of Bishops, Priests and Deacons, for women there is the Order of Deaconesses. This fact has its origin in history, for it is clear that within the Ministry of the Early Church deaconesses played an important part.

This re-affirmation by the Convocations was needed to put an end to misunderstandings which have existed for some time past regarding the nature and character of the Order. Misunderstandings arose on the one hand from a supposed identification of the Order of Deaconesses with the diaconate for men, and on the other from the assumption that its members might be aspiring to the priesthood. Now that after full debate such misconceptions have been cleared up we desire to call the attention of the Church to the importance of this Order.

At her ordination as a deaconess, a woman receives by episcopal ordination a distinctive and permanent status in the Church and is dedicated to a lifelong service and ministry. The Church thus gives to her ministry authorization and authority by the laying on of hands. No vow or implied promise of celibacy is involved.

The functions which a deaconess is authorized by the Church to perform are the teaching of the Christian Faith; the pastoral care of women and young people and ministry to the sick and the whole. As laid down in the Resolutions of Convocation 1939-41 she may also exercise the following functions with the approval of the Bishop at the invitation of the Incumbent concerned:

1. In case of need to read the services of Morning and Evening Prayer and the Litany, except those portions reserved to the Priest, and to lead in prayer.

2. To instruct and preach, except during the service of the Holy Communion.

It is evident that women possess gifts for teaching religion and for pastoral care which are specially their own and complementary to those of men. The Church desires to make the fullest use of these gifts and indeed its total [11/12] evangelistic and pastoral work would be grievously weakened without them. While the Church will always be dependent on and enriched by the service of its lay women as of its lay men, we hope that many women who wish to be totally committed to a life of ministry in the Church will become deaconesses.

The call to ordination may come to those just leaving the University who are clear, from the start, that specialized work in the Church is their vocation. It may also come to the mature woman who has experience of authority and responsibility in the field of education or social welfare. Similarly there are many now doing whole time work for the Church in parishes, in institutions or in Church Societies for whom ordination as a deaconess would seem to be the natural course.

Probably the chief sphere of work for the deaconess will continue to be in the parishes, particularly in view of the growing needs of new districts and housing estates where a great variety of pioneer work waits to be done. But just as certain types of educational or social work, Church administration or the like are regarded as fit and proper occupations for men in Holy Orders, so these should be regarded as suitable fields of service for a deaconess.

The Bishops have entrusted to the Council for the Order of Deaconesses the duty of advising and testing those who seek ordination and of making provision for adequate training. Candidates for ordination must be women of disciplined Christian life. They must also have a sound knowledge of the Holy Scriptures and of Christian Doctrine and practical ability for the work to be done.

The outward mark of a deaconess is the silver cross of the Order. No distinctive dress is necessarily worn except the choir habit which has been authorized for use in Church.

A fuller understanding of the Order of Deaconess and a greater use of its potentialities will lead to an enrichment of the total Ministry of the Church, and a strengthening of its evangelistic and pastoral power. Accordingly we commend consideration of these matters to women who are serving the Church and we would exhort the Church to use, honor and encourage this Ministry in every way possible.

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