The Women Deacons of the First Millennium
Lines of research as follows – see www.womendeacons.org:
How many women deacons of the first millennium do we know by name?
FINDING. We know more than 100 by name with, at times, details about their lives:
- 14 in Armenia and Syria;
- 52 in Asia Minor;
- 15 in Italy including Gaul [= today’s France] and Dalmatia [= today’s Croatia];
- 14 in Palestine and Egypt;
- and 20 in Greece.
Were these women deacons sacramentally ordained?
FINDING. The ordination of female deacons was essentially identical to that of male deacons. The ordination rite, especially in the Catholic Greek-speaking East, shows all the hallmarks of a full sacramental ordination.
Has the text of the original ordination rite for women deacons been preserved?
FINDING. Yes it has. We find it in all the main euchologia of the Catholic Church in the East open for inspection in libraries such as:
- 380 AD – the Apostolic Constitutions
- 780 AD – the Barberini gr. 336 (Vatican Library)
- 1020 AD – the Bessarion manuscript (Greek monastery of Grotta Ferrata)
- 1050 AD – the Coislin gr. 213 (National Library in Paris)
- 1100 AD – Vatican Manuscript gr. 1872 (Vatican Library)
- 1550 AD – the Codex Syriacus Vaticanus no 19 (Vatican Library).
What about the West? Do we know how women were ordained in the Latin-speaking part of the Catholic Church?
FINDING. We do. Historical data show that a truly sacramental ordination existed during the first nine centuries, then the rite degenerated into a mere initiation ceremony. See the overview here.
Have the Latin rites for ordaining women been preserved in manuscripts?
FINDING. Indeed. The original rite can be found in these sacramentaries:
- 750 AD – Reconstructed ‘German’ Sacramentary;
- 811 AD – Cambrai ms. 164 (Cambrai Municipal Library);
- 850 AD – Ottobonianus lat. 313 (Paris);
- 850 Ad – Vatican Reginae lat. 337 (Vatican Library);
- 1050 AD – Leofric Missal of Exeter (Bodleian Library, Oxford);
- 1150 AD – Pontifical of St Blaise (National Library Vienna).
Other Pontificals contain a fully elaborated liturgy:
- 850 AD – the Ordo Romanus of Hittorp;
- 1030 AD – Pontifical of St Alban Abbey, Mainz;
- 1035 AD – Pontifical of the Abbey of Monte Cassino, Italy;
- 1050 AD – Pontifical Vallicella D5 (Vallicellan Library, Rome);
- 1050 AD – Pontifical of Salzburg, Austria (Vendome Municipal Library).
What were the tasks of the women deacons?
FINDING. They had important roles in the local parishes.
Were there other ministries of women during the first millennium?
FINDING. Yes, there were. In particular we note the following:
- ‘Widows’ in France, Italy and North Africa.
- ‘Conhospitae’ among the Celts in Britain, Ireland and France.
- ‘Presbyterae’ in the South of Italy and Sicily.
- ‘Freilas’ in the Basque territories of Spain and France.
- The ‘Abbess Sacerdos’ in Britain and Germany.
Did Church Councils recognise the diaconate of women?
FINDING. Indeed. They are mentioned in the Council of Nicea I (325 AD), the Council Chalcedon (451 AD) and the Council of Trullo (692 AD), whose relevant extracts are available here.
Did Popes during the first millennium recognise the diaconate of women?
FINDING. They did. This applies also to key Popes such as Leo I (440-461), Gregory the Great (590 – 604) and Adrian I (772 – 795).
We welcome any contributions to our lines of inquiry, whether in the form of observations, critiques, submission of new material or the suggestion of other topics for research.
|.||No Women in Holy Orders? The Ancient Women Deacons, by John Wijngaards, Canterbury Press, London 2002; USA edition:Women Deacons in the Early Church. Historical Texts and Contemporary Debates, Herder & Herder Crossroad, New York 2006; Dutch edition:Vrouwen tot diaken gewijd. Historische feiten en actueel debat, Herne Heeswijk 2006 (Netherlands) and Altiora Averbode 2007 (Belgium).
The Ordained Women Deacons of the Church’s first Millennium, by John Wijngaards, new and expanded edition, Canterbury Press December 2011.