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Patricia Bouteneff: Letter from Philadelphia

Patricia Bouteneff reports on the Symposium on Reviving the Female Diaconate in the Orthodox Church: Has the Time Come? that took place at St. Sophia, Sts. Faith, Hope & Agape Greek Orthodox Church, Jeffersonville (Norristown), PA, on Saturday, March 30, 2019.

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The diaconate is a role within the church that most of us don’t think about very often. For maybe the majority of people, the diaconate is a mere apprenticeship to the priesthood that few take seriously. Who knew that it could instead be the stepping stone to a renewed and revitalized church?

The audience at last week’s symposium, which primarily consisted ofarchons and parishioners from surrounding churches, was initially only lukewarm. My neighbor, Tom, was typical. An older gentleman, he suggested that the symposium would have been stronger with an opposing view, though he agreed when I said that contrary opinions are easy to discover on Orthodox websites. 

As the day proceeded, the talks gave a holistic view of the diaconate, what it has been, what it has deteriorated into, and what a wholehearted and unstinting revitalization of the order could create for the church. We were presented with a vision of a church whose members are cared for pastorally, energetically, joyfully, thoughtfully, and wisely in a way that few of us can ever have experienced but would love to see.

The evolution of reactions was striking. By the end of the day, the audience had shifted from lukewarm to positively radiant with enthusiasm. People were leaping to their feet asking who would be training the deaconesses, when the first cohort could be ordained, what are the next steps to making this vision come to life. It was inspiring to see so many people who love their church energized by this new and exciting way of serving it, our communities, and the world.

I hope that they will continue to offer this symposium elsewhere around the country. If you’d like to see it for yourself, consider inviting them to your parish! In the meantime, the video from this event will soon be up on YouTube.  I report below on some of the main things I heard from the four main speakers.

Archdn John Chryssavgis 

Dn John spoke by recorded video (he had been called to attend the funeral in Australia of Abp Stylianos). His fresh look at the diaconate was essentially a reminder of the patristic witness to what a fully functioning diaconate (male and female) means to the church. As an example of what a fully staffed church might look like and the proportions of ordinands, he noted that the emperor Justinian set into law that Hagia Sophia should have a roster of 60 priests, 100 deacons, and 40 deaconesses.  The proper roles of authority, as they were understood in history were as follows: the episcopate serves as bonds of unity, the presbytery as celebrants of sacrament, and the deaconate as dispensers of community. Deacons and deaconesses could provide the gifts of parish administration, youth ministry, preaching and teaching, community service, organizing conferences and workshops, teaching at seminaries, leading camp programs, acting as chaplains and counselors, directing choirs, and reinforcing community and unity.

Teva Regule

Within the need for a woman-to-woman ministry in the church, Dr Regule walked us through why ordination is important for some church roles. Although women fill many roles in the church, ordination where appropriate would bring qualified women into a new relationship with their communities.

·      It is a setting aside of a person for a ministry.

·      It recognizes a person’s qualifications.

·      It confers authority and the support of the church.

·      It makes the person responsible to the bishop.

Kyra Limberakis

Girls and women who are used to being fully functioning members of their families, their schools, their workplaces, and their societies are frequently disheartened to be closed out of most of the life of the church. Ms Limberakis, Director of CrossRoads at Hellenic College/Holy Cross Seminary, gave us real-life examples of college-age women who love the church, want to remain in the church, but see little role or true welcome for themselves within it. I was struck both by how much they love their church, and how pushed away they feel by it.

Carrie Frederick Frost

“In the future the church will either become diaconal or cease to exist,” a quote from Karl Rahner, was Dr Frost’s theme. Until this point, all the talk had been about how the diaconate could bless the church and its members. Dr Frost presented us with an even wider vision. A diaconal future does not imply an increase in grandeur, but rather in service, struggle, and the willingness to engage in risky relationships with the other. Both the world and the church are facing many difficulties, and, by adopting a diaconal nature, the church can help us meet those challenges. The church needs to offer co-suffering with others, humility (on which its authority can only be based), and an ethos of service.

Carrie Frederick Frost, Teva Regule, and Kyra Limberakis

Carrie Frederick Frost, Teva Regule, and Kyra Limberakis

The symposium occurred on Saturday, May 30, at St Sophia and Sts Faith, Hope, and Agape parish, whose new basilica’s interior is covered with frescoes by George Kordis (a wonderful, unexpected addition to the joys and inspirations of the day). The symposium was called “Reviving the Female Diaconate in the Orthodox Church: Has the Time Come?” The speakers were members of the St Phoebe Center for the Deaconess. (If you want to support their work, you can donate here).

The symposium was sponsored by Archons of the Greek Orthodox Church of America. It is a sign of great hope that the Archons, a men’s-only organization, has a vision that can encompass how and whether a reinvigorated diaconate that benefits women could also reinvigorate the church.

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Patricia Fann Bouteneff, a former academic and corporate chief of staff, is an independent scholar who specializes in folklore and Pontic Greek studies. You can find her translations and studies of folktales at Baptized at a metochi of Simonopetra in Thessaloniki, she has been active in church communities in Greece, England, Switzerland, and the US, and at present sits on the parish council of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Yonkers, New York.