The lay ministry of Deaconesses as a means of service in aiding the Church and the clergy is to be found in the New Testament. There is the mention of Phoebe (Romans 16.1), who is called diakonos, who was “in the ministry [service] of the Church.” It is possible that the widows who are spoken of at large in 1 Timothy 5.3-10 may also have been Deaconesses. That some women functionaries were appointed at an early date in the Church seems likely from Pliny's letter to Trajan concerning the Christians of Bithynia. There he speaks of obtaining information by torture from two women, “who were called deaconesses.” Before the middle of the fourth century, women were permitted to exercise certain definite functions in the Church and were known by the special name of diakonoi or diakonissai.
It is not always possible to draw a clear distinction in the earliest Church between Deaconesses and widows. The Didascalia, Apostolic Constitutions, and kindred documents recognize them as separate classes - and they prefer the Deaconess in the duty of assisting the clergy. Indeed, the Apostolic Constitutions enjoin widows to be obedient to the Deaconesses! In the earlier period of Church, it was only a widow who could become a Deaconess, but the strict limits of age, sixty years, which were at first prescribed for widows were relaxed, at least at certain periods and in certain localities, in the case of those to be appointed Deaconesses. The Council of Trullo in AD 692 fixed the age at forty. Deaconesses in the fourth and fifth centuries had a distinct ecclesiastical standing, although there are traces of much variety of practice and custom.
The Councils of Laodicea and Nicaea I clearly state that Deaconesses are to be accounted as laywomen and receive no sacramental ordination. The Church has always repudiated the idea that women could be recipients of the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
With regard to the duration of the Deaconesses in the ancient Church, we note that when adult baptism became uncommon, this ministry, which seems primarily to have been devised for the needs of women catechumens, gradually waned and in the end died out altogether.
In their original form, Deaconesses were intended to discharge charitable offices connected with the temporal well being of their poorer fellow Christian women and children. In the instruction and baptism of catechumens, their duties involved service of a more spiritual kind. The universal prevalence of baptism by immersion and the anointing of the whole body which preceded it rendered it a matter of propriety that in this act the functions of the ordained should be discharged instead by women. The Didascalia Apostolorum explicitly directs that the Deaconesses are to perform this function. The Apostolic Constitutions attribute to them the duty of guarding the doors and maintaining order amongst women in the church, and the document also assigns to Deaconesses the role of acting as intermediaries between the clergy and the women of the congregation. On the other hand, it is laid down that “the deaconess gives no blessing, for she fulfills no function of priest or deacon.”
Anglicanism has reaffirmed the ministry of Deaconess over the past century and a half, as was confirmed by the Lambeth Conference of 1948. The Church of England restored the ministry of Deaconess with the setting apart of Elizabeth Catherine Ferard in 1861 - she was the first Anglican Deaconess.
Following the example of the Church of England, the American Church revived the ancient ministry of Deaconess, and from 1885 to 1970 almost five hundred American women were set apart as Deaconesses to care for the sick, the afflicted, and the poor. The 1889 American General Convention passed a canon on Deaconesses which recognized their ministry. The canon set standards and qualifications for Deaconesses. Their work included instructing in the faith, preparing candidates for baptism and confirmation, caring for women and children, and organizing and carrying on social work. There were training schools for Deaconesses in New York and Philadelphia. The Deaconess ministry was restored once more in the Continuing Churches from 1977 to the present, with a renewed emphasis on service to women, children, and parishes.
There are many important ways in which women may serve God and the extension of His Kingdom. Since the dawn of Christianity, one such role has been the Deaconess ministry. While remaining clearly in the order of the laity, these women dedicate themselves to a life of service and are trained to serve as able assistants to the clergy and Christ's Holy Catholic Church. The Anglican Province of America recognizes this lay ministry and supports the dedication and commitment of those women who discern a calling to this state of life. The APA commends this ministry to the life and witness of the whole Church.