The Ministry of Deaconess in Christ’s Holy Church
And How One Enters into this Ministry
There are many women called to service in the church. They work tirelessly in schools, Altar Guilds, offices, missions and in a wide variety of other church activities. These women are most needed and valuable to the clergy who are responsible for administering Christ’s Church.
The woman who seeks to be a Deaconess, however, is different. She is specifically and rigorously trained for a life-long commitment to service in the church. While she remains in a lay ministry, she seeks a much deeper commitment to working within the Church than the normal parishioner.
What is a Deaconess?
In the past: It is believed that women have served the church in the role of Deaconess (diakonos) as early as the Apostolic period (Romans 16:1). A Deaconess cared for the poor, women and children, had special duties during the Baptism of women and in the women’s galleries during the Eucharist. The role of the Deaconess remained strong until the Middle Ages when it fell into disuse. It was revived again in England and Europe as part of the Reformation because there was a great need for the services provided by a Deaconess. The role of Deaconess remained an important lay vocation until 1976 when the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) mistakenly began to ordain women to Holy Orders. The traditional Anglican Church did not make this change.
In today’s world: Today’s Deaconess in the traditional Anglican church is a lay woman who has answered a calling to work for Christ and His Church. She works under the direction of her Rector or her Bishop and her duties can be on the parish, Diocesan, Provincial or community level.
What does a Deaconess do?
A Deaconess is a woman who has made a long-term commitment to Christ and His Church. She brings her God-given abilities to its use. Just as Paul describes the Church as a group of people with many different talents, so also will a group of Deaconesses have many different capabilities. The Rector of her parish will decide how a Deaconess’ talents are to be best used in his congregation. Almost all Deaconesses, however, will teach at some point, either formally or informally. Almost all will be involved in assisting parish families, women and children in particular. She will help care for the poor and the sick. She will assume other non-priestly duties based on her unique talents and the needs of her parish.
Who should consider becoming a Deaconess?
A woman should consider becoming a Deaconess if she has already experienced working for her parish in several capacities, yet she finds she desires an even deeper spiritual life and a more permanent commitment. She feels called by God to commit herself to furthering His work on earth and she wants to answer that call. This decision is best made over several months and with the counsel of her Priest.
What is Required?
Age: She must be at least 23 years of age.
Maturity and mental stability: Because a Deaconess is in the role of helping others, she herself must be a person of mental stability and maturity. She should be a woman who exhibits good judgment and who is not inhibited by excessive personal stress or depression.
Certain skills: There are many duties all Deaconesses are asked to do regardless of personal talents. Each candidate, however, must have a particular skill or training in teaching, social work or pastoral care.
Academic Ability: Academic ability is a necessity because a Deaconess embarks on a life-long study to improve her ability to teach and represent correctly the history, doctrine, and current policies of the church. Often this knowledge must be gained through persistent reading and self-instruction.
A true calling: A valid candidate is responding to a calling by God to set her life apart from the normal material world and to turn instead to a life that is dedicated to the Lord and His Church. A candidate should feel that her calling is for life even though in unusual circumstances the church will allow a Deaconess to leave her duties. This should never be a burden of obligation but instead a voluntary and joyful giving.
What is the Process?
First, seek God’s advice and listen to your heart to determine whether you have a true calling. Do not be surprised if a certain amount of fear or confusion occurs at this point. That can happen. In some cases a woman might feel a calling but resists it for any number of reasons. When this happens, it is best not to commit too quickly. A true calling will be persistent and eventually overcome any uncertainty. Certain personal reasons, however, may be serious enough to prohibit consideration for the present. Their subsequent resolution may make a later commitment possible. A woman who is married needs to have the full unconditional support of her family, particularly her husband. The preparation and the life of a Deaconess take significant time away from the family so its members need to be in agreement with her decision. The Provincial Canons require that the preparations to become a Deaconess take at least two years. Each Diocese, by canon or policy, sets out how the process proceeds from this point. What follows are the steps generally outlining the how the process flows in the Diocese of the Eastern United States, which is similar to the process in the rest of the APA. Always check with Diocesan authorities to ensure you are following the proper path.
- Discuss your perceived vocation with your parish priest.
- If you both believe you may be called to this ministry, write to the Bishop Ordinary requesting to begin a year of discernment and send a copy of this letter to the Chairman of the Board of Examining Chaplains. The Board of Examining Chaplains will then assign readings and written work to assist you in fully discerning your call.
- After completion of the one year discernment period, and you desire to continue, you may then complete the Deaconess Ministry Application and submit it to the Diocesan Offices. This is similar to the application required of the clergy. The process checklist on the Deaconess Application spells out the specific details of each step in the process. Deaconess candidates in the DEUS have requirements similar to those of men studying for the Perpetual Diaconate.
- Once the Application is fully completed, the Examining Chaplains shall begin to superintend your progress. Studies for deaconess candidates shall not encompass a time of less than two years.
- The Deaconess studies track at Logos House of Theological Studies must be completed. (See logoshousetheological.org/index.html)
- Canonical Examinations, both verbal and written, shall be completed.
- There will be final interviews with the Standing Committee and Bishop Ordinary to determine your fitness for this ministry once all studies are complete.
- The Bishop Ordinary always has the final say in whether or not a woman will be set apart as a Deaconess in Christ’s Church. Once he receives the advice and consent of the Standing Committee, and he himself approves, a date for Setting Apart shall be set.