Ordination of deaconess in Africa stirs Orthodox world, but consequences are unclear

Claiming to fulfill a 2016 decision by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria to revive the ancient order of deaconesses, Metropolitan Seraphim of Zimbabwe caught the Orthodox world by surprise by ordaining Angelic Molen (a married woman with two children) as a deaconess (St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess, May 2). Molen was first ordained as a reader and a subdeaconess, and her ordination service utilized the rite used for deacons, with the masculine pronouns changed to feminine, rather than choosing an ancient text for the specific ordination of a deaconess, Carrie Frederick Frost reports in Public Orthodoxy (May 17). “Because Deaconess Angelic is the first deaconess of our own time, Metropolitan Serafim elevated her to the rank of ‘archdeaconess’ on May 4,” Frost adds. While there were indeed instances of deaconesses in ancient times, as well as some instances in contemporary Orthodox contexts such as some women’s monasteries in Greece, deaconesses have not been meant to fulfill the same functions as male deacons. Theologians interviewed by Orthodox Times (May 12) insisted that these deaconesses were made by chirothesy (laying on of hands) and not chirotony (ordination). In the case of Deaconess Angelic, the difference is that she will have liturgical and pastoral duties, doing everything that deacons do in Orthodox liturgical services as well as responding to local needs concerning women. The announcement was received with caution.

Deaconess Angelic Molen (credit: St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess, https://publicorthodoxy.org/good-reads/ordination-of-deaconess-angelic/).

The statement released by the Patriarchate of Alexandria itself on May 11 was expressed in somewhat embarrassed tones. While confirming its 2016 “decision in principle to revive and activate the institution of deaconesses within its pastoral jurisdiction,” the statement added that the decision had been “referred for further examination to establish the details concerning the attire, method of ministry delivery, and liturgical role of deaconesses in the contemporary life of the Church.” It noted that Metropolitan Seraphim, “being an experienced missionary to Africa, proceeded with the implementation of the initial decision of the Holy Synod” without waiting for the study to be completed. But Metropolitan Seraphim claims that the Patriarch himself gave the green light in 2023 to his request to ordain a deaconess. The May 2 ordination will certainly boost the discussion on deaconesses in some sectors of the Orthodox Church, but its wider consequences are still unclear and it remains to be seen whether further ordinations will take place along the same lines. That the initiative appears to have been taken by a bishop on an individual basis is seen as a danger to the already threatened unity of the Orthodox Church, according to Metropolitan Saba of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America (Orthodox Christianity, May 17). The current context is indeed a sensitive one, with the Moscow Patriarchate recently creating its own network of parishes on the African continent—in part by integrating former clergy of the Alexandria Patriarchate—and eager to position itself as the herald of “traditional” Orthodoxy in contrast to supposedly modern interpretations of the faith.

(Initial report by the St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess, https://orthodoxdeaconess.org/the-deaconess/contemporary-orthodox-deaconesses/bishop-ordains-orthodox-christian-woman-as-deaconess/)