Women Deacons in the Early Church

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Women Deacons in the Early Church

Historical Texts and Contemporary Debates

Can women be ordained? Have they been ordained in the past, as deacons, and fully accepted in ministry? This historical study tries to prove that women have served as deacons, and hence that they might serve as priests.

One of the most common arguments against the ordination of women deacons is that it represents a break with the orthodox tradition. In this engagingly written new book, John Wijngaards, in a careful examination of historical evidence such as histories, written documents, and tombstones, shows that countless women served as sacramentally ordained deacons in the early centuries of Christianity. Wijngaards' book contributes to the conversation about the role of women in today's churches, and offers us a fascinating look at an overlooked element in Christian history.

Reviews and endorsements

“This is an important and captivating study. Wijngaards guides the reader step by step on an exciting trail of historical research. The evidence he presents results in an unmistakable and incontrovertible conclusion: women ministered in the early Church as sacramentally ordained deacons. The book is lively in presentation, detailed in academic underpinning and, theologically, extremely relevant to the question of ministry today.”
René van Eyden, University of Utrecht, chair of Theology and Feminist Research

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“Wijngaards combines accurate historical inquiry, text analysis, and interpretation of fact with a highly sophisticated theological competence and acute common sense. The text reads like a thriller. Rare indeed are theological books like this.”
Peter Hünermann, University of Tübingen, former president of the Catholic Theological Association of Europe

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“This study clarified some of the basics with regard to the first millennium diaconate, in which both women and men had an equivalent part. If there is to be an ordained ministry, women ought to be included. John Wijngaard’s study can be a jumping-off point for reconnecting ministry in its entirety.”
Mary Hunt, Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual

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“This is an exceptionally engaging and readable book. Wijngaards has also rendered a great service by translating the original sources and presenting them in an easily accessible format. A valuable contribution to academic and church-political discussions.”
Peter Hofrichter, president of the Institute of Church History and Patrology

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"The contribution made by John Wijngaards to the ordination debate has been unparalleled by any other English-language writer. His logical analysis is incisive, his academic historical standards are extremely high, and his theology is Catholic through and through, so that the ordination of women emerges as something that is imperative if the Church is to be true to its own nature.”
Margaret Hebblethwaite, The Tablet

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This book, first published in England in 2002, is a very persuasive work. In both a scholarly and readable fashion, Wijngaards, using primary sources such as written documents, tombstones and histories written during the early church, demonstrates that women were ordained to the diaconate in the first centuries of the Christian Era. The author is particularly persuasive in countering the argument that female deacons had lesser and different qualitative roles from the male deacons. In re-examining and re-translating both the ordination rites and the descriptions of ministries of women deacons, he make an effective case that women were sacramentally ordained to a major order.

No matter how one stands on the women’s ordination issue this engaging study will be helpful. It will serve to deepen and advance the conversation around women’s role in the church. This work is significant because the author bring his considerable theological background and interpretive ability to this study of the past that shads light on an issue of vital importance to the ministerial life of today’s church. It would be a valuable addition to the rectory, seminary or college library.
Kathleen Keating, SSJ

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Women Deacons reviews the history of the ordination of women to the diaconate; this practice occurred in the Byzantine Church for centuries, especially from the third to the seventh century. Scholars overwhelmingly hold that the ordination of women deacons was truly sacramental; these women, then, received what we today call the sacrament of holy orders. There are only two scholars of renown who thought otherwise: Aimé Georges Martimort and Gerhard Müller. Much of Women Deacons is a refutation of Martimort's work. The author, Wijngaards effectively disproves Martimort's arguments and also explains why both he and Müller hold their exceptional position. These two are convinced that the diaconate and the priesthood are intimately bound together; just as women cannot be priests, so too they cannot really be deacons. However, many scholars disagree with that principle. The evidence is simply too strong to deny that women really were ordained deacons. True, the women did not sing the litanies at Mass, proclaim the Gospel, or help with Communion. But within the Orthodox Church today, there is a vital movement to restore the diaconate that women once possessed. Many argue, too, that it was for cultural reasons that women deacons did not function in the liturgy, not for the theological reasons. Hence, at least in Orthodoxy, it is possible that we will again in our lifetime see women ordained to the diaconate. Women Deacons is an excellent study; I would recommend it highly to anyone interested in the question, along with works by Kallistos Ware and Phyllis Zagano.
Pastor Michael Gilligan, Ph.D.

9780824523930
Paperback / 240 pages
Dimensions: 6 x 9 1/4
HERDER & HERDER, 2006