St Theosebia the Deaconess (d. 385AD) was the sister of Sts Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter, Bishop of Sebaste. She was especially noted for her care for the sick, for distributing food to vagrants, raising orphans and preparing women for holy Baptism [unfortunately I don’t have an icon of her to use in this post]. All of these were a normal part of her ministry as a Deaconess in the Orthodox Church. Obviously, she lived at a time when Orthodoxy embraced having women deacons, who could also be declared as saints in the Church. Roman Catholic scholar Jean Danielou tells us about the role of the women deacons in the post-Apostolic and early Patristic eras of the Church. He notes that there developed early on in the church the office of the widows, which declines early on and is replaced by the office of the deaconess:
… when the institution of Widows declines, another female institution, that of the Deaconesses, comes to take its place, and with the promise of a happier fortune. We have seen that the first indications of this may be found in Apostolic times, though it was a matter then of an altogether inferior office. In the middle of the third century there was a sudden expansion. It benefited at first from the rise of the ideal of Virginity with which it was associated (Apostolic Constitutions [4th Century], 6, 17, 4). Moreover, the functions discharged by the Deaconesses assumed increasing importance in the 3rd century with the growth of the church. . . .
[From the 4th Century document the Testament of our Lord Jesus Christ, we learn the following about Deaconesses:]
They occupy an eminent place … in the community. They are mentioned immediately after the Deacons. They sit during the liturgy to the left of the Bishop, parallel with the deacons who sit to the right (I, 23, 17). They make their communion first after the deacons (I, 23, 47). They are ordained, without imposition of hands (I, 41, 99). They combine with the ancient privileges of the Widows the functions of the Deaconesses; in particular, they assist the Bishop at the Baptism of women. . . . They make their communion at the head of the women (I, 23, 47). They carry the Easter communion to women who are sick (II, 20, 143). . . .
As we have seen, the Teaching of the Apostles [Didache, 1st Century] shows us the institution of Widows in its decline. On the other hand it bears witness to the rise of the Deaconesses. An early passage puts them parallel with the deacons: ‘The Deacon has the place of Christ and you will love him. You will honor the Deaconesses in the place of the Holy Spirit…’ (IX, 82). . . . ‘That is why, O Bishop, thou dost choose for thyself assistants who will lead thy people unto life. Thou wilt choose and establish as Deacons from all the people such as thou wilt please, a man to do the numerous things that are necessary, and a woman for the service of women’ (XVI, 136). The reason for and the scope of this ministry then follow: ‘For there are houses where thou canst not send the Deacon to the woman’s quarters, because of the heathen: thou will send there the Deaconesses’ (XVI, 134). This was already the general reason for the existence of a ministry of women in Clement’s writings: ‘In many other matters besides, it is necessary to employ a Deaconess. First of all, when women descend into the water for baptism, it is necessary that those who thus descend should be anointed with the oil of unction by the Deaconess. When no women, and above all, no Deaconesses, are available, then it is inevitable that he who performs the baptism should anoint her who is baptized’ (XII, 134, 5). . . . ‘When she who is baptized comes out of the water, the Deaconess shall receive her, instruct her, and look after her, to the end that the unbreakable seal of baptism may be impressed on her with purity and holiness’ (XV, 135). Thus, the Deaconess inherits part of the role of the teacher as discharged by women. Finally, ‘the ministry of the Deaconesses is still necessary for thee, for a number of things. Where Christian women live in heathen households it is necessary that it should be the Deaconess who goes there and visits women who are sick (XVI, 135). Thus the Deaconesses, apart altogether from their strictly liturgical functions, are the inheritors of the pastoral duties of the Widows.
The Apostolic canons show us a situation analogous to that of the Didascalia [3rd Century]. They underline several important features. The Deaconesses have a distinguished role to play. They are mentioned immediately after the Deacons. Above all, we meet here an actual ordination of Deaconesses. The particular Ordination formula is given us in the Epitome (10): ‘Thou shalt lay thy hands upon her in the presence of the Presbyters, the Deacons, and the Deaconesses, saying, “Thou who didst fill Deborah, Hannah and Hulda with the Holy Spirit, thou who in the Temple didst appoint women to keep the holy doors, Look upon thy servant chosen for the ministry (diaconia), and give to her the Holy Spirit that she may worthily perform the office committed unto her”’.
We are in the presence of the Ordination of Deaconesses, which makes them into an actual minor order. This ordination is witnessed by some other texts of the period, Canon 19 of the Council of Nicea [325AD] seems to bear witness to it… Canon 15 of the Council of Chalcedon [451AD] is explicit: ‘A woman may not be ordained (xeirotoneisthai) under 40 years of age.’ The word xeirotonia is the technical one for Ordination. . . . (At Byzantium the ordination allowed laying on of hands, clothing with the orarion (the deacon’s robe), and delivery of the chalice.) (THE MINISTRY OF WOMEN IN THE EARLY CHURCH, pp 20-23)
Women deacons were once a normal part of the Orthodox Church. They were blessed, ordained by bishops and honored by several prominent theologian saints in the Church. Several deaconesses themselves became saints in the Orthodox Church. Unfortunately, through history the office all but disappeared. The role of women in Christian ministry has seen its ups and downs through history. St Ephrem of Syria was praised by some for restoring women to active ministry in the church in his day (see my post Women: The Financial Supporters of Christ and His Apostles). Today some Orthodox, such as the St Phoebe Center for the Deaconess, are working to restore the rightful place of women deacons as a traditional office in the life of the Church. The role of the deacon morphed through history. Deacons were once the direct assistants of the bishops, as distinct from presbyters, and especially involved in the charitable work of the Church. In more recent times the role of the deacon had almost disappeared in many places and was otherwise reduced to the role of a liturgical embellishment. As the office of deacon is going through a revival in many places, there is no reason to think that the deaconess cannot also find a rightful place in the Church.