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Deaconesses in Europe and their Lessons for Americ

There was no historian of the diaconate of the early Church


We

find very little about this order of Christian workers in the Western Church. There is a passage of Origen in a Latin translation which speaks of the ministry of women as both existing and necessary, but in the great Latin fathers, the contemporaries of Chrysostom, scarcely a mention occurs. From the last half of the fifth century the diaconate of women declined in importance.[15] It was deprived of its clerical character by the decrees passed by the Gallic councils of the fifth and sixth centuries. It was finally entirely abolished as a church order by the Synod of Orleans, 593 A.D., which forbade any woman henceforth to receive the _benedictio diaconalis_, which had been substituted for _ordinatio diaconalis_ by a previous council (Synod of Orange, 441). The withdrawing of church sanctions made the deaconess cause a private one. But as such it existed for hundreds of years, often under the patronage and protection of those high in authority. About the year 600 A.D. the patriarch of Constantinople, godfather of the Emperor Mauritius, built for his sister, who was a deaconess, a church which for centuries was called the "Church of the Deaconesses." It is still standing and, only slightly changed, is now used for a Turkish mosque.[16]

In the twelfth century there were still deaconesses at Constantinople. Balsamon, a distinguished professor of Church law, writing at the time, says that deaconesses were still elected in that city and took charge

of conferences among women members, but in other places the order had passed completely away.

There was no historian of the diaconate of the early Church. We learn of it only from isolated and occasional references in works devoted to other subjects. Yet these references are sufficient to enable us to affirm that deaconesses were a factor in the life of the Church for from nine to twelve centuries, or two thirds of the Christian era.

The same influences led to its decay that affected the entire life of the Church during these centuries. The superior sanctity attached to the unmarried state, that brought about the celibacy of the priests, gradually changed the active beneficent existence of the old-time deaconesses into the cloistral life of nuns. Statutes were passed forbidding her to marry. Gradually grew up the dangerous superstition of the marriage of the individual soul with Christ, that made of the nun the Bride of Christ in an especial sense. It was this false conception that led the vow of the nun to be regarded as the vow of marriage, and to be guarded from infringement in the same way as the human marriage tie, and like it to be lasting for life. The glorious doctrine of justification by faith was replaced by ascetic mortifications of the flesh based upon the belief in meritorious works. The cell of the monk and the nun were esteemed more sacred than the family circle, and in the darkness of mediaeval times that settled down upon the life of the Church we lose sight of the busy, active ministrations of women deacons, who had once been esteemed so needful to her usefulness.


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