It’s now time for what I promised: that’s right—we’re now going to dive into the study of women deacons in the west. According to Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek,
“The Western epigraphical evidence for female deacons is slim, probably because of the vagaries of inscriptional survival, IN VIEW OF THE EFFORTS OF COUNCILS OF THE FIFTH AND SIXTH CENTURIES TO ELIMINATE THEM…that so much effort was given to suppression has to indicate more of a custom than the few inscriptions and literary references reveal” (Madigan & Osiek, “Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History,” page 143).
We have evidence from church councils that reveal women serving at the altar, a practice that most would consider today as being the role of the Pastor, elders, and deacons. The only way we know such practices existed is because church councils constantly wrote to forbid such practices (although many churches continued and pushed the patience of councils even further).
The first inscription comes from Rukuma in Africa Proconsularis. It is carved into a slab of limestone:
“Accepta the deacon[ess].”
According to Madigan and Osiek:
“This tomb inscription dates from the late sixth or early seventh century. All we know of Accepta is her name and her title. This is the only female deacon attested to in Africa” (page 143).
We only have one female deacon in Africa—but it is enough to alert us that, even in Africa, women deacons were present.
The next inscription comes from Rome and tells of a woman who made a vow:
“By the gift of God and of the Blessed Apostle Paul, Dometius the deacon and controller of the monies of the holy, apostolic and papal chair, together with ANNA THE DEACON[ESS], his sister offered this vow (hoc votum) to the blessed Paul.” (144)
We are told that both Dometius and his sister had a Latin abbreviation, “DIAC.” We know that Dometius was a deacon, but we are not so sure that Anna was a deacon. The reason is because the inscription is dated from the sixth century; and from the fifth century onward, the female title of “deaconess” was also in operation.
The next inscription is a sixth-century inscription from Doclea, Dalmatia:
“AUSONIA THE DEACON[ESS] (diac) for her vow and that of her children (filiorum).”
We are not sure how to translate this title, but it does tell us that the office of deacon for women also existed.
The last inscription comes from Ticini in St. Trinitas (Gaul):
“Here in peace rests the deaconess (diaconissa) Theodora of blessed memory, who lived in the world for about 48 years. She was buried here on July 22, 539.”
Madigan and Osiek give us an interesting note here about Theodora’s tomb inscription:
“Along with the several synodal and conciliar decrees from the fourth through sixth centuries, also translated in this collection, this inscription gives evidence for the existence and activity in Gaul of deaconesses, DESPITE THE ATTEMPTS OF THE COUNCILS TO ERADICATE THEM, LIMIT THEIR ACTIVITIES, OR FORBID THEIR ORDINATION. As this inscription demonstrates, THESE DECREES REMAINED AT LEAST TO SOME DEGREE A DEAD LETTER” (144, 145).
I find it fascinating to think about church synods and councils issuing decrees against the ordination of women. Today’s conservative churches conduct themselves as if they have always held the orthodox position. However, the churches of ancient times allowed women to serve in leadership positions—against the personal beliefs of church councils and leadership. I don’t know what you think of all this, but it should seem strange that we have to go to tomb inscriptions and church documents forbidding such practices to be able to find them. What this reveals is that the practices of the ancient churches have been hidden because today’s churches deem women’s ordination to be “a black mark of the past” and choose not to talk about it.
What I want you, my readers, to do is to start showing these types of evidence to people around you who believe that women’s ordination has been unorthodox and heretical. If the churches believed what the councils did, why do ANY grave and tomb inscriptions exist? And, what’s worse, is that those who served on such councils got to see these inscriptions during their own lifetimes. The fact that these memorials were “tangible rebellions” against councils should make us question what we believe orthodoxy to be.
In my next post, I’ll start tackling church canons and church councils.