RNS report confuses many crucial terms in Eastern Orthodox debates on female deacons

I know that we have been over this before, but once again we need to address a complicated issue in church history -- whether the role of "deaconess" that existed in the early church is the same thing as the status being described in modern proposals to raise women to the ordained role of permanent deacons.

This is the crucial question that reporters and editors need to understand if they are going to cover debates on female deacons in the Church of Rome and in Eastern Orthodoxy. As always, journalists do not have to AGREE with the traditional point of view on the issues involved in this debate, but they do need to understand them.

It would help, of course, if journalists knew the details of the duties that historians believe ancient deaconesses performed, as well as the liturgical work done by today's permanent deacons. (Note: "Permanent," as opposed to deacons who will soon transition to the priesthood.)

The pivotal question, as described by Pope Francis last year, is whether the church is going to restore the ancient role of the deaconess or do something new, which would be ordaining -- that's the key word -- women to the altar-centered role of permanent deacon.

I bring this up because of a recent Religion News Service story that, truth be told, is basically a press release for the movement to ordain female deacons in Eastern Orthodox churches. The headline: "Orthodox Church debate over women deacons moves one step closer to reality."

The crucial material begins here, where the issue is clearly framed as a debate about the ordination of women:

That prospect may now be a giant step closer to reality, since the Patriarch of Alexandria, who presides over the entire Orthodox Church in Africa, followed up on his 2016 decision to reintroduce women deacons and last month appointed six nuns to be subdeaconesses within the church.
In a symbolic ceremony, the patriarch blessed the women and used other religious symbols to effectively restore women’s ordination within Orthodoxy. The move follows years of discussions within different branches of Orthodoxy on whether to reinstitute women deacons, and it comes at a time of growing interest around the issue within the Greek Orthodox Church, the largest Orthodox denomination in the U.S.

This is completely over the top. And what, exactly, is a "subdeaconess"?

Let's back up for a moment. For starters, the role of a subdeacon is not the same, in Orthodoxy, as that of a permanent deacon. Deacons, priests and bishops are ordained ministers, while subdeacons are considered part of a "minor order."

To say that creating female subdeacons is to "effectively restore women's ordination within Orthodox" is to (a) say that a subdeacon is the same thing as an ordained deacon and (b) that the ordination of women to altar-centered ministry existed in the ancient church.

Note that this RNS feature states as a fact the position held by scholars and activists on one side of the debate. And people on the other side of the debate? It appears that they may exist, but their views are never clearly stated.

Consider the following block of material, based on material from church historian James Skedros, dean of Holy Cross Orthodox Seminary. First there is this:

A deaconess is the female equivalent of a deacon, who assists the priest and the bishop during church services.

Note the lack of attribution for this statement of fact. Once again, this is the very issue that is currently being debated in Rome and in the East.

Now, read carefully what comes next:

Unlike a priest or a bishop, who presides over worship and Communion, a deacon cannot lead. A priest or bishop must bless deacons before they can lead collective prayers, read from sacred writings in the Bible or give Communion.
According to Skedros, the African appointment is not technically an ordination but it may be a step in that direction.
“It’s very significant because the Church of Alexandria has identified particular ministries in their church for women,” Skedros said. “It’s a big step -- not historically but culturally.” ...
“They could be teaching catechism or assisting in baptisms,” Skedros said of possible future deaconesses. Most importantly, though, he emphasized that the Church of Alexandria has found its specific ministerial need for subdeaconesses.

Here is the crucial point. Skedros appears to be carefully drawing a line between the ordained role of the deacon -- who can, when blessed by a priest or bishop -- read the Gospel, preach and distribute Holy Communion, and the much more limited duties of the subdeacon. He is underlining the crucial fact that subdeacons are not ordained deacons.

Notice how RNS keeps getting terms switched around? Let's work our way through the following:

Other branches of Orthodoxy have yet to tackle whether they should reinstate an old practice or create a new one, said Chris Kolentsas, priest in training at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles. So, he said, the debate continues today among church leaders in America.

Yes, that is true. The "old practice" would be that of the ancient deaconess, women who apparently assisted in the (naked) baptisms of female converts, served the poor and took part in other teaching ministries -- as described by Skedros.

The "new" practice, when you listen to activists on that side of the debate, would be the ordination of women to the permanent deaconate, one step from the priesthood. Let's keep reading.

The church would have to clarify the purpose of women’s deacons before the position could be reintroduced, and that role does not have to be the same as that of the deaconesses in Alexandria.

Once again, here is the big question that is being debated, only with the views of people on one side stated as a fact -- without attribution. Is this Kolentsas? Or is this the voice of:

Marilyn Rouvelas, chair of Orthodox Deacons, a women’s ordination ministry in Virginia, said deaconesses are desperately needed in the U.S.
“It’s hard for a priest to serve an entire community,” said Rouvelas. “They’re already overworked.”

Let's look at one other point of confusion, later in the story.

Part of the issue is that in Orthodoxy becoming a deacon is considered a steppingstone to becoming a priest.

Note, again, that the journalists who handled this story do not seem to understand that in Orthodoxy (as in the Church of Rome) there are permanent deacons who are ordained to serve as deacons, remaining in that role. Then there are deacons, often called "transitional" deacons, who are on their way to the priesthood, often in a matter of weeks.

Yes, I know that this is picky, but it's important for journalists to be as accurate as possible, even when covering complicated topics such as this one.

However, in Orthodoxy a subdeacon is not a deacon.

A permanent deacon is not a transitional deacon.

It is safe to say that a subdeaconess is not the same thing as a deaconess.

Finally, the modern leaders of the world's ancient liturgical church communions are debating -- this is the main point, again -- whether the ancient deaconesses mentioned in the New Testament held an office that can be equated to that of modern, ordained deacons who serve at the altar, assisting priests.

It's crucial for reporters to talk to articulate, qualified voices on both sides of this debate and to clearly quote their views, using attribution clauses to help readers know who is saying what.

As the saying goes, right now: #JournalismMatters

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