"I commend you to our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchraea, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself, as well." So begins the sixteenth chapter of St. Paul's letter to the Christians in Rome. This is a very interesting verse, and one which has triggered a lot of conversation regarding the ordination of women, as it suggests that women did hold ordained offices in the earliest days of the Church. Today is the feast of Phoebe and we celebrate her ministry.
As is often the case with these first century saints, we do not know much about them, outside of their names being mentioned in Paul's epistles or their names appearing ion the martyrologies of that time. Phoebe is mentioned in the letter to the Romans, and different translations list her as either a deacon, a deaconess, a minister, or a helper, from Cenchreae, a city near Corinth, in Greece. The actual Greek text uses the word diakonon; there is no distinction between masculine or feminine forms in that word. Some have tried to say that a woman deacon was not a member of an actual holy order, unlike a male deacon, but I don't agree, because Paul's list of qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy chapter 3 mentions both men and women: Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons. Women, likewise, must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be married only once, and let them manage their children and their households well; for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. I read that as applying to both male and female deacons, but I know that the Roman Catholic church still thinks that the term deacon in this context means co-worker in the missionary enterprise. Phoebe is also described as a helper of Paul and many others, and it is quite possible that she was a Patroness of the house-church in Cenchreae; she may have owned the house in which the Christians of Cenchreae met, and that she took legal responsibility for the activities there. Some scholars believe that Paul's mention of her in the epistle to the Christians in Rome was a letter of recommendation to the Christians in Ephesus; perhaps Phoebe was moving from Cenchreae to Ephesus.
The office of Deaconess was mentioned by St. Paul in the letters to the Romans and to Timothy, but we also have evidence of the office in a letter from Pliny, a Roman governor who was writing to the Emperor Trajan for advice on dealing with Christians. He mentions two women ministers among the Christians in Bithynia. The office of Deaconess is also mentioned in the Apostolic Constitutions of Hippolytus, and the office developed greatly during the third and fourth centuries, although it is quite different from the office Phoebe held. The Council of Chalcedon, held in the year 451, legislated that women could become deaconesses at the age of 40. A deaconess was to devote herself to the care of sick and poor women; she was present at the interviews of women with bishops, priests, or male deacons (so that the clergy wouldn't be alone with strange women) and kept order in the women's part of the church. Her most important function was the assistance at the baptism of women. For the first five centuries of the Church, people were baptized naked, and so, for the sake of propriety, male deacons couldn't baptize women. When adult baptism became rare and was eventually replaced by infant baptism, he office of deaconess declined in importance. The office was actually abolished by the Council of Epaon in the year 517, but in the Nestorian Christian communities in Syria, and later in India and China, deaconesses administered Holy Communion to women and read the scriptures in public.
The Office of Deaconess was recovered in the 19th century, first by the Lutherans, and then by the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the United States of America. In the Episcopal Church, the order was established by canon in 1898, with the support of the Rev. Dr. W.R. Huntington of New York. A Deaconess was to "Assist the minister in the care of the poor and sick, the religious training of the young and others, and the work of moral reformation." When I was doing research for my Master's thesis on the Standards of the Book of Common Prayer, I was surprised to discover that an office entitled Setting Apart of Deaconesses was developed for the 1928 Prayer Book. The joint Commission reports of 1916 and 1919 were both quite positive about the proposed service for the Setting Apart or Admission of Deaconesses and hoped that this service would be a means of acknowledging the work of so many women in the Church. The office was to contain this prayer, said by the bishop before he laid hands on their heads: O Eternal God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Creator of man and woman; who didst anoint with the Spirit, Miriam and Deborah and Anna and Huldah; who didst not disdain that thine only begotten Son should be born of a woman; who, also, in the tabernacle of the testimony an din the temple, didst ordain women to be keepers of thy holy gates: Look mercifully, we beseech thee, upon these thy servants, about to be set apart to the office and work of Deaconess. Protect them in the way wherein they go, and grant that in singleness of purpose and with a willing mind they may worthily accomplish the task committed to them, to thy glory and to the praise of thy Christ, to whom with thee, O Father, and thee, O Holy Ghost, be glory and worship for ever and ever. Amen.* Unfortunately, while the members of the Joint Commission on the Book of Common Prayer were forward thinkers, the members of the General Convention of 1922 were not, and they made sure that the office Setting Apart or Admission of Deaconessess was not part of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. Although the rite for Deaconesses was not part of the Prayer Book, the office was an important one in the Church; there was a School for Deaconesses in Berkeley, California: St. Margaret's House, which was affiliated with the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and the students of St. Margaret's House took classes at C.D.S.P. St. Margaret's House closed in the late 1960's when women were finally admitted to Episcopal seminaries. The office of Deaconess no longer exists now that we have women deacons, priests, and bishops.
I think that the fact that Phoebe was a deacon in the Church in Cenchreae is important because it shows that women were important to spreading the faith, and not only by working in the kitchen. Women owned house-churches, women administered and supervised the work with the poor and widows, women handled financial affairs for the churches, and women helped spread the gospel. Jesus came to turn everything upside down: the last would be first and the first would be last, and the Church was shaking up the society of Late Antiquity. Allowing women to serve as ministers was one way in which the Church illustrated the Reign of God. Unfortunately, they did not hold with it for very long, and cultural mores eventually superseded spiritual ideas, but because we have a historical record of women as ministers, we were eventually able to recover that office, and even move forward to the point that we are at now. Although there was much resistance to the ordination of women at first, and there is still resistance in some areas, I can't imagine a Church without women deacons, priests and bishops. My bishop back in the U.S.A. is a woman, the Rt. Rev. Mary Grey-Reeves. Some of the best priests from my class at seminary are women, and the Rev. Robbins Clark, Rector of St. Mark's, Berkeley, was very important in my formation as a priest and is a dear friend. Here in the Diocese of Panamá we have been blessed by the ministries of the Very Rev. Maizee Lenan, Revda. Carmen Saéz, Revda. Victoria Mina, Revda. Diana Parada, Revda. Glenda McQueen, Revda. Becky Michelfelder, and Revda. Jane Surles. Think of the important ministries of our on-line friends: Revda. Canoniga Lee, Revda. Elizabeth, Revda. Susan, Revda. Jane, Revda. Kate, Revda. Jennifer, Revda. Margaret, Revda. Lois, Revda. Ann, Revda. Jan, and all the others who keep the Anglican Blogosphere going! So let us give God thanks for the example of the life of Phoebe, Deacon, and of women clergy here in Panamá and throughout the Anglican Communion.
Enlightened by grace
And taught the Faith by the chosen vessel of Christ,
You were found worthy of the diaconate;
And you carried Paul’s words to Rome.
O Deaconess Phoebe, pray to Christ God
that his Spirit may enlighten our souls!- Troiparion in Tone 3
*Report of the Joint Commission on The Book of Common Prayer Appointed by The General Convention of 1913. Boston:D.B. Updike, the Merrymount Press. 1916. p 156