Canadian archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher has told the Synod on the Family, currently being held in Rome, that the church ought to consider letting women become deacons. I am unoptimistic about the possibility of this good suggestion receiving much serious discussion at the synod. If you read the discussion about the archbishop’s intervention in the Washington Post article here, it becomes clear that the use of historical precedent has become a no-win proposition. Women cannot be deacons today because either a. the historical sources are unclear about the exact functions of women deacons in the past, therefore we cannot say what they should be today; or b. because today, the diaconate is seen as a step on the road to priesthood, historical witnesses to the existence of women deacons in the past are irrelevant.

Both arguments, it seems to me, miss the point. Tradition is not about reference to a normative past. It has to do with (in the words of the Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky) “the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.” For churches that accept this understanding of Tradition (i.e., Orthodox and Catholic), the task today is to listen to what the Spirit is saying. Rather than using history as an excuse, we ought to see the renewed interest in and discussion of historical witnesses to women deacons (in their various forms and ministries), and the renewed call for the ministry of women deacons in the church today, as signs that the church must listen and act, faithfully and creatively. Whatever women deacons were in the past, what might they be today?

Afterword: will the subject of women deacons come up in a meaningful way during the Upcoming Great and Holy Synod?

Afterword 2: that it didn’t occur to me to ask about the UGaHS as I wrote this post obviously reveals much about my low expectations for that august body.

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