Desperately Seeking Phoebe

Bridie Stringer

This personal reflection on the subject of women deacons  attempts  to map the landscape of women’s ministry, drawing on evidence offered by both scripture and ecclesiology. Bridie Stringer lectures in Pastoral Theology at St Mary’s University, Twickenham

According to Vatican Radio on 2 August 2016, during a meeting with the participants in the Plenary Assembly of Superiors General which took place in May, Pope Francis expressed his intention to ‘establish an official commission that could study the question’ of the diaconate of women, ‘especially with regard to the first ages of the Church.’1 These ‘first ages’ might be a good starting point since, for many, the issue of ordination to either priesthood or diaconate hinges on an argument that Jesus did not ordain Mary his mother, or Mary Magdalene, and therefore intentionally excluded women from ordained ministry. The simple answer to that assertion is, of course, that Jesus did not ordain anyone. As an observant Jew to the end of his life, he did not regard himself as a priest, since priesthood was restricted to men from the tribe of Levi and Jesus was of the tribe of Judah.2 He was also liberal in his interpretation of the Law in his dealings with women, the marginalised and his adherence to ritual practices around fasting and ablutions.

In the post-Ascension period, and before the term ‘Christian’ was applied to the ‘Jesus movement’, the story of the commissioning of the seven Hellenists to minister to the Greek-speaking widows in Jerusalem in Acts 6, does not speak of deacons (diakonoi) but refers to their service as diakonia, meaning ‘service’.

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