Friday, 17 July 2009

A pioneering deaconess

Tomorrow (18th July) the Church of England commemorates a pioneering deaconess, Elizabeth Ferard.

I've just been reading Derek Tidball's comprehensive study of New Testament ministry, Ministry by the Book, and among other things he notes that the reference to 'women' in 1 Timothy 3:11 is probably to women who are deacons and not to deacons' wives (as the TNIV also notes - what does your Bible say?).

But it took until 1862 for a woman, Elizabeth Ferard, to be admitted to the office of deaconess. She was one of the first woman to train at Kaiserworth in Germany, and after a spell with the Anglican nuns at Ditchingham she went on to found and lead the North London Deaconess Institution, the first and only establishment of its kind. Deaconesses were appointed in Liverpool and Bedford in 1869 - and the rest, as they say, is history.

But apparently that history could have been very different. Reading a review of a book on female clergy in the Medieval West (were there any, you may ask?), I find that in the early Middle Ages ordination was for someone who would be head of a community. But in the late 12th and 13th centuries ordination became centred on the eucharist, and women who were formerly ordained, including queens, abbesses and deaconesses, were no longer ranked as ordained, although abbots and deacons were considered to be so.

While I'm aware of controversy around women's ministry in the early years of the Church, I had no idea that ordination for some women was also current around 1000 years ago. But there were various changes in thinking in the 12th century. And according to the author of this study, published by OUP in 2008, Gary Macy: 'Within a fifty-year period, the centuries-old tradition of the ordination of women had been reversed and denied.'

Another well-hidden secret. How recent it is (I remember it happening in 1987) that women who had been deaconesses could be ordained and be 'deacons'! But there were women deacons in the early church! And women deacons 1000 years ago!

Such are the vagaries of history - or should I say the persistence of patriarchy?

1 comment:

deacnaumann said...

Thanks for raising the profile for Deaconess Elizabeth Ferard and diaconal ministry in the world. The establishment at Kaiserswerth trained many many wonderful women (including Florence Nightengale). The deaconess movement in The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod likewise has some connection with that commendable institution, founded by Rev. Fliedner.
Deaconess Cheryl D. Naumann