Eastern Orthodox Church ordains Zimbabwean woman as its first deaconess

By Fiona André
Posted May 6, 2024

[Religion News Service] On May 2, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and all of Africa ordained in Zimbabwe the first deaconess of any patriarchate in the global Eastern Orthodox Church, marking the culmination of years of efforts to revive the female diaconate in the Church.

The Archbishop of Zimbabwe, Metropolitan Serafim, ordained Angelic Molen at the St. Nektarios Mission Parish near Harare, the capital of the southern African country. The ceremony took place on Holy Thursday, a few days before the start of Orthodox Easter. The service’s liturgy focused on the meaning of the Eucharist, which the new Deaconess will distribute to the faithful as part of her new role, explained Serafim.

“At first, I was nervous about going into the altar, but when Metropolitan Serafim blessed me to enter the altar as part of my preparation this week, those feelings went away, and I felt comfortable. I am ready,” said Molen about her ordination.

For years, debates over the ordination of deaconesses have divided Orthodox Christians worldwide. Some see it as a revival of an ancient practice that existed in the early days of the Church. Others see the female diaconate as a break from tradition and believe it undermines the Orthodox hierarchy.

In a press release announcing the ordination, the St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess, an advocacy group for the revival of the female diaconate, noted Molen’s ordination was a historic moment and would set a precedent for other branches of the Orthodox Church.

“Being the first to do anything is always a challenge, but the Patriarchate of Alexandria has courageously chosen to lead the way with Metropolitan Serafim laying his hands on Deaconess Angelic,” wrote Dr. Carrie Frost, the chair of St. Phoebe’s board, in the press release.

For years, the Patriarchate of Alexandria and Africa has intensified efforts to establish the female diaconate on the continent.

After unanimously voting to revive the female diaconate at its synod in Alexandria in 2016, the Patriarchate ordained six sub-deaconesses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2017.

Molen’s ordination as a full deaconess goes further. Her responsibilities, and those of future deaconesses, will include assisting priests in the liturgy and sacraments and addressing the specific needs of parishes in her country, explained Serafim.

In its press release, the St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess noted that her ordination was a response to the growing need for priests and deacons in African parishes.

“The Alexandrian Patriarchate in Africa felt the need to revive this order to serve the daily pastoral needs of Orthodox Christians in Africa,” read the press release.

According to a 2017 Pew Research Center article, Orthodox Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa represent 15% of the global Orthodox Christian population. The share of African Orthodox Christians has grown significantly over the last century, most residing in Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Molen is currently studying geography and environmental studies and has served Orthodox Christians in Zimbabwe for years, working with youth and establishing church schools. She has also created a number of mother’s groups to serve women.

According to the St. Phoebe Center, reviving the female diaconate could help congregations address the needs and concerns of women in churches. In November 2023, the center organized a conference on the revival of the female diaconate and highlighted that deaconesses could “help overworked priests” and offer “woman-to-women ministry for many issues.”

“The whole Church will also benefit from the influx of women’s unique gifts as persons and unique experience as women; we need this ministry restored in order to move together into a hopeful future,” Frost told RNS in an email.

According to Frost, Molen’s ordination sets a precedent for other congregations and patriarchates around the world. Her ordination, Frost argued, isn’t a move away from tradition but rather a return to it through the re-establishment of a long-existing ministry.

“The ordination of Deaconess Angelic in Zimbabwe is of great significance for the rest of the Orthodox Church,” she wrote.

Dr. Jeanne Constantinou, an Orthodox Christian and a retired professor of Biblical studies, doubts the deaconess’s ordination will inspire other churches. Changes are unusual and happen very slowly in the Orthodox Church, she said.

“What makes an Orthodox Christian Orthodox is that they follow tradition and they don’t change it … We don’t accept innovations in the Church, and so that’s why even though this happened, you cannot expect to see any kind of a ripple effect in the rest of the Orthodox world,” she said.

Because the decision of the Patriarchate of Alexandria and all Africa wasn’t taken in consultation with other autocephalous, or self-governing, patriarchates in the Orthodox Church, it bears no legitimacy in the Orthodox world, she argued.

“In other words, it should not be interpreted as a statement that now the door is open for women everywhere,” she said.

Deaconess Angelic’s ordination should also be understood in the African context, where a growing number of faithful demand the recruitment of more priests and deacons, she said; whereas, in the U.S., said Constantinou, the push for a female diaconate has been motivated by women demanding equal responsibilities with men in the Church and more visibility in the liturgy.

The fact that the deaconess was ordained in Africa surprised Dr. John G. Panagiotou, who said Africa tended to be “one of the most dogmatic, conservative, and traditionalist Christian places for any denomination.”

Panagiotou warned that the Patriarchate’s decision could deepen the fault lines within the global Church.

Since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war in 2022, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow’s support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has spurred debates and splits in the Orthodox world. The ordination of Deaconess Molen could further threaten the Church’s unity if some churches decide to recognize the deaconess and others do not. Panagiotou said some churches might even choose to cut ties with the Patriarchate of Alexandria and all Africa.

For Panagiotou, the decision will raise many questions about the status of the new deaconess when she visits churches that don’t recognize the female diaconate. In his opinion, a change this important should have been decided in consultation with other branches of the Orthodox Church.

“I think that for the sake of unity, this wasn’t the way to do it. This wasn’t the cleanest way to do it because you didn’t have everybody at the table,” Panagiotou said.

He argued that Molen’s ordination isn’t a continuation of the role of a deaconess in the church’s early days, when they were primarily readers and altar attendants. Deaconess Molen’s role brings her closer to the first rank of the priesthood, according to Panagiotou.

For her part, Frost insists the ordination of Deaconess Molen isn’t a step toward priesthood, as that would constitute a true innovation.

“Having more deaconesses in the Orthodox Church will allow it to better live out its mission of service and love in the world by giving certain women the vetting, training, authority, oversight, and support of the Church,” she wrote to RNS.