This brief history of Diaconal Ministry provides a backdrop to understanding the lives of United Church of Canada Deaconesses.  The text on this page is also available for downloading in pdf format. (to come)

The history is presented here under these headings:

  • Biblical Record
  • Early Church
  • Middle Ages
  • European Revival
  • Modern Era MORE TO COME

Biblical Record

Acts of the Apostles (6) offers one record of the establishment of the early church diaconate. Faced with the competing demands of the responsibilities of supporting congregations and serving the needs of the outcasts and marginalized, the elders decided to divide the work into two streams. A group of deacons was established to do the latter work. Stephen, one of them was soon killed for his political advocacy for the poor. Another of the deacons, Phillip, became a roaming evangelist; working on the edges of church development in new cultural settings.

New converts who gathered for worship in house churches were led by both women and men.  “It was recognized that different members of the community would receive different gifts and exercise different leadership functions, but in principle all members of the community had access to spiritual power and communal leadership roles.”[i]  One role was that of deacon.

In Romans (16) Paul’s naming of Phoebe as deacon makes it clear that women, as weIl as men, were acting as deacons in the early church. The choice of names for these co-workers in ministry reflected the intended humbleness of the role. “Diakonos”, from which the word deacon is derived usually referred to the table servant, though it also applied to menial workers and slaves.  It is the word Jesus uses to describe his own ministry. Those who are named diakonos “appear to be not only itinerant missionaries, but leaders in local congregations, [they also] served in a recognized official capacity as teachers and preachers in the Christian community.”[ii]

Early Church

When Phoebe is given the title diakonos it is the same word used by Paul to describe male leaders.  However, restrictions were soon placed on the women deacons. They were allowed only to teach, visit and minister to women and orphans.[iii] The church action in segregating and limiting the work of women was rooted in dualistic Greek philosophy which separated and then elevated mind over body. In this way of thinking the body was viewed with suspicion and the mind was elevated to a state of purity. Women were equated with the body while men were equated with the mind. Women’s sexuality, linked with body, was also deemed dangerous and dirty and men had to be protected from women. Women’s role was relegated to the home under the authority of men: women were not to be in the public domain.[iv] As well, men were forbidden to minister to the needs of women.

4th Century mosaics depict women in leadership; women deacons, priests, clergy wives, widows and virgin widows are described.

4th Century mosaics depict women in leadership; women deacons, priests, clergy wives, widows and virgin widows are described.

The initial egalitarian respect for the different kinds of ministry gave way to stratification, elevating the priestly role and diminishing the work of deacons. In the 4th century the word ‘Deaconess’ appeared for the first time as the ministry was given a rank below that of male deacon.[v] Early biblical accounts express equality for women and men[vi] only to be overshadowed by later scriptural passages which support discrimination against women.[vii] As the church was becoming more institutionalized its organization reflected the patriarchy of society rather than the idealism of Jesus’ egalitarian gospel. Sadly, the misogynistic paradigm has remained resistant to eradication over the centuries.

Around 600, the early diaconate, with its emphasis on service in the church and the world, began to disappear for women. Opportunities for married women disappear first, but the orders of widows and virgin-widows[viii], like Deaconesses, die out by the 5th century. As they did, many women found their calling in the monastic life which did provide them with some means to continue in service but they were cloistered and tightly controlled by the church’s hierarchy.

In Constantinople, the office of Deaconess continues and still formally existed in 1200. It is recorded that John Chrysostom, the fourth century bishop of that city, had forty Deaconesses in his church. A most famous Deaconess of that period was Olympias, a wealthy widow, who was known throughout Constantinople for her bravery and genius.

The marital status of women workers seems to have been a significant concern for the early church, worth noting since when the modern diaconate is established in the 1800s it is only for single women.  The struggle to regulate and control women and the firm belief that women must be subjected to male authority gave rise to convoluted machinations. In the earliest church it was seen as possible, even favourable, that marriage coincide with service. Soon however, marriage becomes inconsistent with the expression of a vocation outside of the home. Limiting a church vocation to widows was one way to deal with the problem of women workers having accountability to two masters and divided responsibilities. Another strategy was to justify the alternative avenue, where single women became the bride of the church, which is what happened in the development of monastic orders. Evidence exists that women continued to challenge this expectation. They balked against subordinate relationships of service, whether to a husband or to the structure of the church.

Middle Ages

Even though the Deaconess order vanished in the Western world for many centuries, uncloistered women’s communities, organized to carry out social ministry, appeared in many places. One such group was the Beguines, a movement spanning the 12th to 14th centuries throughout Western Europe. The women lived in community, without any permanent vows, dedicated to a life of discipleship among the poor. But these women constantly threatened the male hierarchy of the church.  Many of them were deemed heretics and persecuted as witches and the communities increasingly fell under the authority of men.

Another medieval example was the Franciscan community of the Poor Clares which began with a parallel structure to the male order established by Francis of Assisi. The original mandate and vision of the Clares was one of meeting and serving the poor in the world, like their male counterparts. But, against her wishes, Clare, was put in a monastery by Francis, cloistered permanently into the confines of a house. This kind of domestication reinforced the idea that the normal expression of spirituality for women was focused on the home and if women did not have a natural home, with a husband and children, then they could enter a surrogate home.[ix] While the monastic life was limiting for women, it did provide witness to alternatives and helped to support the development of women’s cultures. Monastic life flourished for women over many centuries.

European Revival

The Reformation, a fertile period of change in European church and culture heralds new opportunities for women.  Martin Luther’s influence was significant.[x]  He opposed the monastic tradition for women, believing that women should be married and caretakers of a natural home.  Luther’s views were deeply misogynistic, and further restricted options for women. However, Luther created the theological idea that women’s ordinary lives, albeit as wives and mothers, were a kind of ministry and that they had agency to conduct this ministry as response to God’s call.  This theological viewpoint supports the new diaconal orders, as social conditions change and liberalization of attitudes to women ensue.  A leap from exercising a domestic ministry in the home to exercising a domestic like ministry in the world is made possible.

Around 1500, organized diaconal ministries, appear first for men and then for women, begin to arise in Europe, in both Anabaptist and Reformed traditions. It is in the 1800s though, with the social upheaval of the Industrial Revolution resulting in heightened need for humanitarian service that the movement takes hold.  At least for women.  The diaconate for men, which was never large, sputters out just as the women’s movement begins to floursh.

An emerging urbanized middle class, improved access to education and the desire of young women from middle and upper classes to play a significant role in the activities of their churches contributed to the revival of the office of Deaconess.  In 1836, a Deaconess society was formed by Lutherans in Germany, and Theodor Fliedner and Friedrike Münster Fliedner began a training school and educational centre for Deaconesses in Kaiserwerth. The emphasis was on nursing and institutional work. While this was not the first diaconal revival for women Kaiserwerth became iconic and influential.

Later in the 1800’s, the diaconate was also revived in Great Britain. In 1861 Elizabeth Catherine Perard, who had been trained at Kaiserswerth, became the first Deaconess in the Anglican Church.  In the British model, which influences the Presbyterians and the Methodists in Canada, the diaconate functioned as an association of independent women affiliated with one another, not so much like a convent as was the case in Germany.  In England, Deaconesses worked mainly in congregational settings. They often functioned as assistants to parish ministers, frequently doing outreach, or worked in teaching or evangelism. In addition, a large percentage of them did inner city work, functioning as Church-based social workers.  The Orders grew rapidly.

The Modern Era

Canadian Methodists designated the first Deaconesses in 1897, the Presbyterians in 1908. In 1926, 101 women from the two denominations joined the new United Church of Canada’s Deaconess Order. The Order provided a pathway for women to obtain a theological education and the training to carry out a variety of social, educational and liturgical ministries. The women did amazing and important work, in Canada and abroad. Deaconesses in the United Church helped Canada shape its commitment to providing universal social support and education, and to take its place on the world stage.

Presbyterian Deaconesses and or deaconess students at 60 Grosvenor circa early 1910s: Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives g-5177-fc-35

Presbyterian Deaconesses and or deaconess students at 60 Grosvenor circa early 1910s: Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives g-5177-fc-35

They responded to the call of God by giving of themselves, and by making the most of the opportunities the church provided for their ministry. Their contribution wove a richness into the fabric of the United Church. Over 600 women served as Deaconesses, their influence was significant.


[i] Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, Crossroads Publishing, New York, 1983, p 286.

[ii] Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, in Women of Spirit, ed. Rosemary Ruether and Elaine McLaughlin, Simon and Shuster, 1979,, p 36.

[iii] Nancy Hardy, Called to Serve A Story of Diaconal Ministry in The United Church of Canada (Toronto: Division of Ministry Personnel and Education, The United Church of Canada, 1985), 9.

[iv] Rosemary Radford Ruether, Women-Church Theology and Practice of Feminist Liturgical Communities. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985 14.

[v] Alvin J. Schmidt, Veiled and Silenced: How culture shaped sexist theology (Macon Georgia Mercer University Press, 1990) 216.

[vi] For example, Galatians 3:28.

[vii] For example, 1 Corinthians 14:34

[viii] See Caryn Douglas, A Story Of Lost Opportunity: The Apology To Deaconesses Disjoined By The United Church Of Canada, D.Min Thesis, St. Stephen’s College, Edmonton, 2009 p 19ff for more on the orders of virgins.

[ix] Grace Jantzen, Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism, 160.

[x] See Mary Wiesner, “Luther and Women: The Death of Two Marys,” in Feminist Theology: A Reader, ed. Ann Loades and Karen Armstrong, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990.