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Some amazing ideas in those old canons.

Recently in a college course on the 21 ecumenical councils, my students and I were perusing the canons of the first seven councils of the Great Church, the only ones mutually recognized by both the Greek East and Latin West. We were looking for canonical regulations that might be of interest to Christians today.

What my students first found interesting was canon 18 of the Council of Nicaea, the church's first ecumenical council, in 325:

It has come to the attention of this holy and great synod that in some places and cities deacons give communion to presbyters, although neither canon nor custom allows this, namely that those who have no authority to offer should give the Body of Christ to those who do offer. Moreover over. it has become known that some of the deacons now receive the even before the bishops. All these practices must be suppressed. Deacons must remain within their own limits, knowing that they are the ministers of the bishop and subordinate to the presbyters, (translation is from Tanner, using the Greek text. It is available on the Internet at

My students, immediate conclusion was that some of those fourth century deacons must have been pretty arrogant to do things like that. I said I felt there was no excuse for what must have been widely seen as their lack of humility, especially when the bishops at Nicaea saw fit to make it a public matter. This opened a discussion on the place of the deacons in those Constantinian times

Together we discovered that the deacons of those days were often the most powerful persons in the local church. They were considered to be the right hands of the bishops and, because of their lives in the world, were very often entrusted with control over the church's money and property, particularly control over the cemeteries, which represented a great portion of the church's property. Apparently there was often a strong temptation to flaunt this power and control over others in the clergy. We also discovered that because of this kind of arrogance among deacons there arose great enmity between the presbyters and the deacons that ultimately resulted a few centuries later in the suppression of the diaconate as a permanent order and its becoming simply a step toward the presbyterate.

A second canon of note was surfaced by the young women in the class: #15 from the Council of Chalcedon, in 451, that stated: "No woman under 40 years of age is to be ordained a deacon, and then only after close scrutiny."

They maintained that Chalcedon wouldn't have made this rule had there not been some bishops who were already ordaining women deacons younger than 40 and probably without the usual screening used for male candidates. Moreover they concluded that the church today, in not ordaining women deacons, places itself in opposition to Chalcedon, which surely allowed the diaconate to women, but after the age of 40. I added that today the age requirement for a male deacon is at least U, that is, pretty close to the age Chalcedon asked for women deacons.

What my female students found particularly oppressive was the second part of the same canon: "If, after receiving ordination and spending some time in the ministry, she despises God's grace and gets married, such a person is to be anathematised along with her spouse." They thought it a harsh punishment to anathematize a deacon should she marry, that is, that the church would consider her to have placed herself and her spouse outside of the Christian community simply ply by marrying.

Nonetheless all agreed that there are some amazing things to be found in the canons of the ancient church.
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Title Annotation:influence of deacons; ordination of women deacons
Author:Noll, Ray R.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Nov 15, 1996
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