The role of first deaconesses was more diverse than thought

Public examination of a doctoral dissertation in the field of Theology
Doctoral candidate MTh Pauliina Pylvänäinen
Date and venue: 15.9.2017 at 10 am, AT 100, Agora, Joensuu
Language of the dissertation and the public examination: English

In the beginning of the Christian era, women played a significant role in the liturgical, charitable and messaging activities of the Church. This comes out in MTh Pauliina Pylvänäinen’s dissertation. The results of the research give new information about the tasks of women in the Early Church.

- I focused especially on the tasks that are assigned to deaconesses. I discovered that, during the liturgy, they are instructed to guard the doors of the church building and usher women into their place. They also assist during the baptisms of women. The deaconesses collaborate with other workers and, for example, deliver alms in the congregation. They are also commanded to travel and carry letters from one congregation to another, Pylvänäinen sums up.

The research was focused on a church order called the Apostolic Constitutions. It has been compiled in the present Turkey area on year 380 AD. The author is unknown. The document has been compiled in order to be used by the leader of a congregation. It contains a comprehensive collection of instructions that concern the life of the Church in practice. Earlier on, the Apostolic Constitutions was regarded as a heretic document. Nowadays it is a part of the canon law both in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

An old text is now read in a new light

Lately, the scholars in Finland and abroad have been urged to study early Christian deacons. In the beginning of 1990s, Australian biblical scholar John N. Collins proved that, from a biblical perspective, it is misleading to define the deacons as helping servants. According to Collins, the concept “deacon” rather refers to a person, who acts as an intermediary between two quarters. – Collins’ discovery is transforming the previous understanding, I think. In the exact sense of the word, the deacons were not people, who took care of the needy and sick in the Early Church. They, for instance, carried letters from their clerical senders to their recipients, because postal services were not available for them. This task comes out in many texts that are written in the post-biblical era, including the Apostolic Constitutions, Pylvänäinen says.

The results of the dissertation are burning especially in the Catholic Church. In August 2016, Pope Francis instituted a commission led by Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer. The commission is focused on the deaconesses in the early Christian sources. It clarifies, whether the present tasks and ministry of deaconess have to be redefined. Because the Apostolic Constitutions is a part of the canon law in the Catholic Church, the commission pays a special attention to it. – To me, it seems that the tasks of deaconesses could well be elaborated. We have to keep in mind, however, that the role of their ancestors might have varied from time to time and from one place to another, Pylvänäinen reflects.

The doctoral dissertation of MTh Pauliina Pylvänäinen, entitled Agents in Liturgy, Charity and Communication: The Tasks of Female Deacons in the Apostolic Constitutions will be examined at the Faculty of Philosophy. The defence is a part of a conference. The opponent in the public examination will be Professor Bart J. Koet, Tilburg University, and the custos will be Professor Antti Raunio, University of Eastern Finland.

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