It Has Fulfilled Its Purpose

It Has Fulfilled Its Purpose

This summer the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada will vote on whether or not to repeal Canon XIII, a section of Anglican polity that regulates the office of deaconess.

This is essentially a housekeeping motion. In 1969 the General Synod resolved that women who had been ordained as deaconesses should be considered part of the diaconate. Since “deaconess”, as an office distinct from the diaconate in general, no longer exists in the Anglican Church of Canada, there is no need for a policy specifically related to deaconesses and Canon XIII can be struck from the books.

The motion to repeal is going to be “part of a huge package, and probably relegated to an omnibus motion,” says Maylanne Maybee, Anglican deacon and past Principal of the Centre for Christian Studies. “Most people likely won’t see it.”

One person who did see it was Caryn Douglas, another past CCS Principal and United Church of Canada diaconal minister with a keen interest in deaconess history. Something about the proposed background information explaining why Canon XIII was no longer needed “got her dander up”, says Maylanne. “It just made her really mad.” Caryn felt that the short history included in the contextual notes reinforced a common narrative that ignores the truth of the history, glosses over the sexism during the years of the order, and minimizes the work and impact of the order and deaconess house. 

Caryn wrote to Maylanne, who was in turn caught by Caryn’s passion. Maylanne knew the movers of the motion and asked them if she could rewrite the background information. They said OK. “As long as the changes were under 100 words and I could get it in by Friday.”

Maylanne’s rewrite of the background information includes a reminder that Church of England Deaconess and Missionary Training House became the Anglican Women’s Training College, which merged with the UCC Covenant College in 1967 and became the Centre for Christian Studies which is still operative today. Her revision also notes that Anglican deaconesses took part in a three-year training program, integrating biblical, doctrinal and theological studies with practical preparation, including nursing, for educational, social, and mission ministries.  (The original background information merely mentioned that deaconesses had first aid training.) Deaconesses often served in areas that male clergy with families would not go.

“It was so instructive,” Maylanne says of the process of making the language and tone of the motion more reflective of the Anglican Church’s rich deaconess history. And it has created a certain amount of interest in what is essentially a housekeeping motion.

Maylanne’s revision notes that the contemporary revival of the diaconate as a distinct order in the Anglican Church of Canada owes much to the deaconess movement, and that, while the intent in 1969 was that deaconesses be received into the diaconate order, the history is that this was uneven. Some had to be re-ordained or conditionally ordained, and some were told they were no longer deaconesses without being offered the opportunity to join the diaconate at all.

In explaining why Canon XIII should be repealed, the original background materials concluded by saying that, with the advent of the ordination of women to ministry in the Anglican Church, the office of deaconess has fallen into disuse and is no longer necessary for women to serve in Christian ministry. The revision makes a subtle shift. “With the advent of the ordination of women as deacons, priests and bishops, as well as increasing empowerment of lay ministry, the office of deaconess has fulfilled its purpose.”

Comments: 2

  1. Gwen McAllister says:

    Love this. Thank you so much, Maylanne; and Caryn for catching it!

  2. I want to give credit to Ted Dodd, who sent me the motion going to the Synod. Ted also recognized the problems with the way the Deaconess Order was being described. My hope is any graduate from CCS would have sufficient understanding of the history of Canadian deaconesses to have recognized the problems.

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