Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
27 April - 3 May 2000
Issue No. 479
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Monastery gate
Faith meets service: Egypt's growing community of consecrated deaconesses have chosen a life outside the cloister, but is it the best of both worlds?

The third way

Monasticism and service in the community have traditionally fallen on opposite sides of the Coptic Church's walls, but a revived movement is proving otherwise. Mariz Tadros investigates a religious way of life that is gaining increasing popularity. Randa Shaath captures it on film
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Marriage or monasticism? For a long time, these were the only options available for women in the Coptic Orthodox church. But in recent years, more women are opting to become consecrated deaconesses. Dressed in grey robes, with a pale grey head-scarf and a small leather cross, consecrated deaconesses are being seen more and more in churches, on the streets, and in work places across the country, from Cairo to Kafr Al-Sheikh, Minya to Menoufiya, Beni Suef to Banha.

"For the nuns, the way is celibacy and contemplation, but for deaconesses, it is celibacy and service," asserts the Bishop of Youth Anba Moussa.

In the church hierarchy, he explained, there are three principal ranks -- the bishop, the priest and finally, the deacon and deaconess. "This type of consecrated celibate deacon or deaconess is something deeply rooted in our Coptic Orthodox Church," he says, adding that although the ancient tradition died out in the 12th century, it has come back to life in recent years. There are now at least 400 consecrated deaconesses in the Coptic Church.

According to Anba Moussa, the deacons and deaconesses are "the eyes and hands of the priests," giving 24-hour service, seven days a week. "We are glad to have this type of life and service back in our church. Consecrated deacons and deaconesses are able to confront unmet needs, doing a lot of the work priests cannot do," he asserts.

WHAT DO THEY DO? So what exactly do consecrated deaconesses do? We visited the House of Phoebe, home to the consecrated deaconesses serving in the Bishopric of Youth. Unlike the unique enclosure of the convent, these consecrated deaconesses live in an ordinary apartment in a fairly regular building in the heart of Cairo. Some of their activities, like writing, publishing, translating and printing religious texts and preparing Internet sites, are done on the same premises. Other activities take place in the communities they serve.

The consecrated deaconesses do a great deal of counselling. Home visits and community meetings, especially in poor areas, take up much of their time. They get involved in community projects, like setting up small textile workshops to help poor young women generate income. While they are conscious of the marketing limitations of such ventures, they are nonetheless determined to seek and learn new ways of serving people.

They are encouraged to take training courses in and outside the country in order to learn new skills. Unlike convent life, where nuns are expected to pay little heed to life outside the cloister, consecrated deaconesses are very much a part of the world, even down to its mundane details. During meals, for example, sayings of the Early Fathers of the Church are read out, followed by relevant items from the newspaper.

To join Phoebe's house of consecrated deaconesses, you must be between 25 and 30 years old, have a higher education degree and accept the direct supervision of the bishop. Once a young woman joins the community of consecrated deaconesses, she spends five years as a postulant, in a beige costume, before she is ordained as an assistant consecrated deaconess and given a new name. After another five years, she is ordained as a fully consecrated deaconess.

Such regulations are enshrined in the Code for Consecrated Deaconesses, which was drawn up in 1992 by the Holy Synod, headed by Pope Shenouda III. Many of the regulations in place reflect the patriarchal nature of the institution itself. Although the code was designed to outline and regulate the affairs of consecrated deaconesses, none of the women concerned were invited to participate in its formulation. Anba Bishoy, secretary-general of the Holy Synod, argues that the bishops who formulated the code all had consecrated deaconesses in their dioceses, and were therefore acquainted with the issues they face.

"It would have been nice for us to be invited to participate in its writing" notes one consecrated deaconess, but she adds that each house has the right to its own code dealing with issues that are not covered by the 1992 code.

The code is important, affirms Tasoni Phoebe (tasoni is the Coptic word for "sister"). It gives the movement a legal, legitimate form, to be made known in all churches. To this day, in some churches old priests are unfamiliar with the concept of consecrated deaconesses and are uneasy about their presence and activities. But the consecrated deaconesses, according to Tasoni Phoebe, are making themselves known. "A bishop in Upper Egypt who would not have tolerated having a woman speak up is starting to realise that he does need the consecrated deaconesses."

One indicator that the movement is growing, suggests Tasoni Phoebe, is that their house cannot accommodate the ever-increasing number of women who want to join. "If we had enough space, our numbers would have doubled. There are women on the waiting list; we tell them to seek elsewhere. This is a positive phenomenon, because it means that institutionally, the churches are beginning to welcome the idea ... A woman who seeks to become a consecrated deaconess must have gotten the advice of her confession father beforehand ... which means that at least some of the priests have accepted the concept and are no longer discouraging this way of life."

Free to work in the community, consecrated deaconesses and working nuns are more concerned with the everyday than the other-worldy concerns of monasticism

THE MYSTERY OF CONSECRATION: Tasoni Phoebe is unequivocal: "I am consecrated to serve the Church."

Ultimately, because priesthood is a higher rank than the consecrated deaconess in the Church hierarchy, deaconesses are destined to be subservient to priests. Anba Moussa argues that the issue is not about equal power relations. "It is not a matter of justice. I don't think about it like this. It is not power, it is service."

Being promoted to priesthood, reiterates Tasoni Phoebe, is not on their agenda, "We are not asking for priesthood. We do more than what priests do; we reach out to people in places where priests cannot venture. Institutionalising the vocation of consecrated deaconesses is of great importance."

Tasoni Phoebe says that the deaconesses do have some leeway when it comes to decision-making in the running of women's activities. She considers this quite an accomplishment in itself, given that historically the decision-making process of the Church has been rather centralised.

The kind of work done by consecrated deaconesses is determined by the priorities set by the Church and its hierarchy. "I have a framework within which to work that is imposed by the Church. But this does not handicap me or stop me from thinking for myself," stresses Tasoni Phoebe.

These confines are no doubt a product of the Church's traditional image of women and its view of their place in the Church and society. According to Anba Bishoy, a deacon may get married, but not a deaconess. "A deacon can free himself even when he has children, because his wife takes care of them, but a woman cannot." When it was suggested to him that women today often do not spend all their time taking care of children -- due to work obligations, for instance -- he replied, "We do not believe in a situation where married women give their children to someone else to take care of."

Traditionally, a deaconess is either a virgin or a widow. Saint Paul, Anba Bishoy added, did not permit women to teach men or be in a dominant position with respect to men, which is why a consecrated deaconess can only work with women and children. Anba Bishoy dismissed suggestions that Saint Paul's statement referred to the confines of the Church and not the entire community, asserting that "the Church is not a building, it is a community of believers."

Many consecrated deaconesses are highly educated, intelligent women, which gives rise to questions about whether leaders in the Church will ever envisage a role for them other than as priests' little helpers.

It is true, suggests Tasoni Esther, that the entire potential of consecrated deaconesses is not being made full use of yet. Tasoni Esther, a doctor who became a consecrated deaconess in 1980, received her masters degree in theology and preventive medicine in 1984 in England. She went on to Kenya, where she spent some years working in development. Strong in her belief that consecrated deaconesses have much to learn from working and living in other communities, Tasoni Esther is committed to raising awareness of the problems of Africa and fighting racist attitudes. She has encouraged exchange encounters between people in Egypt and those who live elsewhere in Africa.

In 1989, a house was established to train consecrated deaconesses and community workers to serve in Africa. But, admits Tasoni Esther, the number of consecrated deaconesses who have adopted this type of work are few, despite the need for serving people irrespective of religion, ethnicity or gender.

STANDING THEIR GROUND: Ensuring that consecrated deaconesses are not just a temporary phenomenon and that the movement will be sustained is a major challenge. The fact that most consecrated deaconesses are so closely tied to the bishop heading the diocese can be a blessing and a curse. Progressive bishops for example, can open many doors for their deaconesses, while conservative ones may reject their presence altogether. Consequently, a change of leadership has a direct impact on the consecrated deaconesses' predicament. While the Code for Consecrated Deaconesses stipulates that they are consecrated to the service of the Coptic Church in general -- and not to a particular bishop or diocese -- this may not be enough to provide the necessary security.

At the last annual conference for consecrated deaconesses, attended by Pope Shenouda, a complaint came from a consecrated deaconess that the bishop in charge refused to bear the expenses of a surgical operation she needed and told her to let her family pay for it. She also complained that he had neglected her and had not given her support and space to work. Anba Bishoy pointed out that the matter was immediately referred to the Holy Synod for action.

A Higher Committee for Consecrated Deaconesses, made up of all the bishops and metropolitans who have consecrated deaconesses in their dioceses, was formed to look into issues pertaining to consecrated deaconesses; but there are still some fundamental questions to be resolved regarding their future. Anba Bishoy explained that to ensure that the consecrated deaconesses working in his diocese are not put in vulnerable or compromising positions later on, he has registered the property on which they live in their name -- which is to say, no one will be able to kick them out after his death.

Unfortunately, not all bishops and priests have the resources or even the will to guarantee the long-term security of their consecrated deaconesses -- which raises the issue of placing the resources in the hands of the consecrated deaconesses from the outset and leaving them in full charge of themselves, their work and their property.

THE FOURTH WAY: It was long-term security for celibate women who wish to serve the community that Anba Athanasius, the metropolitan of the diocese of Beni Suef, had in mind when he established the Daughters of Saint Mary Convent in 1965. The active nuns of the convent work in the community, but are different from consecrated deaconesses. Whereas consecrated deaconesses relate to the bishop, active nuns are answerable only to the convent.

The working-nun model, Metropolitan Athanasius explains, provides a sense of security. The fate of the women is not dependent on that of the bishop; they are nuns who will always belong to the convent. If a bishop dies, the deaconesses will not have to worry about their future, because irrespective of the leadership of the convent, she will always be a nun there.

Tasoni Agapi, one of the first three working nuns of the Beni-Suef convent, recounts when Pope Kirollos VI gave the movement his blessing. He had said that 80 per cent of Catholic nuns in Egypt were originally Orthodox, but had converted to Catholicism because they could not find a way to combine a celibate life with community service. Pope Kirollos, Tasoni Agapi affirms, supported the idea.

One distinctive difference between the consecrated deaconesses and the working nuns of Beni Suef is the nature of their work. If consecrated deaconesses are committed to the service of the Church, the working nuns of Beni Suef are committed to the service of the neediest and most marginalised people in society, irrespective of gender and religion.

"We have to address social needs. Commitment to the poor is our priority," says Anba Athanasius. "We are committed to the most needy, the marginalised." These include garbage collectors, the mentally handicapped and abused women. The convent includes a refuge for women facing personal hardship and severe marital problems -- it is one of the few women's shelters available in Egypt.

Some habits are hard to break: traditions of monastic life still remain, including communal meals (top) and attending mass (bottom)

The Coptic Orthodox Church, however, does not officially recognise the order because the tradition of the Coptic Orthodox Church does not have a history of active monasticism, meaning working nuns or monks who are a part of the community. As Anba Moussa put it, "Monasticism is about the deserts; it is not about active participation in the community."

Anba Bishoy believes that the continued ordination of working nuns in Beni Suef is a mistake. "It is impossible to recognise this convent. Since we have our own Coptic rite of consecrated deaconesses, why ordain them according to a rite that is not what was passed on to us," he asks, adding that a "working nun" is a Catholic, and not Coptic, tradition. Anba Bishoy believes that the solution is that they be called "consecrated deaconesses" as opposed to "nuns."

"It is unacceptable to have an unorthodox tradition imposed on us. The Holy Synod has persistently refused to recognise this. It will not continue; one day [Anba Athanasius] will have to do the shift."

It is ironic, and perhaps reflective of the patriarchal nature of the Coptic Church, that while the Church has refused to recognise the concept of a working nun -- on the premise that monasticism and community service cannot be combined -- it has been appointing an ever-increasing number of monks to serve in the community as priests. A monk cannot serve in the community unless he is first ordained as a priest.

Anba Moussa concedes that "things are a bit distorted, and we want to correct the situation. We want to limit and correct the presence of monks working in the community. We want to get monasticism away from the active world of the Church, not to encourage it among women." But Anba Moussa did not completely rule out the possibility that the Church might one day recognise the Daughters of Saint Mary Convent.

Anba Athanasius, who founded the order, is optimistic that the Church will recognise the status of the working nuns. "The Church will have to recognise the working nuns in the future," an order supported by Pope Kirollos. "In my view, the time will come, and it is not far. The church needs this order," he said.

Anba Athanasius notes that despite the traditional link between monasticism and seclusion, there have also been monks who were active in the community. There is evidence of a community-oriented working monastic life, he concedes. However, this way of life did not take the shape of established orders, with encoded regulations, but was rather spontaneous.

Saint Shenouda, for example, was a gifted preacher as well as a political leader. "At that time, Egypt was ruled by the Romans, who owned the land and he fought relentlessly against feudalism. During famines, [Saint Shenouda] provided people with food from the monasteries," Anba Athanasius says.

WHAT ABOUT CONSECRATED MEN?: Efforts to establish an order for male celibates began over half a century ago, when Dr Nos'hei Abdel-Sheheed, a psychiatrist by profession, together with a small group of men became the first full-time "dedicated celibates" -- a term Abdel-Sheheed prefers since it is free of the connotations of being ordained by the Church.

As a young medical student, Abdel-Sheheed wished to lead a celibate life dedicated to the community, but he was adamant that he did not wish to become a monk. Monks, he explained, were not originally supposed to leave the monastery for any reason. Nor did he wish to become a priest, as it would restrict his freedom to work in society as a lay person in regular clothes. He also wanted to avoid the prestige and power that come with priesthood. Supported by the famous Matta El-Meskeen, the head of the Anba Makkar monastery, they set out to create a fellowship, which eventually became a small spiritual community in the Church.

The first house for celibate young men dedicated to the full-time service of Christ and his mission -- as distinct from dedication to any particular institution or rank in the Church hierarchy -- was established in 1959. One of these celibate men's most distinctive tasks was to translate and publish the works of the early fathers into Arabic and make them known and available to all, which they continue to do to this day. The golden age for this dedicated celibacy was between 1959 and 1969. Abel-Sheheed notes that the number of dedicated celibate men is dropping. Many potential candidates have headed for the monasteries, which is the preferred vocation in the Church.

Some consecrated deacons say that they are under pressure from Church leaders to become monks or priests, but opinion among the deacons is divided. Many deacons, Anba Bishoy discloses, are called by the Church to serve as priest-monks. However, consecrated deacons such as Thabet Mansi, an engineer, resent the pressures made to incorporate them into the Church as an institution. He believes consecrated deacons have a distinct role to play in society, different from that of the priest-monk. A simple example is that a deacon in plain clothes can provide counselling and chat with youth at a café, a place hardly likely to be frequented by monks.

Thabet Mansi laments the absence of an organised order for deacons who wish to serve in the community. "I work in the morning to earn a living ... but I feel suffocated. I would have liked to spend all my time serving, because there is a definite need for it," he sighs.

Anba Moussa believes that consecrated deacons can play a positive role in the church.

THE BRAVE UNKNOWN: It is still too early to predict what will become of the revived consecration movement. It could go in all kinds of directions. It may empower women to venture into new realms, or it may confine them to traditional roles. It could play a positive role in rejuvenating the Church, or it could serve to enforce the status quo. It might encourage youth to participate more actively in civil life or to find refuge in the Church.

The Coptic Orthodox Church has always been occupied with the preservation of tradition -- passed on from the early centuries of Christianity in Egypt. Consequently, any new initiative must seek its roots in the past. Yet those who wish to live their faith in different ways can still find legitimacy for their vocation in the rich history of the Church and the principles upon which it was founded. Future directions will be greatly shaped by how this history is interpreted -- and by whom -- but the question of how much diversity and space will be tolerated and encouraged by the Church remains.

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