28 July, 2011

Essay - The Ministry of the Deacon in the Church

The ‘Deacon [is] the rank in Christian ministry next below the presbyter (priest) and bishop’[1].
These are the opening words of the ‘deacon’ entry in the Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church and a quick glance over other dictionaries should confirm this view. Quite often the diaconate is understood as a step towards priesthood or a step below it – simply by determining what a deacon is not allowed to do in comparison to a presbyter. Indeed, this has been the dominating opinion in the Church since the medieval times[2].
This paper will present another view of diaconate which is affirming of the distinctive characteristics of this ministry. It will do so by drawing upon the work of writers – mainly Anglican and Roman Catholics – over the last three decades and the exhortations to the Church from the 1958 Lambeth Conference and Lumen Gentium (1964).

Part of a threefold ministry?
The ministry of a deacon is broadly outlined in the New Testament as seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom (Acts 6:3) were appointed by the Apostles who prayed and laid their hands on them (Acts 6:6). According to this passage[3] the deacons were to attend to widows and to the daily distribution of food (cf. Acts 6:1-2) in order to allow the Apostles to devote their time to preaching and prayer. When examining other passages of the New Testament, deacons appear closely associated with one of the bishops or overseers[4] even though commentators are reluctant – in some cases – to link the Apostolic age diakonoi with the Post-Patristic and contemporary ones (cf. Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8-15)[5]. Thus, it could be said that the principal function of the deacon was the one to assist the bishop and to supplicate for him in physical tasks. Nevertheless, it is clearer that the rôle of the deacon was – probably because of its very nature – capable of great adaptability[6] and churches were ready to shape its ministry to better suit local needs.
Towards the end of the Apostolic age the threefold pattern of ministry – i.e. bishops, presbyters (priests) and deacons – came to be universally recognised within the Church. However, the diaconate suffered from a loss of identity soon after this as the tasks generally assigned to deacons – e.g. assist at adult Baptism, distribution of the Eucharist – became redundant or were performed by priests[7]. Thus, the deacon came to be understood as an assistant to both other “superior” orders if not also a trainee-priest. Certainly this was one of the views expressed by some Patristic authors and by the 1662 Ordinal[8]. Until the middle of the Twentieth Century therefore, the diaconate remained a stepping stone towards priestly ordination. There were exceptions to this – e.g. deacons were employed by the Royal Household or by Oxford and Cambridge colleges as clerks-in-holy-orders[9] – but the vast majority of the Church saw the diaconal ministry as inferior[10] and “transitional” not as a permanent feature. Not surprisingly this view persisted in the Church of England even though the Reformers abolished the stages of cursus honorum – i.e. the minor orders – associated with priestly ordination; indeed the diaconal year became the sole mean to test and train one’s abilities to Ecclesiastical Administration[11].

Signs of a Twentieth Century recovery
The Church of England had explored the possibility of permanent diaconate with the institution of deaconesses in 1862, but the experiment had left the Church wandering about the sacramental status of these women who devoted their lives to social work, teaching and pastoral care and on whom the Anglican bishops prayed and laid hands[12]. Deaconess de facto exercised a diaconal ministry – in some cases – rather more according to the Biblical standards than their male counterparts; however, their standing was never clearly defined. The English Church left any decision about distinctive diaconate until the 1980s where the General Synod called for specific rulings[13] on women in the diaconate, thus bringing together two major decisions about ordained ministry. It was not until the middle of the Twentieth Century that the wider Church embarked on a journey to rediscover the diaconal ministry. The rôle of an assistant to the bishop and his clergy had to be remodelled and the rôle of “trainee-priest” defined against the possibility of ordaining “vocational” deacons whose ministerial call was “distinctive”, “permanent” or absolute[14]. This was the tentative opinion expressed at the Second Vatican Council where the Fathers hinted at the possibility of ordaining such deacons – however laying down certain fundamental rules for every Episcopal Conference to abide by[15]. In the Anglican Communion permanent diaconate was formally explored after the 1958 Lambeth Conference (Resolution 88) in which the bishops called for a restoration of a vocational diaconate[16]. The first Church to investigate this possibility was the Episcopal Church of the United States of America whose journey towards affirming the importance of permanent diaconate has been a model for other churches. In 1994 the number of deacons in the ECUSA was 1524[17]; whilst in 2010 the Deacons’ Association Diakonoi reported 2821members[18].

Lessons learned?
The experience of ECUSA has empowered the Anglican Communion to redevelop her understanding of diaconate. This would involve an exploration of specific vocational themes for today and a recovery of the ancient understanding of this ministry. However, as Bishop Stephen Sykes reminded the General Synod in 1998 any attempt to restore a supposed traditional diaconate would involve a more or less arbitrary decision about which of the diverse forms was to be taken as normative[19]. Bishop Sykes’ opinion reflects the general unsettled theological opinion about permanent diaconate. On one hand, ancient authorities can provide models for ministry which are often conflicting; while on the other hand, present circumstances disallow blanket rulings about the ministry of a deacon.
Arguably then, the appeals contained in the Resolution 88 and in section 29 aforementioned are simply as far as a pluralist gathering of bishops could go in setting the frame-work for ministry. Both documents agree that the diaconate should be modelled according to the past and it should be understood as a proper order, rather than a probationary period[20] before priesthood.

A broad outline of the duties entrusted to a deacon could be:

a. Care for the vulnerable
Bishop Sykes’ caveat notwithstanding an appeal to the past has to involve care for the poor and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world[21]. This is manifested at a personal level with the exercise of Charity and Justice but also at a corporate level through involvement in social action. Thus, the deacon becomes the one who relates the need of the people to the Church – or of the outsiders to the ecclesia. The Roman Catholic Church in America has laid out similar values in the “helping”, “accommodating” and “relator” themes used for the selection of candidates[22].

b. Pray and intercede
Since the revival of the diaconate in the Western Church the deacon articulates the prayer of the Church at the Eucharist through intercessions. However, this is not a solely liturgical duty; it is tied to the previous point. In ministering to the vulnerable and ‘the indifferent’[23] the deacon is able to relate to the life of the World in a particular way; as a result of this he or she is called to voice the longing of Creation (cf. Rom 8:22) before God.

c. Be local
The deacon is called to a ministry which is rooted in a specific geographical area or community since the New Testament times – e.g. Phoebe, the deacon of Cenchreae in 1 Corinthians. This can be understood in two ways; (a) the deacon is called to build deep relationships[24] and share his life with his neighbours and (b) because of this, he is able to assist the bishop and the priests in the local church by fulfilling a rôle of “Go-Between”[25]. This call/duty can be even more demanding than the one laid on priests.

d. Assist
The deacon is called to assist in ministering the sacraments[26]. This is chiefly manifested in the liturgical rôle at the Eucharist. Nevertheless, the diaconate was originally the order closest to the episcopate in the sense that deacons were responsible for the bishops’ households and for the financial arrangements of the local church. They assisted the bishop by carrying out administrative tasks and a remnant of this tradition is still visible in the Church of England were the Archdeacons are the chief managerial officers below a bishop. Today, this notion could be recovered by entrusting the deacons with some of the administrative burdens of parishes and with the recovery of a working relationship with the bishop[27].

e. Proclaim, preach and instruct
This duty appears in the New Testament accounts as St Stephen’s is put to death because of his teachings. It constantly appears in the Church’s tradition – and specifically in the English Church since the 1549 Ordinal. As the deacons share in the charge to proclaim the Gospel common to the ordained ministry, they are particularly called to do so to the people to whom they are sent; they are to proclaim the good news specifically through servant leadership as agents of God's purposes of love[28].

Renewing the diaconate
These five points are not mutually exclusive, but rather complementary to each other. They also may appear a little abstract, but this is necessary in order to allow the freedom of expression and adaptability envisaged by Resolution 88 and Lumen Gentium. Moreover, this could be a starting point for an ecumenical dialogue on the subject. It is necessary however, to make a fundamental distinction between transitional and permanent diaconate without creating different hierarchical layers in the same Order. This distinction should be made at the time of selection – if not first enquiry – of candidates and it should encompass both training pathways and the theological reflections of candidates.
There is only one and the same diaconate but this is articulated – due to historical constructs – in two main ways, one of which is directed towards gaining experience for consecutive priestly ministry; the other towards the fulfilment of a vocation to serve. The indelible character of Ordination is impressed on each candidate and it is not supplanted or refilled by a consecutive priestly ordination. Rather, through the authority of the Church, the deacons being ordained priest are “dispensed” – not moved forward – from the particular ministry they first received, only to allow them to fulfil a different one.

The Archbishops’ Council,
For Such a Time as This, Church House Publishing (London, 2001)
Gunnel Borgegård & Christine Hall (ed.),
The Ministry of the Deacon, Nordic Ecumenical Council (Uppsala, date unknown)
John N. Collins,
Diakonia, OUP (New York, 1990)
F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone (ed.),
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed.), OUP (Oxford, 2005)
Leslie J. Francis & Mandy Robbins,
The Long Diaconate 1987:1994, Gracewing (Leominster, 1999)
Patrick McCaslin & Michael G. Lawer,
Sacrament of Service, Paulist Press (New York, 1986)
James M. Barret,
The Diaconate, Trinity Press Int. (Harrisburg, PA, 1995)

Three liturgical books common to the Church of England have also been cited:
The Book of Common Prayer (1662 ed.)The Alternative Service Book (1980, now suppressed)Common Worship, Ordination Services (2007)

The full text of
Lumen Gentium is available at http://www.vatican.va/ (Accessed, July 2011)

[1] F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone (ed.) (2005) 457 (Bold mine)
[2] It is rather difficult to discount this view even now when the theology associated with the diaconate is not entirely clear – at least in the Anglican Church – and not ecumenically understood. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium (1964) introduces a statement on the diaconate thus: ‘At a lower level of the hierarchy are deacons’ (cf. sec. 29) reiterating the view of ordained ministry in the Church as a cursus honorum or a “step ladder” to the episcopate.
[3] in which the word for deacon (diakonos) is not used!
[4] cf. John N. Collins (1990) 236
[5] cf. also Paul’s description of Onesimus’ ministry in the Letter to Philemon.
[6] cf. The Archbishops’ Council (2001) 5
[7] Arguably, as the Church grew the idea of priesthood changed; the Eucharist ceased to be seen as the bishops’ main service. Instead it was celebrated simultaneously in different places by the bishops’ delegates, making the distribution of communion by the deacons redundant or merely a ritual function.
[8] cf. Book of Common Prayer, Ordinal (1662)
[9] cf. Gunnel Borgegård & Christine Hall (ed.) 187
[10] cf. James M. Barret (1995) 150
[11] Book of Common Prayer, Ordinal (1662)
[12] A commission set up by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1919 ‘appears to have concluded that [deaconesses] were ordained in holy orders’. Gunnel Borgegård & Christine Hall (ed.) 192
[13] cf. Leslie J. Francis & Mandy Robbins (1999) 16
[14] ‘Absolute Deacons’ is an expression employed by Karl Rahner to identify those called to the “permanent” diaconate. cf. Full 148
[15] ‘The diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy. It pertains to the competent territorial bodies of bishops, [...] to decide whether and where it is opportune for such deacons to be established for the care of souls. [...] this diaconate can, in the future, be conferred upon men of more mature age, even upon those living in the married state. It may also be conferred upon suitable young men, for whom the law of celibacy must remain intact.Lumen Gentium (1964) sec. 29 [19] cf. James M. Barret (1995) 148
[17] cf. James M. Barret (1995) 152
[18] cf. http://www.diakonoi.org/Assembly/Membership.pdf (Accessed March 2011) [19] Stephen Sykes in The Archbishops’ Council (2001) 5
[20] Resolution 88 in James M. Barret (1995) 148
[21] Common Worship, Ordination Services (2007)
[22] cf. Patrick McCaslin & Michael G. Lawer (1986) 51-52. Nine criteria of selection are suggested by the National Association of Permanent Diaconate Directors.
[23] Alternative Service Book (1980) Ordinal Declarations
[24] cf. Patrick McCaslin & Michael G. Lawer (1986) 52
[25] cf. John N. Collins (1990) 84-85
[26] Common Worship, Ordination Services (2007)
[27] An example of what this structural change could look like can be seen in the some Lutheran provinces where the “deacons” – though lay persons – are delegated with many administrative responsibilities.
[28] Common Worship, Ordination Services (2007)

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