Back to the Future:
Deacons are likely to play an increasing role in the emerging
The Rev'd Ron Berezan
Presumably by now you have heard about “the diaconate.” Maybe your church even has a deacon. Certainly a growing number of Anglican parishes do. But perhaps, like many others with whom you share the pews, you are quietly wondering exactly who these “quasi-priestly” robed women and men are, what their precise function is, and why we can’t just go back to the ‘good old days’ of priests and bishops. A shortage of new candidates for the aging priesthood? Cost-cutting measures in tight economic times? A novel response to dropping Church attendance?
None of the above.
The contemporary renewal and embrace of the order of deacons, the diakonia1, happening concurrently in several mainline denominations constitutes a deeper quest to mine from the earliest origins of the Church a resource and a tradition that can respond effectively and faithfully to the unique needs and context of the Church and the world today. While this may be confusing, or even alarming for some, it is a source of hope and promise for many others. The Spirit is making something new, or so it would seem, for what is very old indeed is being made new again in fresh and exciting ways.
And it’s about time.
A very long time in fact. While there is indisputable evidence for the well-established ordination of deacons in the Ordination Rite for a Deacon written by the important Roman theologian Hippolytus in 215 CE2, the roots of the practice can be found in Acts 6:1-6 which places the tradition into the latter part of the first century at the latest. The writer of Acts describes an early church in a certain amount of chaos, struggling to cope with growing and more diverse membership (bickering Hebrews and Greeks), pressing social needs (hungry widows needing to be fed) and a changing social and political climate adding uncertainty and external stress to the growing pains experienced from within. Not wanting to be derailed from their primary tasks of prayer and preaching the gospel, the disciples proposed the following:
“Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose … . 6They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.”3
And so it began.
What is fascinating to note, and often a surprise to many contemporary Christians, is
that the creation of the order of the deacons preceded that of priests by well over
one hundred years, second in history only to ordained bishops. Deacons, as revealed
above, emerged as “servant leaders” tasked with ministering to the social and
pastoral needs of the faithful. While the role of the deacon also evolved to include
preparing the table for worship, reading the gospel and sending forth the faithful,
they were also expected to “go outside the camp” (Heb. 13:13) to represent the
Church to the wider community and to “bring the needs, concerns and hopes of the
world to the Church.”4 Roslyn Brown sums up this latter point: “Diaconal ministry
takes its lead from this: deacons have a prophetic ministry in the world where
injustice exists, and a pastoral ministry to people in need.”5 As a relatively marginal
movement, early Christianity served as both a critique and a pastoral response to
the Empire’s oppressive order and deacons were on the front lines of this work.
And for a few hundred years, this made sense.
But what happens to that role when the very Church that was set apart from the
world and from Empire becomes fused with it? When Constantine adopted
Christianity as the official religion of the empire in 313 CE, the “golden era” of the
deaconate began to fade. Increasingly patterned after Roman civil service and social
structure, Church leadership shifted from the more worldly oriented deacons to the
ordered and hierarchical structure of presbyters and bishops, with the bishop of
Rome at the top of pyramid. True, the order of deacons continued for a couple more
centuries, but the justice-seeking and community ministering role of deacons was
subverted to that of ecclesial assistants and “priests in waiting” at the bottom of the
clerical hierarchy until its relevance virtually disappeared altogether.6
Until a few decades ago.
Can it be merely a coincidence that the resuscitation of the deaconate coincides
remarkably with the growing awareness of the looming end of Christendom (i.e. the
unholy allegiance of Church and empire in the western world) in the last few
decades of the recent millennium? That would be hard to fathom. When the
Anglican Communion pledged in 1968 to begin the process of renewing the
ordained, permanent diaconate, it did so with the wisdom and understanding of the
increasingly secular, pluralistic, post-colonial, and, eventually, post-modern nature
of the coming 21st Century and the drastic changes that this would imply for the
future of the Church. And without a doubt, we are continuing to wrestle with this
reality today. What does seem to be clear, however is that there is a definite need
and place within the emerging Church for bridge-builders and ambassadors, for
prophets and activists, for servant ministers and community healers and for those
who are prepared to step into the ambiguity and “liminality” of the spaces where
“Church” and “World” may intersect or be in dialogue with each other.
And this is exciting.
Not surprisingly, the rebirth and growth of the contemporary diaconate has not
been without its pains and travails and this “diaconal renaissance” remains very
much in its infancy. We live in uncertain and confusing times (both within and
outside of the Church) with tremendous need, mounting social (and environmental)
pressures and a precarious future– not altogether different, perhaps, from the
historical context which gave rise to the diaconate in the first place. The acceptance
of the diaconate by both other clergy and the laity remains a work in progress as
does the articulation of what diaconal ministry may mean for today.
But the Spirit continues to inspire.
While many deacons are involved in direct service to the poor and the marginalized
as were those deacons of old, the needs of today’s world also evoke new calls and
new ministries. Susan Power Bratton argues persuasively, for example, that, “What
we really need today is a great cadre of deacons – environmental deacons or
ecodeacons to lead us in day to day environmental service.”7 She calls for
ecodeacons to lead a “loving response” to the ecological crisis and one that includes
both personal repentance and transformation along with broader environmental
activism. Deacons today are called to listen deeply to the “groaning of all creation”
and to empower their communities of faith to bring the gospel message of hope,
healing, and liberation to all people and to all life and to discover therein their own
salvation as well..
And that’s why we need deacons.
This ancient order of ordained men and women urges us all, by example, to
remember that our baptism calls us to deeply embrace a life of service and ministry
in the world rather than hunkering down inside of church walls and lingering too
long within church pews. With one foot in the church and the other out the door,
they are a tangible embodiment of the five marks of mission at the core of our
Anglican identity. And just as the deacon may welcome in the stranger or the
sojourner, so too they “welcome out” the faithful to a loving, compassionate
embrace of the world beyond the church door.
© Ron Berezan, January 2016
1 Diakonia is a Greek word meaning “to serve” or “to minister to.” Early uses include reference both to serving the poor and to serving the community by setting the table. The terms deacon and diaconate both come from this Greek origin.
2 As found in the remnants of Hippolytus’ historic work The Apostolic Tradition. In addition to the rite for the ordination of the Deacon, Hippolytus, himself a priest, makes numerous references of the day-to-day work of deacons and to their relationship with the Bishop. Conversely, the role of priests or presbyters is scarcely mentioned at all.
3 Acts 6:3-6 All biblical references are from the New Revised Standard Version
4 Excerpted from the BAS, Ordination of a Deacon, Examination, p655
5 Brown, Roslyn, Being a Deacon Today: Exploring a Distinctive Ministry in the Church and in the
World, p.19, Church Publishing Inc., 2005
6 This is somewhat of an overstatement as there are numerous references to deacons and
deaconesses throughout the centuries of Christian history. The point made here is that the role and office of the deacon was very much subsumed by those of the priest and bishop from this period until relatively recent times. For a more comprehensive overview of the history of the diaconate, see: http://ccsonline.ca/diakonia/diaconal-history/.
7 Bratton, Susan Power, “Response to Daniel C. Maguire: the Church Should Call not Just Prophets but Environmental Deacons”, in Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Wellbeing of Earth and Humans, Ed. Ruether, Rosemary Radford and Hessel, Dieter T., p 431, Harvard University Press, 2000.