Deacons are in one sense as old as the Church. In another sense, deacons are rather new. If you want a concise history of how the diaconate was born, went dormant, and then sprang back to life, you could not do better than this link:
If you are satisfied with less, here’s a thumbnail summary: For the first 300 years of Christianity, deacons were full fledged clergy serving the poor and overseeing the social services offered by the fledgling Church. Then the diaconate faded into a kind of internship for priests. Deacons made a bit of a comeback in the 19th Century, when industrialization and urbanization spawned a slough of social problems demanding action by the Church. Once again we had deacons who intended to be deacons for life – and there were saints among them, like David Pendleton Oakerhater. But the resurgence of the diaconate as a full and equal order of ministry really got going in the 1960s and then accelerated in the ensuing decades. In the 1970s, during the prayer book revision, things were still very much in flux and unformed.
The rebirth of the diaconate has restored balance to the Church. The Church is a spiritual body and “spirit” means breath. The Church breathes in and breathes out. The in-breath draws the people together for prayer, worship, fellowship, pastoral support, and spiritual companionship. The out-breath “sends us out into the world to do the work [God has] given us to do” – acts of mercy and advocacy for justice. The priest is ordained to lead the in-breath. The deacon is ordained to lead the out-breath. To be healthy, we need both.
After centuries of the diaconate being dormant, some people still object to diaconal ministry in the church. I recently got a complaint from one parishioner that a deacon was raising funds to cure muscular dystrophy – too controversial, I suppose. Bringing back the diaconate has been as if one half of the body was numb for a long time, then came back to life with a discomfiting tingle.
Our experience with deacons in Nevada has been phenomenally good. We have had some greats: Mary Hettler of Pioche, Gini Hart of Galilee and Fallon, Betty Ihfe of Glenbrook, Shirley Putz of Boulder City, Delaney Armistead of Las Vegas, to name just a few. We are blessed with excellent deacons today, both veterans and new recruits. They perform faithful ministry in their parishes and they network with each other better than any other group in the diocese. As I write, many of our deacons are attending the Province 8 deacons’ conference on domestic poverty. We may once again have one of the largest contingents – maybe the largest – of any diocese.
In the wider Church, the experience with the diaconate has been more checkered. There has been a lot of good, but there have also been some problems. We had several groups of people who were ordained as deacons but did not really understand the diaconate. The major categories of not-so-helpful deacons were:
1. Sacristy rats in collars. Some deacons have understood themselves as bosses of the altar guild or masters of ceremonies for liturgies, essentially as vergers. We need those jobs done. But they are not the duty of deacons and their focus on those non-diaconal functions obscured what the deacon is supposed to symbolize.
2. Almost priests. In the Roman Church, some people who wanted to be priests but did not want to be celibate chose the diaconate as second best. In many of our dioceses, seminary was required for priests but not deacons, so some of our people chose the diaconate as second best. Those deacons try to do as much priestly ministry as they can get away with, but don’t authentically embrace the vocation of a deacon.
3. Resident change-resisters. In most of the Church, priests are itinerant. A priest generally does not stay in one congregation too long. How long that should be can be debated. But we called, ordained, and deployed deacons in place, that is, in the congregations where they had been laity. Priests came and went, but the deacons were forever. They tended to become the main obstacle opposing changes introduced by new priests. This got so bad that some dioceses that had been ordaining deacons in the 1970s shut down the diaconate in the 1980s.
In Nevada, we have not been entirely problem-free, but our problems have been rare indeed. Our deacons have long understood that their ministry is to the broken world primarily outside the Church walls. I once served in a diocese that for a time had suspended any future ordinations to the diaconate because deacons were doing more harm than good. That diocese has now revived the diaconate and is in the ongoing process of reforming it to better serve God’s mission there. We have been blessed with a better diaconal track record.
That said – and said with gratitude and appreciation – the modern diaconate is still young. It is even now coming of age, and I see some shifts occurring as the diaconate comes into its own. Some of the shifts will be in the thinking of deacons, but others will be in the thinking of the rest of us. All of us, deacons included, will come to a richer understanding of the diaconate together. These are the shifts I see happening:
1. From Nesting Doll To Collaborative Team Model
The Nesting Doll Model of Holy Orders was still being taught when I was in seminary, and we still have folks who think that way, in part because it is still built into the current Prayer Book that was created while the diaconate was still in its infancy. “Nesting Doll Model” means that a priest is still a deacon and can do everything a deacon can do, plus the stuff a priest does. So the priest is one up. A bishop is still a deacon and a priest, and so can do whatever they do, plus the bishop stuff. It is a hierarchical model in which each new ordination adds more clout. This is built into our system by still having the transitional diaconate (temporary deacons who are on their way to becoming priests) and by the way the prayer book permits priests to perform the liturgical functions of a deacon. For example, the BCP says, “the Deacon or a Priest reads the Gospel . . ..”
The better model, the one truer to the Ancient Church, is that the orders of ministry are all different positions on a team, different parts of the Body of Christ, not a hierarchy of importance. We still need to allow priests to perform the deacon’s role when there is no deacon present. But when a deacon is present, the priest should not usurp that role. If the priest muddles up the orders by functioning as a deacon, the diaconate loses its symbolic role and the liturgy loses coherence. Likewise, in the functioning of parish life, the deacons should be the main leaders of social ministries even if the priest is passionate about such ministries. The priest can and should be involved, but the deacons need to be out front leading the charge. Hopefully, we will abolish the transitional diaconate before too long.
2. From Doers To Leaders.
When we see lay folks doing good service in the world – feeding the hungry, tending the sick, advocating for a more just society – we still sometimes say “that is diaconal work.” In the technical sense that “diakoneia” means “service,” that is true. But such works of justice and mercy are not the province of deacons. These corporal works of mercy are how the laity fulfill their baptismal vows.
Deacons may well be involved up to their elbows in such ministries so that they can lead by doing and share in the ministry of the laity. But fundamentally, the deacon’s job is not to do the ministry but rather to get someone else to do it. The one who serves receives a blessing. The one who gets the other to serve has in fact served two people, the one who did the service and the one who received it. By doing the job herself, the deacon deprives the layperson of the blessing. Better to enlist, train, and guide people in service.
It takes more than a good heart to be a deacon. It takes leadership skills – specific leadership skills somewhat the same but also somewhat different from the leadership skills of a priest.
3. From Charity To Empowerment
The Anglican Communion has defined our purpose in terms of the Five Marks of Mission: http://www.anglicancommunion.org/ministry/mission/fivemarks.cfm.
The Episcopal Church has adopted and embraced that definition of our mission. http://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/five-marks-mission
Mark 3 is:
“to respond to human need by loving service.”
That is part of the ministry into which deacons lead us. Most deacons gravitate toward Mark 3 readily enough. But Mark 4 is also the province of deacons and it is more of a stretch:
“to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence
of every kind, and to pursue peace and reconciliation.”
Deacons are ordained to lead the Church into advocacy on matters where injustice, violence, and conflict tear the fabric of humanity. Deacons do not engage in partisan politics supporting or opposing political parties or candidates. But the Church does have positions on some issues. Contrary to a simplistic view of the 1st Amendment, the Church has a Constitutional right to advocate for those positions. The Internal Revenue Code recognizes our right to take those stands. The group most uncomfortable with Church involvement in political matters is surely the ACLU, but I have been personally invited by ACLU leaders to join with them in advocating for civil rights.
The major denominations have special offices engaged in advocacy work. For us, that is the Episcopal Public Policy Network. At the state level we have Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy in Nevada (“LEAN”). Our positions are defined by resolutions of the bicameral General Convention. Those resolutions are derived from the Anglican process of engaging Scripture, Tradition, and Reason to find God’s will in our current circumstances.
Deacons fulfill their ordination vows when they espouse Church teachings on issues like immigration, payday loans, and human trafficking. They are not interjecting their own political opinions. They are espousing the teachings of the Episcopal Church. Our Nevada deacons have long done a great job on Mark 3 (loving service). Today they are taking the lead on Mark 4 (transforming unjust structures) as well.
4. From Kamikaze Prophets To Community Builders
When deacons move from Mark 3 to Mark 4 (from a focus on charity to a focus on transformation), in the past they tended to adopt the style of the 8th century prophets announcing the will of God and flagellating the congregation for its unrighteousness and indifference. You know how well that has gone over. There are actually two lessons to be learned from the 8th century prophets: First, the substance of their message, that God is deeply concerned about how we treat the poor and other folks at the margins of society, is absolutely right. Second, the prophets’ judgmental rhetoric didn’t work then and it sure won’t work today. I spoke with the leader of an ecumenical advocacy group awhile back, asking if they really thought their tactics were going to change anything. The leader said they had decided to “take a moral stand and speak with a prophetic voice.” I groaned.
Kamikaze deacons may feel righteous, but they actually prevent positive change buy provoking resistance. Instead of judgment, we need conversation, relationship, and curiosity. Today we train deacons to form relationships in the congregation, to form relationships outside the congregation, and then to network those inside with those outside to collaboratively improve the community. We have the basic guidelines of the Church’s teachings – but no Episcopalian and no congregation is going to engage everything the Church has said. It’s a question of “what do we care about locally” and “what approach will work for us here locally?” That takes starting with questions, not ideological assumptions. It takes conversation. It takes mutual respect. Most importantly, it takes bringing together for a common purpose people who might not know each other.
Diaconal ministry done right unifies a congregation. It does not divide a congregation. It relies on a certain gentleness and patience. It is practical and human. As deacons grow into their role as community builders, we will see stronger congregations more connected to the towns where they live.
5. From Entitlement To Collaborative Vocation
Because the modern diaconate was young and because priests used to guard their turf (and sometimes turf that was not even theirs to begin with), deacons in the 1980s and 1990s had to fight for their place in the Church. I see less and less turf-guarding by priests. But even where the priests have come around, some deacons occasionally remind me of those Japanese soldiers who were lost on a Pacific Island and did not know the war was over.
Sometimes some deacons guard their turf in the liturgy as if it were a personal entitlement, missing the point that their role is symbolic of the Church’s mission in the world. Some deacons still seem to regard priests as authority figures to rebel against. These attitudes are the residue of old conflicts that are really behind us.
As the diaconate comes of age, we will see priests and deacons acting more and more as equal partners, each with their own distinct leadership role, each supporting the other in that role. The roles are complementary.
Conclusion. Today we celebrate the rebirth of diaconal ministry. We can be grateful for having an exceptionally strong diaconate in Nevada. It is the deacons who lead us into active engagement with our communities. Particularly young people today judge the authenticity of our spirituality by how we live it out in the world. Without a solid record of missional service, no one will pay any attention to what we say.
We have been particularly blessed in our diocese to have avoided the pitfalls that have hampered the diaconate in some dioceses. In the future, as the diaconate continues to come of age, we will glean still greater benefits from diaconal ministry. Our congregations will be knit together more strongly, knowing each other better and sharing common goals formed through healthy processes. Deacons trained as leaders will inspire more hands on engagement of church people in works of mercy and transformation. The orders of ministry will work even more collaboratively. So as good as the diaconate has been in Nevada, as good as it is today, I look forward to even better things to come.