“It is evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient Authors, that from the Apostles’ time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ's Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.”
So says the preface to the Ordinal affixed to the Prayer Book. But it is also evident to anyone diligently, or even cursorily, reading holy Scripture that the order of deacons in the Church of England, in common with other mainstream denominations, is nothing like what we find there.
In the Bible, deacons and elders are quite separate (and as the Reformers well knew, elders and ‘overseers’, ie priests and bishops, were virtually indistinguishable, but that is another story). Deacons were not ‘probationary presbyters’ but, as their name suggests, a ‘servant’ order in the churches. Only later did the current ‘career development structure’ of deacon to priest to bishop evolve.
I mention this because I was listening to someone the other day describe how a woman in his congregation who felt called to be a deacon was knocked back for full-time training by her diocesan director of ordinands because she would lack the “added value” that comes from being a priest.
Now if deacons lack “added value”, a number of questions spring to mind, not least what the Church of England today thinks of the ministry of its deaconesses which once used to be open to women. Were they really ‘value-minus’? Maybe that really is how some people thought then and regard them now.
But if that is the case then the next obvious question is this: why do we bother with deacons at all?
Virtually anyone who has been accepted as a deacon these days is in that position because they are going to become a priest. And that priesthood will be conferred on them as sure as night follows day twelve months down the track. So as the aforementioned DDO has clearly worked out, being a deacon is currently pretty pointless in the scheme of things.
And please don’t say it’s a ‘training period’. What’s to learn that in twelve months everyone has picked up so that they can make the ‘quantum leap’ to the priesthood — no earlier, but no later? If it was really about probation and learning, being priested should probably come no sooner than the end of one’s title post (ie the first curacy).
However, there is an obvious alternative, namely to reinstate the diaconate as a proper order in itself — the so-called ‘permanent diaconate’. Already there are some women who are in this position. Why not broaden it to include men?
In our benefice, for example, we have a several men who preach locally under a scheme established by a former Bishop of Chelmsford. Would not they be candidates for the diaconate, especially given that they provide very considerable support to the vicar through this ministry.
And what about those women who play a leading rôle in leading Bible studies or visiting — in fact just those things which used to be done by some deaconesses in the past?
One of the problems that we know confronts the Church of England is that people outside the Church (and sometimes those inside) don’t really count ‘lay’ ministry as a ‘proper’ ministry of the Church. We have all come across those situations where people have complained that ‘no one ever visits from the Church’, when what they mean is ‘no one visits me from the Church wearing a dog-collar’. One of the advantages of building up the ministry of deacon would be to have far more ‘collars’ in the local parish church, thereby increasing its visible public ministry.
I can imagine that there will be objections about selection and training: is the strength and significance of vocation the same, will the preparation be the equivalent to that given for priests? But most of these will step from our tendency to think of the diaconate as in some sense still the vestibule for the priesthood. Once we can draw a clearer distinction between the two, then these questions can be seen for what they are — a confusion of issues.
Meanwhile, there is absolutely no reason why parishes should not start putting forward people for the permanent diaconate, since although it is not something the Church of England exactly encourages, it is something it nevertheless allows.
I would love to see several members of our congregations do this (mind you, I’m not sure they’d be so keen themselves to begin with). For evangelicals especially this might be a good move. We have tended to sit very light to the Church’s orders, recognizing that a great deal of ministry can be done by the laity. But this does have its drawbacks. Encouraging people to become deacons could be a very good way of bridging the gap between what we are doing unofficially and what the institution, and the surrounding culture, can cope with.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: