Having been ordained in 1977, the Revd Canon Michael Jackson from the Diocese of Qu’Appelle is the longest serving deacon in the Anglican Church of Canada. In this blog, he explores the permanent diaconate.
Our liturgies invite us to pray for “all bishops, priests and deacons.” But what do most Anglicans and Episcopalians think of when they hear the word “deacon”? Very probably a person on their way to the priesthood, spending a few months or a year in a vaguely-defined but clearly secondary form of ordained ministry. Yet this is not what the order of deacons – the “diaconate” – was originally meant to be, nor what it is becoming again today.
When the three-fold ordained ministry emerged in the post-apostolic and early church, deacons were a “full and equal order,” along with priests and bishops. Deacons acted as agents for the bishop, especially in pastoral, charitable and administrative work and in the liturgy. There is considerable evidence that women were ordained deacons from the third through the seventh centuries.
But starting in the fourth century, the diaconate declined in importance. For a number of reasons, “sequential” ordination in three steps, deacon to priest and then in some cases to bishop, replaced the direct ordination to all three orders which had been the original practice. By the second millennium the diaconate ended up being an apprenticeship for the priesthood, what we now call the “transitional” diaconate. And so it stayed for the next thousand years – at least in the western Church, for the Orthodox east retained the permanent diaconate as well as the transitional variety.
The diaconate as a permanent, not transitional, form of ministry has rebounded in the past half-century in the western Church. This revival was due in large part to the Second Vatican Council, which reinstated the diaconate as a permanent vocation in the Roman Catholic Church, open to married men. Encouraged by several Lambeth Conferences, the Anglican Communion followed suit. The “permanent,” “vocational” or “distinctive” deacon is now a fact of life in both Communions. In 2017 it was estimated that there were 400 such deacons in the Anglican Church of Canada, 3,000 in the US-based Episcopal Church, and close to 20,000 in the American Roman Catholic Church. What form does this renewed diaconate take?
The biblical Greek word diakonia, from which we derive “diaconate” and “deacon,” is usually translated as “service.” Many deacons today have a ministry of direct service, pastoral, social or charitable in nature, outside their parish – as hospital or prison or institutional visitors, or working with the poor and the marginalised, with minority groups, with the disabled and with advocacy organisations. In parishes, deacons may undertake Christian education, youth work, home visiting, taking the reserved sacrament to shut-ins, seniors’ residences and care homes, and administrative, organisational, preaching and liturgical duties.
Some provinces of the Anglican Communion have been reticent about restoring the vocational diaconate. The most frequent objection is that ordained deacons clericalise lay ministry and in any case lay people can do anything that deacons can. Also, bishops and priests are already deacons, so a separate order is redundant.
But part from ignoring the historical roots of the diaconate, this approach negates the purpose of ordination. Deacons are officially commissioned to a leadership role by the Church, to which they make a lifetime commitment. A leading deacon in the US-based Episcopal Church, Susanne Watson Epting, has put it this way: “Even though ordained, [the deacon’s] primary identity remains baptismal and our ordination charges and vows serve only to expand, enhance, and urge us on in animating and exemplifying the diakonia to which all the baptised were called.” Experience with the renewed diaconate has amply fulfilled this assertion.
As for bishops and priests already being deacons, there are those, including myself, who turn the argument on its head. The Church should return to its original practice, end sequential ordination and abolish the transitional diaconate, which serves little purpose and inhibits the ministry of the vocational deacon. Food for thought!