The Role of the Deacon in the Diocese (conference video)
By the Rt Rev James Newcome, Bishop of Carlisle
For the CofE Network of Distinctive Deacons Conference, 30 April 2022
In addition to my own understanding of the place of Distinctive Deacons in the diocese (and in particular the Diocese of Carlisle) I have consulted our own Distinctive Deacons (currently 8 or 9); I have consulted a book called ‘Deacons in the Ministry of the Church’ which was a report produced by General Synod some years ago; another book called ‘The Deacon’s Ministry’ (edited by Christine Hall) and various other books on the Diaconate (sad obsessive that I am, I have a shelf-full of them!). Hopefully I can avoid any accusations of plagiarism, since as we all know, copying from one source is ‘plagiarism’ but copying from several is regarded as ‘Research’!
The net result of all that ‘research’ is the realisation that ‘one size doesn’t fit all’: There are a huge variety of roles and functions exercised by Distinctive Deacons: this has been a rather more complex task than I’d anticipated. That’s partly of course because we are still in the process of rediscovering the Distinctive Diaconate – which declined during the Middle Ages (the reasons for which are not entirely clear – it may have been that Priests were beginning to be threatened by Deacons – something of course which could never happen today!) and it wasn’t really ‘resurrected’ until 1878 when Bishops from the West Indies raised the whole issue of Distinctive Diaconism at the Lambeth Conference that year. But it is also partly because the role of the Distinctive Deacon is in a sense ‘all-embracing’ and not always easy to define.
It is very important to describe the role of Distinctive Deacons in terms of what they are and what they do: and not in terms of ‘status’ or what they can’t do. For the last 1,000 years or so the definition of a Deacon’s role has consisted largely of a series of ‘Keep off the Grass’ warnings; reminders that Deacons can’t preside at Eucharist; pronounce the absolution; give a ‘you’ blessing etc. and most people haven’t understood the difference between a Deacon and other categories of ordained ministry (Priest and Bishop). Nor has the reputation of Deacons been helped by 2 possible dictionary meanings of the verb ‘to deacon’:
- To arrange for sale so that inferior items are concealed (e.g.lovely fruit displayed at the front of a market stall but mouldy fruit sold from the back!)
- To ‘adulterate’ (as with drinks, or horses to ensure they win!)
But as a former Archbishop of York, David Hope, once remarked: ‘The re-establishing of a permanent and distinctive diaconate has rightly restored the office and work of a deacon as a different yet complementary aspect of ordained ministry within the historic three-fold order of the Church’.
The role of a deacon is neither ‘junior’ to the role of a priest nor greater than the role of laity: rather, it is a harmonising aspect of the ministry of the whole Church.
Priests are bishops’ ‘deputies’; and deacons are bishops’ ‘assistants’ – and all those ministries are ‘equal’. Deacons are not (or shouldn’t be) ‘apprentices for the priesthood: and at present, some roles exercised by priests belong properly to deacons (as I hope will become apparent in the course of this talk: and which may help to explain the high burnout rate among clergy).
By circa 110 AD the three-fold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons (which has always been taught, if not practised, by the Church of England) was beginning to emerge (in the west amongst men only, but in the east with women as well), and three years earlier St Ignatius, on his way to martyrdom in Rome, described deacons as ‘my special favourites’. For him, deacons represented Jesus Christ: without them there could be no church. Sadly, by the 10th Century this had morphed into a sort of ‘hierarchy of orders’ : a ‘cursus honorum’ based more on status than anything else: and during the 18th Century there were large numbers of male deacons who wanted to be priests but ‘feared an examination by bishops’ chaplains which they knew they would never get through’!
In between there were however some very notable ‘Deacons’ – including Alcuin (in the 8th Century), Popes Hildebrand, Gregory the Great and Leo the Great; St Francis of Assisi; Nicholas Ferrar who founded the very famous community of Little Gidding (in the 17th Century); and Lewis Carroll (Rev Charles Dodgson) who wrote Alice in Wonderland.
And as I have explored the place of Deacons in the Early Church through the ages; and now in Dioceses around the country and across the world, it seems to me that there are seven key words which describe the ministry of deacons:
Serving; Moving; Enabling; Representing; Transforming; Caring; and Discerning.
Rather than just list functions (which would be a bit dull – rather like a shopping list!), I would like to look at each of these in turn.
- This is almost too obvious to mention, since it is what Diakonia is all about: and is why, for Ignatius and many people since, deacons ‘represent Jesus Christ’: the one who came ‘not to be served but to serve’. Indeed, it is the absolute key to the diaconal ministry, and lies at the heart of the ministry of the whole Christian Church, ordained and lay. ‘I am among you as one who serves.’ That’s why James Barnett describes the Diaconate as ‘the most glorious and Christ-like of all ministries’ – an image of Christ himself.
Jesus taught and showed that true honour and greatness lie in the humble service of others (Luke 22: 25-27) (c.f. Mark 9: 33-37) – which means the sort of offering of oneself that is the basis for an authentic community of care and love. This is grass-roots ministry; coal-face ministry; ears to the ground ministry which involves the sort of kenotic self-emptying mentioned in Philippians 2: and it is a sign to the Church as well as to the world of the relational basis of all Christian discipleship.
- For some deacons, this ‘service’ is worked out in an administrative role (including the organising and attending of meetings of various kinds!) – and at present, a ministry of this kind (e.g. as a bishop’s chaplain or sector ministe ) is one of the few ways in which deacons can find paid employment in the Church of England.
- But having the title Servant also implies being available to others, both within the Church family and the wider community: and that theme of ‘availability’ will recur as we look at the other descriptors of diaconal ministry.
An odd word to use – but one which has come up in several contexts – especially liturgical.
Deacons ‘move’ between altar and people (and back again) for:
- Reading the Gospel
This task had been given to Deacons during the 4th century by virtue of their role as ‘servants of the assembly’ and because of their relationship to each community. Great solemnity and importance was (and often still is) attached to the reading of the Gospel (in many churches nowadays there is fanfare or a Gospel procession and often the book containing the Gospel readings has a jewelled binding) to represent the Word of God moving into the midst of people as a powerful means of encounter with Christ.
We were reminded that Deacons are heralds, messengers, building up the faith of those within the Church and sharing faith with those outside it. That is a nurturing role, and it is represented by reading the Gospel in worship.
- Proclaiming the Easter Exsultet
At the Easter Vigil there is the Easter Fire and as the Easter Fire and Paschal Candle are lit the Liturgical Deacon sings the Easter Exsultet:
‘Rejoice, heavenly powers!’ Sing, choirs of Angels!
Exalt, all creation around God’s throne.
Jesus Christ, our King, is risen!
Sound the trumpet of salvation!’
Deacons have traditionally had a role in lighting the Paschal Candle, and the candles at baptism and confirmation and also being responsible for overseeing the lighting of candles on the Advent Wreath and that represents the servant who lights the lamps as darkness falls.
- Distributing Communion
The Deacon traditionally receives the bread and wine from the congregation and then in administering the sacrament gives it back as ‘gifts of God’; that includes taking Extended Communion to the sick and the housebound. As you go through the ‘doorway of Church’ (one church has a sign above the West Door on the inside which says “Servants’ Entrance”) into the world you begin your service to the world which picks up on the idea from the Ordination Service to ‘search out the careless and indifferent’.
Outreach takes all sorts of different forms especially through Fresh Expressions, including Messy Church; walking church; Church Action on Poverty; lunch clubs and in particular using outdoors as an opportunity to reflect on faith and creation. (In Carlisle Diocese we have Fell Chaplaincy and Mountain Pilgrims who, after a walk to the top of a hill, have a talk and say prayers).
- Pioneer Ministry is another possible route to a diaconal stipend. Part of outreach is the running of Taize services and ‘experimental worship’ for non-regular attenders.
Deacons move from Church into schools, leading assemblies and collective worship; being involved with ‘Open the Book’ or being a school governor. I recall a report about church schools which called this the front-line of the Church’s mission.
- Change Continuity and Change’ is the Benedictine Motto (c.f .Chester Cathedral), and it sums up not only the resurrection (Jesus was the same yet different when he rose from the dead) but also diaconal ministry.
As well as the emphasis continued with the early church and the timeless Gospel – deacons exist to break moulds, challenge pre-suppositions and make change ‘seem possible, accessible and exciting’. Deacons are there to encourage new ways of thinking and working (including the Diaconate!) – and existing structures. (In Carlisle Diocese we have Ecumenical Mission Communities, gatherings of churches working together to develop strategies and support one another, and part of the diaconal role is to encourage people to recognise the value of working together.)
Deacons are servants and service is a hallmark of the whole Church. Deacons exist to remind all Christians of the nature and character of the mission to which all baptised Christians are called – which is of course quite counter-cultural in a consumer society dedicated to ‘self’ and ‘fulfilment’.
The whole church shares in the ministry of Diakonia (service to God; fellow Christians; and the whole community), but this is focussed on and epitomised by those ordained as Deacons, so their role is deeply symbolic and as others see it, hopefully they begin to realise what Christian service really involves – and are themselves prompted to surrender to God in the metanoia (repentance) which underlies all true service.
So Deacons are there to facilitate the ministry of others: which may well include helping with lay training. To quote David Hope again, ‘The Diaconate….is vital and central to what lies at the heart of the ministry of the whole church, ordained and lay, within the world’: and the World Council of Churches summed it all up very succinctly in this statement:
‘The purpose of the special office of the Diaconate is to open up the life of service for the whole Church – not to relieve the Church of its responsibility for brotherly service’.
The Diaconate is described in the BCP ordinal as being ‘for the honour of God and for the edifying of his Church’ – which is an enabling and supporting role, possible only for someone who (like the great servants in the world’s literature) ‘knows the intricate workings of the household and the private foibles of the family’. This role of support requires true ‘humility’ (humus comes from the Latin meaning soil, deeply rooted) and humility is of course a mark of fine leadership.
- Bishops, priests, deacons, and lay people need each other. Their ministries should be mutually-enhancing and strengthening; and deacons are there especially to ensure collegiality and complementarity.
- But there is an ecumenical dimension to this sort of collaboration as well (as we know well in the ‘Ecumenical County of Cumbria’). The rediscovery of Distinctive Deacons in the later 20th century was one notable feature of a growing ecumenical convergence; so much so that one of the most important ecumenical documents ever produced (The Lima Text entitled “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry”) sees Deacons as ‘a possible expression of the unity we seek and also a means of achieving it’- not least through the inter-locking and mutually-dependent diaconal ministries of worship and service.
- The Community Through Intercessions which have traditionally been led by the Deacon reflecting the needs of the community (it is an ancient duty evolving from 385 AD) – the deacon is an appropriate person due to their constant concern for the suffering and needy members of the community and wider concerns of town or village where they live. (c.f. Romans 8.34; Hebrews 5.7)
- The Church
- Baptisms including (especially) careful baptism preparation. Baptisms should be conducted by Deacons ‘as a matter of course’, not as an emergency (as for laity)
- Presence in the Community and engagement with it, ‘reaching into the forgotten corners of the world’ and through contemplative engagement simply ‘being church’ out in the community. (One of our deacons has a coffee shop ministry, being prayerful, developing an understanding of what’s going on in the community, establishing a wide network of relationships, having some ‘interesting conversations’ and ‘loitering with intent’.) ‘Grace, inspiration and a well-spring’ for the ministry of deacons is located and discovered in and through the community as they represent the church in that community (more so even than the ministry of priests) – because a Deacon should be a sacramental sign to the community (unlike Readers for instance who have a vital lay ministry which is belittled if it becomes clericalized.)
- (d) God, at work in his world:
The Deacon is a “Sign of the Kingdom”, a sign of God’s redemptive action operating at the very point where the Church and Kingdom meet (and as we know, the Church is not identical with the Kingdom of God). The Distinctive Deacon is an ‘anticipation and foretaste of the new age to come’. (This is a very eschatological ministry for those who remember their theological training!) Robert Hannaford who was Director of Ministry Development in this diocese for a while said “If the diaconate is to serve as a sure sign of the Kingdom of God, then real recognition must be given to its distinctive and unambiguous place in the apostolic college”. And that place is as a go-between interpreting the world and its concerns to the church and vice versa, being a representative of God in the wider world.
- The Created Order
Through complementarity of male and female in the diaconate. In the early days in the West the Diaconate was male only but in the East it has always been male and female. Now across the world it is male and female and that is seen as “analogous to the perichoresis of the Holy Trinity”. The perichoresis is the ongoing dance of the three persons of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and that ‘male and female’ in the diaconate symbolises different aspects of the Godhead’s work in the world.
There are various ways within the diocese that the Distinctive Deacon has a transformative role.
Not all deacons preach: but many do, and (as for all preachers) this is a very significant role because if done well it puts people in touch with God; the world; and their own identity (e.g through stories). ‘People whose lives are fragmented need to be assured of the integrity and worth of their own story.’
A key part of the function of many deacons in our Diocese is teaching, (in the Alternative Service Book ordinal deacons are not only called to be ‘faithful to serve’ but also ‘ready to teach’) particularly through home groups, nurture groups, baptism preparation, and through confirmation classes and Christian basics courses. In the Early Church both Stephen and Philip had important ‘teaching’ ministries (e.g. with the Ethiopian Eunuch) and in both Didache (c. 150 AD) and Hippolytus’s Apostolic Tradition (3rd Century) catechetical instruction was always undertaken by deacons. So the teaching ministry of Deacons is a really important one. Theological study and reflection are an important part of diaconal formation with an emphasis especially on the unity of the sacred and the secular, helping people understand that there isn’t a divide between these two, but God is at work in everybody and everything and all life is the locus and focus of sacramental grace.
- Social Justice
Deacons are there in particular to operate ‘on the edge’ and ‘in the community’, with particular emphasis on a ministry to the poor and the needy. There is a lovely story about Deacon Lawrence (late 3rd century) who, during the persecution of the church, was ordered to hand over the Church’s treasures. ‘It’ll take a while to gather them together’ he said, and he rounded up the destitute and homeless and a couple of days later offered them to the emperor’s agents and said ‘These are the Church’s treasures!’ and it is still the case today. Part of the diaconal task (which is very prophetic) is highlighting economic injustice and inequality – the sort of inequality that permeates our society (whether in wages, health, housing, the divide between north or south etc), with a focus on those who are marginalised and excluded. Deacons not only serve the poor: they identify with the poor. The most obvious was St Francis (I mentioned that he was a Deacon). Voluntary poverty for him was ‘an authentic expression of the diaconal vocation, and a sign of his absolute faith in the reality of the age to come as he attempted to lay up his treasures, not on earth, but in heaven.
So the task of the Deacon is bringing the ‘Word of God’ to bear on current concerns:
- reminding the World about God and his Church
- and reminding the Church about God and his World.
The ‘charitable’ role of deacons is not a form of control. They are there to proclaim God’s Judgement as well as His Mercy, two crucial, interlocking themes throughout Scripture. (c.f. Matthew 25). Diaconal service is a sign of God’s Kingdom in the world, and a challenge to everyone to recognise Jesus in others, especially in the poor and those in trouble.
- The ‘Ordinary’
Deacons are ‘waiters’ for example at the Eucharist: transfiguring the basic, ordinary things of life such as the bread and wine ‘taken and given back’ (perhaps the Diaconal anthem should be George Herbert’s hymn ‘A servant with this clause… makes that and th’action fine’ where he’s talking about the everyday things we do, but that we do them in the name and in the power of Christ.)
Deacons have a very obvious Pastoral role and just as they are there to embody Christ-like service, so they exist to embody ‘God’s unconditional love’ and show what it means to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.
In a Diocese that can involve anything and everything from care for the elderly and bereaved to engagement with Family Projects and Youth Groups, many of those for whom deacons care will have little or no obvious Christian commitment. Deacons also often develop a significant and highly-valued funeral ministry; some are counsellors and most spend much of their time being a ‘listening ear’, not least (as the ordinal puts it) with ‘the careless and indifferent’, in other words, those whose lives ‘are marked with a sense of worthlessness and insignificance’ trying to show them that they do matter and we do care for them and that God loves them as people made in His image.
This provides a great example of what it means ‘to live as social beings in community’ – looking outwards to others with love and generosity. This pastoral role is ‘both gift and task’ and is part of becoming truly human and living out the image of God in which all of us have been created. It points to the pastoral nature of God – and to the ministry of Jesus as Shepherd and washer of feet. So it isn’t just social work; or an endless round of good deeds. Rather, it is a sort of sacramental sign of the pastoral calling of all God’s people.
Sometimes the ‘caring’ aspect of a deacon’s work is expressed in and through Chaplaincy. There are deacons who serve as Anna Chaplains with the elderly; as Bishop’s Chaplains (another available, and historically appropriate, stipendiary role:) as Hospital Chaplains; as Agricultural Chaplains and so on. The list is potentially endless, and usually enables a tailored use of individual gifts and concerns.
Then there is the ministry of healing, with which many deacons are involved; and again, this has a long history since – from the Early Church – deacons have been associated with laying on of hands and anointing with oil for healing.
- Gifts of others
Deacons have often struggled harder than most to discern their own God-given calling; and it is not unusual to find them serving in Dioceses as Vocations Advisers. And whether or not they have a formal role of that kind, an important aspect of their task is helping other people to discern and use their particular gifts in the most appropriate way.
So for instance, in Carlisle Diocese several deacons help with the running of a so-called ‘SHAPE’ course which we have developed for that purpose – people discovering their ‘shape’ for God’s service. Deacons also serve as DDO’s (another stipendiary opportunity). But their ‘discerning’ role doesn’t end there. They also play an important part in discerning:
- Guidance of the Spirit
As members of Leadership Teams in Parish, Deanery and in the Diocese they are often key players in helping to determine vision or to make difficult decisions.
- Needs of the Community
The whole mission of the Church needs to be geared around the needs of the Community and you can’t have a vision for the Church without knowing what those needs are. From toddler groups to foodbanks or caring for the lonely, Deacons are especially well placed to be able to work out what the needs are and to encourage the church to reach out to meet them.
Taken together, those 7 words – Serving, Moving, Enabling, Representing, Transforming, Caring, Discerning – describe an essentially Prophetic role which complements the role of the Priest, and ideally liberates priests to get on with ministry of the word and sacrament (c.f. Acts).
Being prophetic, deacons are in effect ‘aliens and strangers’ – operating in but not entirely at home with – both the Church and the World. They are messengers of the Gospel and their ministry relates closely to the 5 Marks of Mission (another talk!). In the ‘world’ they serve humanity. In the ‘Church’ they worship God: and from the very earliest times ‘human’ and ‘divine’ service have gone firmly hand in hand. Ordination as a Deacon hopefully affirms and strengthens both that mission and service.
- And the one word which brings all of this together is Reconciliation. In 2 Cor 5 we’re told that just as God has reconciled us to himself through Christ, so he has also given us ‘the ministry of reconciliation’ and that is essentially the Deacon’s ministry in the Diocese: bringing the Church to the World and vice versa.
It lies at the very heart of all ministry; and as one commentator has helpfully put it, ‘If we didn’t have the diaconate – we would have to invent it!’
James Newcome, Bishop of Carlisle
Please see the Resources tab for a list of Useful Books and Papers.
With thanks to the Lutheran World Federation for the image of diaconal work