Thursday, November 6, 2014

On the role of the diaconate

The site Pemptousia has recently posted two articles on the diaconate. I encourage you to give them a read. The first was written by Dr. Michael Bressem and is entitled "Why the Orthodox Church Needs Deacons" and I found it thought provoking. The second is by the popular podcaster Archpriest Gregory Hallam and is entitled "The Diaconate in Today’s Church" and it is also worth a reading.

Two topics from the articles that came to mind...

On the first article there is mention of the special role of the deacon.

"Therefore, deacons often minister to widows, orphans, shut-ins, the poor, the sick, the disabled, the imprisoned, the undereducated, and others with special needs."

While I agree that this is the historical role of the deacon, I wonder about how much it reverberates with the diaconate in the New World as it is exercised today. I know some deacons who volunteer in important roles and do valuable work for their parishes and for the wider world, but most I know serve a liturgical role and little else beyond a possible administrative role in a parish council setting. Said another way, The above is repeated a lot, but at a personal level if I send a deacon to a sick person's home will my people say "Glory be! Thanks for coming, deacon!" or will they say, "What? Father couldn't be bothered to come?"

The American church doesn't have a uniform, pan-jurisdictional understanding of what our deacons should be doing; we don't even have uniformity on whether they should preach on Sundays, distribute the Eucharist, or hold administrative positions in the Church. What's the solution? Will a permanent diaconate (instead of an "I'm just waiting for the bishop to find a place for me" system) that doesn't serve as a way station for the presbyterate help? Will paying them change things? Will an episcopal/synodal ukase on the expanded role of the deacon prompt more integration of the deacon into the service of the parish? I don't know. None of them have been tried with any regularity.

On the second article, I'd just like to point out the section about the possibility of a return of the female deacon (with augmented responsibilities).

"Before female deacons could be appointed, it would be essential that a permanent diaconate be already established within a diocese (and preferably within the specific parish) so that there was a clear understanding among all parties that women deacons would not become priests. In the early Church, female deacons were involved in the preparation of women for baptism and in the exercise of pastoral care within the congregation. Although there is little or no historical precedent for the liturgical service of female deacons there is no reason to suppose that such service would be inappropriate today. Many women within the Church who do not necessarily believe they themselves are called to become deacons would be greatly supported by the Church’s vision for the role of women in the contemporary Church."

That the Church never had a liturgical role for the female diaconate that parallels that of the male deacon is sufficient reason (to my thinking) to be able to say "that such service would be inappropriate today." Their role had a specific purpose for a specific time. Regardless, we need to - as a Church - come together on what the role of the deacon is before we start creating new ones for women. Many people want to be more "inclusive" to Orthodox women and so this idea gets a lot of print space. I hesitate to say that the female diaconate is the proper next step.


  1. Speaking as a Roman Catholic, I fear that the reintroduction of a pastorally active "permanent" diaconate amongst the Orthodox will lead to the same clericalizing problems as the Catholics have. Speaking only for the United States (which, despite having the least need for deacons, has more than all other nations combined), permanent deacons are not allowed to be called "Reverend Mister" (which is only reserved for seminarian deacons) but only "Deacon [Name]," in most dioceses are forbidden to wear clerical attire outside the liturgy, usually receive their income from secular employment - which means they usually aren't available during the daytime for pastoral visits, are limited in their capacity to preach, and find themselves among the clergy rotation when it comes to performing baptisms and funerals. Many laity refer to permanent deacons as "lay deacons" as opposed to the "real" deacons who are waiting to be ordained as priests. The minimum age requirement for permanent deacons is 35, whereas it's 23 for seminarian deacons. There is even a fit going on over whether canon law is ambiguous or not on the matter of married deacons needing to become continent upon ordination. There is so much clericalism among the bishops and priests about who deacons are and what they're supposed to do that it is shocking. In the modern Roman rite the deacon only reads the Gospel, reads the general intercessory petitions, holds up the chalice for a few moments at the end of the anaphora, invites people to exchange the kiss of peace, and finally tells everyone to depart. That's it.

    1. "Permanent" deacons aren't rare in Orthodoxy today; they just aren't uniformly common. For example, most ROCOR parishes that I've encountered have a deacon.

      ("Permanent" in quotes because with no restrictions on the ordination of married deacons to the priesthood, there's no inherent difference between permanent and transitional deacons. I have a friend who was quite happy (and needed) as a deacon for years, but then when the parish situation changed, and he felt another call, was ordained priest.)

  2. The permanent diaconate of the Roman Catholic Church is not exactly traditional. Traditionally, in the Roman Church the deacon did not touch the Blessed Sacrament directly with his hands since they are not anointed. He did touch the sacred vessels, especially the Chalice. And in the Offertory of the Traditional Roman Liturgy, the deacon touches the chalice and says the prayer of offering "Offerimus Tibi..." with the priest. Deacons were regarded as "extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion and would administer this sacrament only when a priest was not available.
    Traditionally, deacons would sing the Gospel but did not preach at Eucharistic liturgies.
    As far as I can tell, deacons would not baptize except in special and rare circumstances nor would them impart blessings since they were not given the power of consecrating. They also would not witness marriages nor give the nuptial blessing.
    In the earliest days of the Roman Church, the deacon was in charge of finances and charitable works. They were also quite able theologians.
    In many places, the Roman Catholic deacon of today is inventing an identity. This is unfortunately due to the new liturgical rites. The deacon's role in the hierarchy is less clear and many deacons seems to be encroaching on the priestly office, for example, in preaching at the Eucharistic Liturgy (which is canonically allowed with the bishop's permission). I've been present at the devotion of Benediction when the deacon gives the blessing with the Blessed Sacrament while priests remain kneeling in their pews. Also permitted is the strange situation where a deacon will receive the vows of his daughter and her husband at her nuptial Mass while the priest sits to the side. Even worse, there are some abuses that have crept in, for example, where the priest does not administer the Blessed Sacrament to the deacon but allows him to self-communicate the Lord's Body and Blood as if he were a concelebrant. Not long ago, the Pope had to make it clear that deacons could not administer anointing of the sick because it is a priestly function.
    I don't have a problem with a permanent diaconate I theory, but have misgivings in practice, especially after the liturgical changes. Many Roman Catholics are confused about the deacon. Their theological formation is not too rigorous. Moreover, many are older men in their retirement years with family obligations and so it is difficult to ask them to charitable works.
    I think both Catholics and Orthodox would profit much by looking at the role of the deacon in both East and West during the first millennium. We need to be wary of innovations in practice which run contrary to the nature of the office.