I was fascinated to learn form Rhoda Hiscox’s now out of print history of Reader ministry in the C of E that before the Archbishops settled on reviving (a version of) the office of Reader, the Church was debating whether it needed a lay ministry or a diaconate. That debate has rumbled on over 150 years, occasionally breaking out in a new proposal to revive a permanent diaconate, often by ordaining all Readers as deacons.
I blogged last week about Readers, but I want to follow it up with a few thoughts about deacons. I should say, here, that I mean deacons as in one of the three generally recognised orders of the Church, not the johnny-come-lately version innovated by Baptists. (I have heard some people talking about “lay deacons” but that seems to me such an oxymoronic non-starter that I’m not even to bother to go there.)
I think it’s a bad idea. myself, to make all Readers deacons, not least for the arguments in favour of having lay theologians. But I think it quite likely that some probably are called to something more like a diaconal ministry and that we would do well to try to renew such an order.
Most discussion of the diaconate is bedevilled by the language, because early Christians borrowed the everyday language of service for a range of activities, because the language of servant has often historically been used to disguise the language of slavery in biblical translation, and because the idea of servant-ministry has become a fashionable way for those who hold power in the church to pretend they don’t.
Something of this confusion can be seen in, say the letter to the Romans as translated by the NRSV.
- Paul, a servant (δοῦλος – slave) of Jesus Christ (1:1)
- We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us … ministry, in ministering (διακονίαν ἐν τῇ διακονίᾳ – transliterated diakonia – 12: 6-7)
- [the state] is God’s servant (διάκονός – transliterated diakonos) for your good (13:4)
- Christ has become a servant (διάκονον – accusative of diakonos) of the circumcised (15:8)
- our sister Phoebe, a deacon (διάκονον – accusative of diakonos)– of the church at Cenchreae 16:1)
The English word servant translates (1 & 3/4) two different Greek words, and the Greek word group διάκονός / διακονία is translated by three different English words: ministry / servant / deacon (2 & 3/4 & 5). It is not exactly clearcut when and where the general idea of service indicates a more specific activity, or even a specific role, although it appears to do that in the case of Phoebe.
The most that can be said is that there is a general idea of service, which may sometimes seem to mean all “ministry” (as in 1 Cor 12:5 – “varieties of services (διακονιῶν), but the same Lord” ) and sometimes a very specific role as in the case of Phoebe, or indeed the church leaders at Philippi (“the bishops and deacons” (διακόνοις – Phil 1:1).
More influential for later understanding of the office of deacon is the story given of the selection of the seven in Acts to assist the apostles (Acts 6:1-6). The ministry to which they are appointed is to “wait on tables” – διακονεῖν τραπέζαις (6:2) so that the apostles are free to pray and preach. Whatever that expression means exactly (some think it might mean a form of banking), it is clear that it is about the distribution of the community’s resources to those in need.
(It’s worth noting at this point that most people regard this as well rooted in historical sources, precisely because the story reveals a picture of the early church divided in very specific ways along language-group – and possibly cultural – lines despite Luke’s editorial interest in a portraying an generous communism.)
It is the grounding of this ministry as one which both supports the apostolic ministry, and is rooted in the practical administration of charity and social service, which gets taken up into later understandings of the diaconate. It chimes with the general semantic field of the diakonia / diakonos word group, it allows quite a nice fit between the double description of Phoebe as both deacon and benefactor (patron – προστάτις), and it seems to gain some direct apostolic sanction from the story Luke tells.
Obviously the history of the office has developed rather differently, making it little other than a probationary year for the priesthood. But when debates come round about renewing the diaconate, it seems to me that this conception has something to say to the present situation.
I should pause, of course, to note that the other feature of the Acts narrative is that at least two of the seven take their newfound recognition well beyond waiting on tables. Stephen and Philip seem to be carrying out a form of work which is indistinguishable from that of the apostles.
Perhaps that’s always a feature of ministry that might make one a little suspicious of talk of a permanent diaconate – a phrase last in wide circulation trying to disguise the parking zone for women waiting for the Church to make up its mind about whether they could be priests. And one suspects that if the priesthood were open to them as married men, a great many of the permanent deacons in the Roman church would seek it.
If there is to be a renewed diaconate, then perhaps one which focusses on the work of practical service is a way of giving it some clarity, as well as some biblical roots. It is different from the priesthood in its focus while still needing to be representative of the whole Church’s ministry, and equally different from the role of teacher and lay theologian that I was exploring for Readers.
It may be that some of those currently carrying out the ministry of Reader should indeed be ordained deacon, recognising that this is what they really see their ministry as. It may equally be in the future that some who would otherwise end up, almost by default, as priests, in fact recognise that their calling is for the church, but not necessarily within its sanctuaries, and have a better and less frustrating option.
And, no doubt, whatever system we try to make work, there will always be the Stephens and Phillips who break out of it. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to try to have a sense of what the core calling of any particular order of ministry might be.