The Work and Ministry of Deacons

Stained glass window: Ordination of the Seven Deacons

“And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days…”

This stanza from the General Thanksgiving in Morning and Evening Prayer offers to God the best of who we are: people who are deeply thankful and who desire to give God that thankfulness in both praise and service. Living lives of praise and service is both the task and goal to which we strive, and God has given us, through the ministry of deacons, an exemplar of what it means to live lives of thankful service and praise.

Those called to the ministry of deacon take the promises of their baptismal covenant to heart and build their lives around them. Dedicating themselves to proclaiming the good news, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and striving for justice and peace, the deacon makes further promises in the Examination at their ordination. At the heart of these promises is the dual call to “make Christ and his redemptive love known, by word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship” and to “interpret to the Church the needs, concerns and hopes of the world.” [1]

The deacon is called not only to a personal ministry of consecrated service, but the deacon is to be the window through which those in the community of faith receive a vision of their individual call to service in the name of Christ. The deacon is to facilitate the Christian’s understanding of the world and the Christian’s response of service and love. The liturgical ministries of the deacon offer instructive views not just of the deacon’s service, but of the ministry of service to which all in the Body of Christ are called.

The first ministry of the deacon in the Eucharist is the proclamation of the Gospel. This is not done only from the center aisle of the church, but from the pulpit, too. From ancient times, deacons like Stephen and Philip preached. Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome both testify to the importance of preaching by deacons. Richard Hooker expands the ministry of proclamation to include catechesis, reading of Scripture and other sacred books, and preaching [2]. It is in the preaching of the deacon that the people of God can hear the needs, concerns and hopes of the world as well as the exhortation to a life of service.

The Deacon calls the assembled body to pray in the Prayers of the People or the Litany, leading the faithful in their first ministry of service: prayer. Then the Deacon leads the people to recognize their sin and to repent in the Confession. The calls to prayer and confession engage the people to consider the needs around them and whether their responses have been what God would want them to be.

In setting the Eucharistic Table, in serving Holy Communion to people, and in clearing the Table and ablutions, the deacon demonstrates that the work of feeding the world is a ministry to which we all are called and that there is much work involved in feeding the world. The deacon is to approach this ministry with the humility to make Table ministry not an elaborate show, but a simple demonstration of service and care.

Finally, the deacon dismisses the people, commending them to their ministries of service in the world. The Dismissal is not simply the end of the worship service, but releasing worshipful people into the world to love and serve in the Name of Christ.

In the Easter Vigil, it is the deacon’s prerogative to carry the Paschal Candle and to chant the Exsultet. [3] In bearing the Light of Christ, the deacon demonstrates that we all are to shine brightly with Christ’s love in this dark world. As the Exsultet is the call to praise and prayer for angels, the heavenly host and for the Church, it is, appropriately, the ministry of the deacon who is primarily tasked with calling the Church to prayer. Additionally, the deacon is to assist with Baptism. [4]

Traditionally, it is the bishop (and the priest in the bishop’s absence) who baptizes and consecrates those being baptized. However, there is movement toward understanding the act of Baptism as both a culmination of the catechetical process and as an entry into a life of service dedicated to God. Certainly Baptism is sacramental, communicating grace to the recipient and to the gathered community, and the deacon’s participation in Baptism is not limited, theologically speaking, to the pouring of the water into the font. In understanding Baptism as the initiatory rite into the Christian life, and understanding the deacon as the facilitator of the Church’s response to the world, it is appropriate that a deacon baptize and initiate the new Christian into their life of praise and service. The bishop or priest, then, participates in the Baptism by consecrating and anointing the new Christian in chrismation.

In a parish where a deacon and priest serve together, it is important to have theological discussion involving the laity about how Baptism will be approached and accomplished. It is highly recommended that clergy first discuss this issue with their bishops, as bishops have differing theological opinions about who does what and why they do it in the Baptismal rite.

“…not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service…” [5]

All in the Body of Christ are called to the ministry of service: the laity, deacons, priests and bishops, everyone. The deacon, whose ministry is embedded in service to “…all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely,” [6] is not the primary instrument of service. The deacon is the window through which the Church receives a vision of service. The deacon is a facilitator who assists others in finding their own ministry of service. The deacon bears the needs, concerns and hopes of the world to the Church and often provokes the Church to respond in love and care. Our understanding of the ministry of the deacon changes as the theology of the diaconate grows. It is important for all in the Church to engage in contemplation and conversation about the role and ministry of the diaconate.

God is doing something new through the ministry of the diaconate. God is calling the Church back to service rendered in love to a hopeful world, burdened by needs and concerns. God is using the deacon to move the Church into the future, where the deacon will help the Church not only survive, but thrive. Deacons will change the Church, and by extension, the world.

The Rev. Lynn Orville is the dean and administrator of The Deacons’ School, a joint project between the Dioceses of Southern Virginia, Southwestern Virginia, and Virginia to form future deacons of the Episcopal Church. 

 

[1] Book of Common Prayer, (1979) p. 304.

[2] Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity , V.21.[4], in Vol. 2, The Works of That Learned and Judicious Divine, Mr. Richard Hooker, ed. John Keble (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1867).

[3] Book of Common Prayer, (1979) p. 284.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See the opening quote of this article found in Morning and Evening Prayer, both in Rite II.

[6] Book of Common Prayer, (1979) p. 543.

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