On Reviving the Diaconate in the Episcopal Church

by Richard Fabian

I taught for twenty-three years at the California School for Deacons, the largest deacon training institution in the Episcopal Church. So I take special note of two questions that arise about our use of deacons at St. Gregory’s, San Francisco, in services, on videotape, or at liturgical conferences in which I take part:

  1. How dare you celebrate the Eucharist with Presbyter Rick as deacon? Or with lay people styled “deacons”?

  2. Why feature the deacon’s role this way? It impedes lay ministry.

We customarily translate the Greek diakonia as “service,” and some who do want to restore the diaconate rhapsodize about the way it represents service after the fashion of St. Francis. But Hellenistic secular usage gives the term a different cast, something more like “official business.” The best modern analog is probably the diplomat pushing to the head of the queue at the airport check-in counter, crying, “Official business!” and taking the last first-class seat on the plane. That was diakonia as most people knew it in New Testament times.

That’s why the Gospels and Paul depict the distinctive Christian ideal of service as serving in a manner below the rank you are entitled to. Note Matthew’s Gospel explication of the Beatitudes: praus (wrongly rendered as “meek,” better as “doing your job whatever the cost”) and “poor in Spirit”: H. B. Green shows that this is Matthew telling us what Jesus was like. Likewise John’s Gospel has Jesus wash Peter’s feet at the last supper, over Peter’s protests—a scene John uses for general poetry about the passion. Paul’s incarnate Christ in Philippians does not stand on his rights but empties himself to serve; and in I Corinthians, among other places, Paul says he himself does likewise. Serving in a lower role than you’re entitled to is a central element of the New Testament portrayal of Jesus and Jesus’ messianic people.

The Roman church preserved this notion at least formally throughout centuries of papal aggrandizement, with the papal title Servus Servorum Dei, cardinals serving as deacons at papal masses, and so on. The Byzantines, by contrast, followed court and civil practice precisely—naturally enough, as the emperor and court participated daily in liturgies and church affairs. For example, Byzantine canons forbade deacons, once ordained presbyter, ever again to vest or operate as deacons. Today Eastern Orthodox churches even omit part (not all) of the deacon’s liturgy when there is no minister present who has been ordained deacon and not also ordained presbyter.

This policy has nothing to do with the Gospel, and even implies a contradiction.But it is not principally ecclesiastical. After centuries of turmoil ended in the peace of Constantine, Roman society became increasingly stratified and prescribed, to a degree unknown elsewhere except among the Incas and the Japanese. The general rule within the imperial family was promotion or exile—you’ve all seen this in I, Claudius. During the Byzantine period this regulation extended to all parts of the imperial establishment: army, navy, civil bureaucracy, and the church. This was natural enough, as the Christian emperor was as much a religious official as an Egyptian pharaoh had been. So in all reaches of Byzantine imperial government, once you got appointed or ordained to a job there were only three ways out: further promotion, death, or exile until death. (Clergy were luckily exempted from the fourth way out, which was maiming and blinding!) Demotions produced disloyalty and rebellion, so demotions were rare.

This grisly regulation served the Byzantine state reasonably well, preserving its institutions through many dynastic changes. And modern American corporations know the same rule. Demotion risks disloyalty; so it’s up or out. Only one public profession continues the Byzantine one-way ladder: professional football players move upward only, until maiming injuries or surgeries force their retirement—whereupon they are exiled. Just like Roman gladiators! But they make a poor model for ministry.

Of course, the one-way ladder is fundamentally hierarchical. Today church renewalists are trying to accomplish two aims at once: reviving the diaconate and looking for a non-hierarchical church order overall. It is self-contradictory to try restoring the diaconate by reviving hierarchical rules. Moreover, people today won’t buy a hierarchical diaconate. At International Anglican Liturgical Consultation (IALC) meetings, where most Anglican provinces oppose reviving it, the overwhelming obstacle has been its perceived hierarchical threat to lay ministry. Judging by that IALC response, I am convinced that the effort to restore the diaconate while protecting hierarchical perquisites has achieved all it is going to achieve, and if we stick with it, the diaconal movement will fail. Anglican churches worldwide are already moving to bypass the diaconate in favor of restoring active lay ministries, period.

Instead, I see a different strategy working. Today’s secular world increasingly knows not a hierarchical career pattern, but plural jobs, even plural careers and professions. Outside church services, everybody expects people to dress for the job they’re doing. For example, a surgeon with a law degree wears a white coat at the hospital and a suit (or wig and bands) in court, never confusing them! This is happening even in corporations run on so-called “Japanese” models (but not in the military, where hierarchy may be the appropriate arrangement). And in informal use—always the most interesting sociological sphere—waiters dress as waiters no matter what their social class. (In Aspen, for example, the waiters may have trust funds three times as rich as their patrons’, but they vest for the job they’re doing.)

The deacon's job began in synagogues with handling logistics during services: it was a way of making the services work; and it still is. The deacon marshals all the other ministries, reminding and enabling folks to do them on cue. It does take spiritual practice as well as training, and the deacon counts on the congregation's support and authorization, like any other minister. But what matters is that the liturgy go well, for all participating.

The Episcopal Church has long pioneered working functionally rather than hierarchically with the diaconate. Our so-called “lay readers” have evolved into a parallel diaconate, doing all the deacon’s jobs by appointment instead of ordination. Surely for most parishes this is a healthy pastoral and missionary development.

At St. Gregory Nyssen, San Francisco:

  1. The diaconate is a job. A big job. Deacons run the liturgy, make everything happen, and talk more than anyone except maybe the preacher.

  2. The deacon has no exclusive perquisites of rank. Not the Gospel reading, or preparing the gifts or the table—lay people do all these things under the deacon’s guidance.

  3. The deacon vests for the job. Ordained deacons wear the stole over the shoulder; lay people sharing the deacon’s work wear it on the wrist (“maniple”). Both wave it around for attention. Late Roman ivories show that this was its function in centuries of civil usage, before it got considered a diaconal badge. In this way we keep all historic vestments visually present, tied as closely as possible to doing a job, instead of making them marks of clerical rank.

  4. Lay people share in the job as they do in most Episcopal churches, but we don’t label their work fictitiously; we tell them it’s deacon’s work they are doing. It is interesting to watch their shift in language as a result. They used to say “be the lay deacon” or “be deacon,” but increasingly they make it a verb: “to deacon.” This shift suggests they see the role functionally, as work rather than rank.

I think this is the better strategy for reviving the diaconate today. Instead of reconstructing and protecting the deacon’s medieval perquisites:

  1. Build the job up; give the deacon lots of authority in running the services.

  2. Let parish rectors do this job. (Episcopalian rectors are ordained to the diaconate!) Let them do it, hold it up as a model of authority, and—as in my case—show people that they love the job.

  3. Share it with lay people, as the Episcopal Church has long pioneered in doing.

So that our congregations will want the deacon’s job done; and people will want to take it on in order to get the job done (not in order to have clerical privileges). This strategy means working out the deacon’s role as we go. I admit that is unclear, but it’s really where the North American Anglican churches stand with the diaconate: working it out.

We can find no refuge in recreating a stratified diaconate, especially a Byzantine-style hierarchical one, with exclusive perquisites (for example, the Gospel reading) or career patents (up-or-out mobility regulations). Nor does the answer lie in bureaucratic language like “transitional” versus “permanent” diaconate—an intrinsically hierarchical distinction. In our age, an age that suspects all hierarchies, such talk presents the diaconate as a sort of freemasonry, a colorful make-believe: this makes a poor apology for reviving the order and a poor apology for the church altogether.

Maybe those who see no purpose in reviving the diaconate are right. But because I do love the job, I’m willing to fight for it in my way. I enjoy the power a deacon has to make things happen all around her, to support people doing more than they might otherwise pull off, and to fix on the fly things that go wrong. This is the heart of the New Testament image of distinctively Christian diakonia—service at a lower, less prominent level than you’re entitled to. I like to think that when I do this job I’m expressing something important to my whole congregation. Matthew’s Beatitudes say that people who work this way, no matter what the cost, will inherit the earth. And the blood of martyrs in our own century says there’s no make-believe there.

Founding rector of St. Gregory’s, Rick Fabian takes time off from his vocations of snowboarding, swimming, cycling, and harpsichord playing to serve as presbyter and deacon there. He taught at the California School for Deacons until 1999; co-chairs the Diocesan Commission on Liturgy and Music; and is a member of the North American Academy of Liturgy, Societas Liturgica, and the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation.

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