17 January 2011

Diaconia (1)

In 1990, Mr John N. Collins published his DIAKONIA Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources (OUP). You can probably fiddle around with Google and discover that its conclusions, more than two decades later, have not been disturbed. If you have queries about details in what I am about to write, a reading of Collins will probably answer them; I am not going to summarise him at any greater length than one paragraph.

Collins began by identifying a particular understanding of diakonia which became fashionable in Protestant circles in the middle of the twentieth century; and then infected the Latin Church too. It saw diakonia as meaning self-giving service to the poor and needy. Based on a misreading of Acts 6, it appealed to Christians at a time when ecclesial structures were losing power and prestige. "OK", it cheerfully claimed, "if you've lost your power and status you can still surreptitiously claw it back by asserting the moral high ground of humble service". Collins demonstrated, from examination of profane and sacred Greek usage, that the word diakonia, and its cognates, have a quite different root sense: that of one person's commissioned service to another person.

So the essence of the concept is not the following of Christ who came to 'serve rather than to be served'. The Deacon's basic purpose is not to be washing the feet of the lowest of the low (just as the nature of the Church is not, as we have so frequently been told, to be the Servant Church). Such things may be worthy in themselves ... may, indeed, be the charism of particular holy people. But they are not what diakonia is fundamentally all about.

What is it about? In its essence it is about serving, being commissioned to serve, the Bishop, the Eucharistic celebrant; about serving him in the administration of the Lord's Body and Blood; serving him in the proclamation of the Holy Gospel. Not a philanthropic service but a cultic, liturgical service. In as far as their duties may extend in the direction of philanthropy, it is instructive to observe the role they have in 'Hippolytus': the deacons are to attend the Bishop and report to him who are sick so that he, if it seem good to him, may visit them. Their ministry is to the Bishop, not to the needy. This role survives in the Anglican Ordinal: the deacons are "to search for the sick, poor, and impotent ... to intimate their estates, names ... unto the Curate".


Священник села said...

An excellent and well-taken reminder.

Many contemporary Orthodox, especially in the West, perhaps drinking deeply from the ideas you note, have this sense of the diaconate as the fulfilling of a personal charism for outreach ministry. They look (rather sadly) at the ministry of deacons as it is practised - that is, as a liturgical ministry - as something reduced, diminished, impoverished. There have been calls for a *renewal* of diaconal ministry, meaning the putting of deacons into essentially pastoral positions.

The Russian Church has traditionally insisted that diaconal service is precisely and exclusively service to the one who presides at the Eucharist (the bishop, or priest assigned by the bishop to preside) that the diaconate in itself has no implicit pastoral competence or potential or purpose, and that the deacon must never, ever do anything at all without a blessing to do so. He can't even put on his vestments without receiving a blessing to do so. His task is to assist and serve, and not to initiate or act independently.

As you so correctly note, the common tradition roots the diaconate in service to the bishop - and the heart of this service is eucharistic, liturgical. It may be that deacons who possess certain other gifts, independent of the skills appropriate to the diaconate, might also do other things for the bishop. They might act as book-keepers, manage soup-kitchens, teach and so on. But their fundamental service is enacted and fulfilled in assisting in the celebration of the Mysteries.

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Thanks for that.

jason said...

The Immortal Fr. Zed treated your post on his blog site. Looks like you are moving up in the world. Look forward to seeing you in Arlington, Tx for the Anglo Catholic Conference.

benedictambrose said...

The Immortal Fr. Zed treated your post on his blog site. Looks like you are moving up in the world.

We'll know when Fr F has reached those e-lysion heights when even photographs of the raw ingredients his humble supper suffice for the edification of his readership.

Till then, per ardua...

benedictambrose said...


benedictambrose said...

...and "Fr H".

Post in haste, and all that.

plsdeacon said...

As opposed to "either/or" (are Deacons ordained to primarily serve the altar and the Celebrant or are they ordained to serve in ministry in and outside the congregation), I suggest that the answer is "Yes!"

Deacons' service in the Divine Liturgy mimics their service in the World. In the Proclaimation of the Gospel, the Deacon takes on the role of Jesus in reading the Words of Jesus. The proto-deacon is not Stephen, but Jesus. He is among us as one who serves (diakoneo) (Luke 22:27). In the Prayers of the People, the Deacon brings to the attention of the Church those who are in "trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity." In preparing the Altar, the Deacon reminds us that Jesus is among us as one who serves and that all who serve Jesus should be serving others too. Finally, in the dismissal, the Deacon fulfills the role of bridge between the Church and the World by leading the People of God out to do His work "to love and serve the Lord."

Just as the Priest is a walking icon of Jesus the Priest, so the Deacon is a walking icon of Jesus the Servant. This is one of the reasons that per saltum ordination is wrong. In order to fully understand Jesus as Priest and to model your priesthood after His, you also need to understand Jesus the Servant. All priests are to be among us as "one who serves."

A Deacon has no authority of his own. All diaconal authority is derived either directly from the Bishop or indirectly from the Bishop through the Priest. In my ministry in the parish setting, all I do is done with the fore knowledge and approval of the Rector/Vicar/Priest in Charge.

So a Deacon is not simply a fancy liturgical assitant, but an integral member of the three fold ministry of the Church. Recall that Athanasius was a Deacon when he went to Nicea. Fancis was a Deacon and never was ordained priest. Vincent (the patron of Acolytes) was a deacon. All of these had effective and meaningful ministries for the renewal of the Church and the spread of His Kingdom.

Deacon Phil Snyder

B flat said...

In the two expositions of the deacon's place in the Church, in the first post of the Russian "village priest" and the immediately previous post of plsdeacon,we see the tension between two points of view of the Church Militant on earth.

One takes its starting point and essential meaning, in the service of God by mankind; The other is concerned to serve mankind for God's sake. What troubles me, is that the second exposition expresses the idea of "diaconal authority".

Frankly, I am repelled by the concept of someone doing me good "by authority". Totalitarians have been at that game since time immemorial. That is why I am deeply traditionalist and conservative, and find the Novus Ordo Catholicus pre-BenedictXVI, deeply inimical to mankind and its salvation in Christ.

plsdeacon said...

B flat - I think you misread my post. I said that the deacon posseses no authority of his own. All "authority" that the deacon holds is given to him by those in higher authority.

For example, at my last parish, I taught the Catechism class for youth and adults. I did not take this class upon myself, but I was asked to teach it by the Rector. I was given authority, under him, to teach the class.

I also reject the false dichotomy between the Service of God by mankind and serving mankind for God's sake. Both are true and necessary. Rejecting the first turns the Church into a oddly dressed Rotary Club. Rejecting the second turns the Church into a sactuary for saints who have no dealings with the world. Focusing on the 1st will lead to docetism in your Christology and Ecclesiology. Focusing on the second will lead to adoptionistic Christology and Ecclesiology.

Both are required.

Phil Snyder

B flat said...

I believe that I did not misread plsdeacon's post.

It is certainly true that one important paragraph started with the words " A deacon has no authority on his own". These words can serve as a slogan, or a soundbyte, but by themselves they only hint at a meaning. The meaning which we may be tempted to think is in agreement with the exposition of священник села (the village priest) is in fact quite definitely NOT their meaning. What plsdeacon means by them, is clarified by the rest of the paragraph. The sentence immediately following, juxtaposes the phrase "diaconal authority" in clarification, which I quoted. So there either is such a thing, or concept, as "diaconal authority", in the mind of plsdeacon (which negates the bald statement that "a deacon has no authority on his own"), or the whole thing should be ignored as self contradictory. I chose not to ignore it, but rather to point out the paradoxical phrase, (oxymoron). Unlike Chesterton's paradoxes, this does not open our understanding to a joyful understanding of truth, but rather appears to belong to a class of political falsehoods which have brought misery to mankind since the Fall.

With no personal animus towards the poster, I maintain that his use of the phrase shows quite clearly one aspect of the change in the hierarchical structure, and the nature of "service" which operates in the "progressive" quarters of the modern Roman Catholic Church.

plsdeacon said...

Deacons are given authority from time to time by virtue of their being ordained to the diaconate. This can be spoken of as "diaconal authority." It is not inherent in ordination itself, but is delegated to them by higher authority.

The priest has authority to absolve sins, to bless, and to Celebrate Holy Eucharist by virtue of his ordination. The Deacon does not.

In ministry outside of the liturgy, the Deacon often takes a leadership role and has the authority of expertise. I think that B Flat is artifically restricting the meaning of "authority" to "I get to tell you what to do." There are several times of authority.

Jesus showed us how authority is to be used. It is to be used in the role of the Servant most often and used little in the role of command. Read Luke 22 for an example of how to use authority and what authority means.

Phil Snyder

B flat said...

I seem to have touched a nerve with deacon Paul. I did say I have no personal animus to him, and so apologise.
Luke 22, where it speaks of service, has Christ giving the example of service at the Last Supper. I read it in the context of that Liturgy and the disciples' dispute about precedence, rather than service directed ad extra.
The chapter does not disclose new meanings of "authority" to my unenlightened mind.

Perhaps there is a confusion about meanings in this disagreement? I do not at all think that being authorised to do something, means that one has authority. What plsdeacon describes in his experience, is sometimes an exercise of delegated authority, sometimes an authorisation to fulfil a role. Knowing which of these come to him by virtue of his diaconate, and which are given because of his personal talents, would illustrate the local understanding of his diaconate by his bishop. Would that speak for the Church?

I still stand in agreement with what our Russian village priest said so clearly.