THE NINETEENTH CENTURY: NEW FORMS OF DEACONS AND DEACONESSES IN EUROPE AND BEYOND
After the Reformation, some Protestant churches retained deacons as administrators of charitable aid however the Church of England, like Roman Catholicism, retained the liturgically - focussed deacon passing through to priesthood. According to the Book of Common Prayer deacons were to “so well behave themselves in this inferior office, that they may be found worthy to be called unto the higher ministries in thy Church...”. Although not originally intended, the needs of the poor came to be primarily addressed by people other than deacons.
In Europe, a new movement was soon to develop – one which, in effect, would pick up and maintain the ministry of ‘service to the poor’ for the next two hundred years and beyond.
The role of deaconess was revived drawing on the few references in writings from the early Church; the ‘deaconess movement’ (as it is commonly referred to) began in the 19th century within protestant churches and its contribution to the twentieth-century revival of the diaconate (through its ongoing witness to the diaconate as a distinctive and permanent ministry) is significant.
If you search the internet for information on ‘deaconess’ today you will find that almost all references are to some kind of health care programme; there are Colleges of Nursing, Retirement Centres and hospitals, medical centres and parish nursing programmes. Again these draw on the history of that nineteenth-century movement since at its beginnings a prime concern of the founders was the health and welfare of people most disadvantaged in society, the poor and sick.
Olson provides a comprehensive discussion of what took place and it is worth reading this significant part of the history of the diaconate mindful of ongoing implications for today.
- Chapter 5 The Nineteenth Century: New forms of deacons and deaconesses in Europe
DIAKONIA is a World Federation of Diaconal Associations and Communities which was domiciled in the Netherlands and now in Germany. Membership of DIAKONIA is open to associations and communities of deaconesses, diaconal sisterhoods and brotherhoods, and organisations of diaconal ministers and church workers. Its history begins in the deaconess movement with the foundation of the first Deaconess House by Theodor and Friederike Fliedner in Kaiserswerth on the Rhine.
When DIAKONIA gathers today, its members come from all around the world; there are deaconesses from communities in Africa and Europe, in the United States and England; there are diaconal ministers and deacons from Asia, Australia, the Pacific and New Zealand. You may be able to explore the internet to find its website.
The worldwide spread and influence of the deaconess communities is outlined by Olson in her next chapter which, you may like to look through if you want to follow this line of interest. This will be significant again when we look at the history of the diaconate in our own country.
- Chapter 6. The Nineteenth-century: New Forms of the Diaconate in the British Empire and North America
A current website for a Lutheran Training College in the United States tells us:
A deaconess is a Lutheran woman, formed in community, educated in Lutheran theology, consecrated to serve people in church and society.
In New Testament times deaconesses and deacons were set apart to assist and lead the church in caring for the poor, marginalized, powerless people whom it would have been so easy to forget. Throughout the ages the diaconate has shaped itself in various ways, but the central heartbeat has always been the same -- to reach out in Christian love to those in need.
Today, as it has since 1919, the Lutheran Deaconess Association continues to educate women for ministries of service. Deaconesses embrace the outcasts and those on the fringes. They care for the lost, the least, and the little ones. They wash the feet of people in need.
While the role of a deaconess finds expression in diverse settings and specializations, her service always involves sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ through acts of human care. Whether in a congregation, in an institution, or on the mission field, she brings a uniquely feminine care, perceiving need and responding with gentle helpfulness, expressing the compassion of Christ in a tender, nurturing way. Serving alongside the pastor, she attends to those in need and dwells with them. Using her skilful capability and theological training, she embodies Christ's incarnational care in the midst of suffering.
A deaconess … gives herself to acts of mercy and compassion. These acts of charity are as varied as the women themselves. They involve human and spiritual care, including aspects of nursing/medical care, administrative responsibilities, instruction in the faith, mission work, care for the weak and impoverished, care for women and children in need, or any number of vocations needed for the church’s life.1
Note the ongoing emphasis on the care of the sick and poor, on charity. By now you will be able to see distinct themes emerging in the history of the diaconate as a whole; the focus on the ecclesial role, church structures and worship and the focus on the needs of wider society. In the renewal of the role of deacons this has proved to be a source of some tension for some: is the ministry of a deacon to be directed by one or the other or both?
As John Collins argues, within the Reformed tradition, the influence of Calvin is considerable and his vision for deacons as servant members of the church has been long-lasting. As you will have already realized by the earlier reading from Collins in Topic One, he takes issue with that vision and argues against the emphasis on works of charity. He is not alone in this and more and more writers are paying attention to what he has argued; you will explore this more fully in Topic Nine. Nevertheless, as you can see from any research you might do into where the diaconate is the strongest today, you will find that the needs of people and the need of the church to respond to those needs is what has had and continues to have the most influence on this ministry.
Reminder: these worksheets require 2-3 SHORT answers each as part of an ongoing reflection on the material being read. Answers may be written out (two-three sentences at most) and posted or, preferably, sent to me directly by email as soon as they are completed. Answers will not be graded but merit will be accorded upon satisfactory completion of all the worksheets.
Please answer as simply as possible and send as soon as you complete it.
- Fliedner’s deaconess programme – what are some of the reasons it grew and became so influential? I wonder if you had lived then would you have been drawn to it?
- In countries like New Zealand where the State now plays an active part in caring for the welfare of people in need, is there still a place for deacons/deaconesses? Why?
- http://www.valpo.edu/Ida/welcome.html - last accessed 26/11/07