CONTEMPORARY DISCUSSION: OUR CHANGING CHURCH
In the next two topics we consider contemporary developments and the some of the issues arising as the renewal of the diaconate continues into the 21st century. In this topic we will look at discussion around the theology and spirituality of the diaconate beginning with the final chapter of Deacons And Deaconesses Through The Centuries.
The first part of Chapter Nine gives an in-depth discussion of complex developments within one denomination (the Lutheran Church) and within one country, the United States. (Remember that abbreviations are listed at the beginning of the book).
If you decide to read this chapter you may find yourself skimming over some of the detail but note that when one church seeks to unite various church bodies the effort at compromise can bring possibly unhelpful results in relation to the diaconate. The summary comparing diaconal ministers and deacons on page 454 is helpful. What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of these two models of ministry within one denomination?
Note also the variety of roles deacons find themselves in various denominations such as the Baptist and the Reformed churches. When two or more denominations attempt to merge their ministry ordering what are the likely issues they will face and what impact will that have on the diaconate at this still early stage of its renewal? Olson picks up this question in the last section of this chapter and the summary section is a useful overview.
- Chapter 9 Contemporary Trends Summary on pp 474-477 (rev. ed.) or pp 395-399.
The Orthodox Church
Olson’s discussion on the Orthodox Church in this chapter is quite brief. Another writer, Kyriaki Karidoyanes Fitzgerald, an Orthodox theologian, offers this summary:
There is a great variety to be found in the presence and ministry of the deacon in the Orthodox Church today. One should remember that the Orthodox Church is a federation of twelve Autocephalous Churches and two Autonomous churches. these Churches are united in the same orthodox faith. Yet, within each regional Church, one can find a degree of diversity with regard to particular traditions and practices. This is certainly true with regard to the ministry of deacons. The Orthodox would affirm that the order of the deacon is one of the three ‘Major Orders’ of the ordained ministry and necessary to the life of the Church. However, there is a good degree of diversity to be found with regard to the actual tasks of the deacon in the contemporary Church. In some parts … it is not uncommon to find the deacon engaged not only in liturgical ministry but also in pastoral ministries related to spiritual direction and pastoral care; I education, social welfare and administration , as well as in missionary, hospital chaplaincy and medical activities…. In other parts of the Orthodox Church, the ministry of the deacon appears to be chiefly liturgical in nature (p. 152).1
Fitzgerald notes that there is a “movement among theologians both to emphasise the value of the historic ministry of the deacon and to restore a broadened understanding of the ministry of ordained deacon” but here as elsewhere in the Christian Church the debate over the place of women also plays its part; should the order of deaconess be revived or could women be ordained deacons despite the fact that they could not (in the Orthodox Church) be ordained priests and bishops.
Ecclesiology, Mission and Ministry
…. within the structure of its ministry, and of the renewed diaconate, The Uniting Church recognises that the diaconal ministry expressed by deacons is first and foremost an ecclesiological concept affirming what the church is to be and how it is to understand its own identity. The church is to be a church at mission, responding to God’s calling out of its people to life within the world.2
The greatest changes in the Church in recent years must surely result from its thoughtful reconsideration of the nature of church, its mission, its ministry and the way it orders that ministry. In this section we relocate discussion of the diaconate back within its rightful context, i.e. discussion of the Church and its mission.
In 1982, the World Council of Churches published a Faith and Order paper entitled Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. The whole document can be read on the website of the W.C.C. and provides an interesting picture of where the Christian Church found itself in that process of ‘reconsideration’. If you are not familiar with the paper as a whole, the section on the Church and Ministry is a useful place to begin this topic.
Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry - Faith and Order Paper No.111. Geneva, 1982.
Note the clear agreement that the Church is the Body of Christ, ministry is the service to which the whole people of God are called, that all members are called to discover the gifts they have received for service and building up of the church and that those who are ordained have specific responsibilities in relation to the ministry of all and the well-being of the Church. [Commentary (31) on the diaconate is interesting – what has changed in the twenty-five plus years since it was written?]
It seems self-evident to say that the Church is not simply an institution and yet it must be said again and again in the face of pressure from society (and even members of the Church ) to conform the church to models of other institutions. “The Church is a ‘mode of existence, a way of being”, argues theologian John Zizioulas, “the Church, even in its institutional dimension, is deeply bound to the being of man [sic] , to the being of the world and to the very being of God….However, for the Church to present this way of existence she must herself be an image of the way God exists. Her entire structure, her ministries etc. must express this way of existence.”3
Diakonia and Ministry
In 2002 the Sixth International Anglican Liturgical Consultation published its document, To Equip the Saints which is also referred to as ‘the Berkeley Statement’. In it, the members of the Consultation brought together five years work and discussion on the nature of order in the church, imparting ministry in the church, and ecumenical questions for the future of the church. It represents the reflected opinion of members coming from twenty-nine provinces and member churches of the Anglican communion. The whole statement is also worth reading – and can also be read on the internet – but particularly significant for our discussion is its conclusion on the ordered nature of the Church.
The foundation of the life and ministry of the church is therefore baptism. As Jesus’ ministry was inaugurated by baptism, so in our baptism into the life of Christ we are anointed by the Holy Spirit ‘to bring good news to the poor … to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’ (Luke 4:18-19). In baptism, the people of God are revealed to be a holy people (1 Peter 2:9-10), ministering to the world in the name and in the manner of Christ.
Baptism and Ministry
God bestows upon the church a variety of gifts to build up the body of Christ and to participate in God’s mission in the world. Within the Spirit-filled body, different charisms are given by God to every member, including prophecy, evangelism, teaching, healing, discernment, wisdom, administration and leadership (Romans 12:4-8, 1 Corinthians 12:4-12).
In order that the whole people of God may fulfil their calling to be a holy priesthood, serving the world by ministering Christ’s reconciling love in the power of the Spirit, some are called to specific ministries of leadership by ordination. Although the New Testament refers to a number of different ministries of leadership (see Ephesians 4:11-12, 1 Timothy 3:1-13, 1 Peter 5:1-5), by the second century the ordering of bishops, presbyters, and deacons emerged within the wider context of the ministry of the whole church.
Over the course of Christian history, there have been various understandings of the relationship between the people of God (the laos) and ordained ministers. In some times and places, ordination was viewed as conferring a status elevating ordained ministers above the laity. However, understanding baptism as the foundation of life and ministry of the church (that is, having a baptismal ecclesiology) leads us to see ordained ministers as integral members of the Body of Christ, called by God and discerned by the body to be signs and animators of Christ’s self-giving life and ministry to which all people are called by god and for which we are empowered by the Spirit.
After comments on the cultural shaping of ministry and the role of bishops and priests, the statement focuses on deacons.
In the Anglican Communion today, there are various experiences and understandings of the diaconate, not only from province to province but even within provinces. It is important to learn from one another and to be sensitive to the different needs, and cultural contexts in different parts of the Communion. Historically deacons were often managers of the local church, holding considerable authority. They also oversaw the charitable and social work of the church. The practical and liturgical dimensions developed hand in hand and reflected one another. During the Middle Ages, the diaconate became principally a transitional order on the way to the presbyterate, and at the time of the Reformation the Church of England retained this practice.
In some places the diaconate is being renewed as a distinctive office, drawing upon the New Testament (e.g. Acts 6:1-6) and patristic evidence of the servant ministry of deacons. In this renewed understanding the ministry of the deacon is primarily directed towards the servant mission of the church in the world and has as one of its principle aims ‘ to interpret to the church the needs, concerns , and hopes of the world’. The liturgical role of the deacon expresses this interface between the world and the baptismal community.
Although it is sometimes asserted that the diaconate is the basis for the servant character of all three orders, it is baptism into the life of Christ which is the basis for the servant character of all the church’s ministries. the distinctive nature of the diaconate is not servant ministry in itself, but the calling of deacons to be signs and animators of the Christ-like service of the whole people of God in the world. Both the missionary, world-directed aspect and the liturgical aspect of the diaconal ministry ought to find expression in the ordination rite for deacons.4
Diakonia as part of ecclesiology
Sven-Erik Brodd, Dean of the Faculty of Theology in the University of Uppsala, Sweden, was one of the members of the Anglican Lutheran International Commission which produced the 1996 Hanover report: The Diaconate as an Ecumenical Opportunity.5 In an article, ‘The Diaconate. From Ecclesiology to Pastoral Praxis’, Brodd writes:
In the Church of Sweden we tried to define the diaconate from various concepts of diakonia, which is not what the early Church did. Our attempt has not proved successful and has depended too much on the view of diakonia in the 19th Century. Personally I believe that the diaconate has to be defined out of ecclesiology and not on a definition of what diakonia might be. .. There is in Sweden today a growing awareness that diakonia is one part of ecclesiology, belonging to the essence of the Church...the Church is the people of God, a priesthood of all believers, the body of Christ, and also a community of servants – the Church is diakonia. Therefore, in order to guarantee diakonia its place in the centre of ecclesiology and Church life, we have introduced the diaconate as an integrated part of the ordained ministry of the Church. Thus the one ordained ministry of the Church Catholic is threefold in the Church of Sweden: bishop, priest and deacon.6
Brodd traces the way the model of diaconal ministry has changed through the centuries and concludes:
When looking into Church history it becomes obvious that in a universal perspective there has been no organic growth of theologies on the diaconate. On the contrary, history presents different models. However it seems clear that deacons have been much defined on the basis of the theology and the role of the priesthood and also the need for charitable work. But not only so, because there are also incipiencies to theological models found in ecclesiology….no existing or previous descriptive model for the diaconate can claim immediate normativity. So there are certain possibilities to work out constructive models for the diaconate.
In the ecumenical dialogue it has been agreed on the intimate connection between ordained ministry and ecclesiology. The meaning of Church is given in Christology. If ecclesiology is determined by Christology, the Church cannot be seen as the sum of its activities of members. On the contrary, all structures and activities in the Church depend on – and are being realized as a result of – the understanding of what is Church. That goes for the diaconate as well.7
In arguing that diakonia is a mark of the Church Catholic, a task for the whole people of God but not simply the sum of diaconal work in the Church, Brodd roots diakonia in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Christ was a deacon (who came to serve – Matt 28:20) and thus the Church, as the Body of Christ, represents Jesus Christ as the deacon.8 Within an ecclesiological framework, Brodd also explores ordained ministry in terms of existence and not simply function:
I have mentioned earlier that Christology must not be defined from what Christ says and does, from his functions, but from what he is, his existence. So, by analogy, Church is not the sum of its deeds or members but the existence of Christ. Firstly, Church is existence, and secondly, it functions. One structure in Church is ordained ministry. The ministry exists by ordination, by the grace of God, and it comes into existence by ordination…. A person who has been given the proper gifts of God in ordination is called to function in that ministry.
The diaconate has double significance in ecclesiology: on the one hand it is deduced both in contents, form and functions from ecclesiology. On the other hand it signifies and personifies in Church, in a prophetic and sacramental way, what is common in Church, the whole people of God. The deacon is by ordination a permanent and consistent sign and instrument for Christ as deacon and Church as diakonia.9
Diakonia and Mission
One of the most recent reports produced by the General Synod of the Church of England considers the diaconate from within a discussion on the mission and ministry of the whole church. Part of that report is offered here and another section in Topic 9 but I recommend reading the whole of the report if you can. In the last section of this reading, note the part on ‘sequential ordination’ and be aware that there is intense debate going on over this issue. You can cover this more fully in the next Topic.
“The Mission and Ministry of the Whole Church: Biblical, theological and contemporary perspectives” by the Faith and Order Advisory Group of the Church of England, 2007, pp.137-150.
Role and Function
As theologians and deacons themselves have reflected on the theology of the diaconate a number of questions have emerged; for example, if diakonia is understood to be of the very essence of the whole church it raises the question as to what is distinctive about this as ordained ministry. Likewise, if the functions of deacons in church and society are those that could be, and often are, served by lay members of the church, what is the distinctive role of deacons? Robert Hannaford is a theologian and priest within the Church of England. Consider his response to these questions.
A sacramental theology of the sacred ministry does not require that what it signifies must be peculiar to it. Quite the contrary, the significance of the ordained ministry lies precisely in its capacity to focus what is proper to the Church as a whole. In this sense, the diaconate need not be uniquely diaconal in character in order to be distinctive. Indeed, the distinctiveness of the diaconate lies precisely in its capacity to signify a central aspect of the Church’s universal vocation. The difficulty felt in the case of deacons is that while certain functions both pastoral and liturgical are traditionally associated with this office, none of these is the exclusive preserve of the deacon …the functions of the ministry do not define what it is. The functions are on the contrary a consequence of the underlying sacramental identity of the ordained. In this respect the diaconate is no different from either the priesthood or the episcopate…sacred ministry as a whole exists to be representational sign of what is characteristic of the whole Body of Christ. Deacons are distinguished from the growing number of lay ministers not by what they do but by their sacramental identity as representational signs of the diakonia of Christ in his Church. All the baptised share in the diaconal ministry of the Church, but it belongs to those who are sacramentally ordained to be uniquely a focal image of this universal calling.10
Alison McRae is a deacon in the Uniting Church of Australia and, among other things, has worked on the Faculty of Theological College of the Victorian/Tasmanian Synod. Her ministry has included work ‘on the ground’ in a variety of community settings as well as teaching. As a deacon, she is very aware of the day to day reality of ministry and ‘order’ within the Church and argues we cannot get away from the reality that history and tradition have not just defined diaconal roles but formed expectations and models of ministry that are responsive to the world context. She argues that ‘too often’ our approach to the renewal of the diaconate has been “reduced to a purely functional level where the task and understanding of ministry is confused with the perceived role of the person who undertakes it”. The following extract is from an unpublished paper she presented at a 2007 conference on diakonia.
An important issue is to be aware of not confusing what may seem to be the role or function of those who are deacons with how we understand the place of the diaconate within the life of the church. I am attracted to Sven-Erik Brodd’s assessment that the essence of the ministry is to be seen within the mandate of ordination. Brodd suggests that it is possible to distinguish between diakonia (the Greek term) and diaconal work . The former he says is “a fundamentally theological concept, the latter is a description of an activity”.11 We deacons need to take particular care that we understand the significance of this distinction.
Many of the roles we fulfil within the ministry of the church may appear very much like community development roles, or social work roles, and indeed some deacons are also qualified within these and other professional disciplines. However, it is not our role within these disciplines that makes us deacons. We are deacons fundamentally because the church has called and ordained us to be deacons and our mandate is therefore to carry a representative function for the sake of the whole. It is ecclesiology and ordination that define deacon’s identity, not role, function or professional expertise ; important as these may be in the day-to-day functions of how a deacon’s ministry might be expressed.
Another deacon, Owen Cummings in the Roman Catholic Church, responds to the questions on the role and function of deacons by turning back to the gospel accounts of Jesus; for him, diakonia is about attitude, about a way of being.
- Chapter 10 The Character And Place Of The Diaconate
- Chapter 12 The Functions And Training Of The Deacon
Reminder: these worksheets require SHORT answers each as part of an ongoing reflection on the material being read. Answers may be written out (two-three sentences each ) 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.
- Choose two or three words from each relevant section in the reading from ‘The Mission and Ministry of the Whole Church’ to describe bishops, deacons and priests. Do these words represent the ordained ministry as you have experienced it?
- Record one sentence or phrase from comments by Brodd that stands out for you? Why?
- Having read Barnett’s comments on clericalism, is this an area of local concern for you? why or why not?
- Kyriaki Karidoyanes Fitzgerald , ‘The Diaconate in the Contemporary Orthodox Church’, in The Deacon’s Ministry, Christine Hall, ed. (Herefordshire : Gracewing, 1991), 149-158.
- Alison McRae in an unpublished paper presented at a Conference on the theology of diakonai, Brisbane, 2007.
- John D. Zizioulas in Being as Communion: Studies in personhood and the Church, (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985)
- Anglican ordination rites: The Berkeley Statement: ‘To Equip the Saints’, Findings of the Sixth International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, Berkeley, California, 2001. Paul Gibson ed. (Cambridge: Grove Worship Series 168, 2002)
- The Anglican Lutheran International Commission, The Diaconate as Ecumenical Opportunity (London: Anglican Communion Publications, 1996).
- Sven-Erik Brodd, ‘The Diaconate. From Ecclesiology to Pastoral Praxis’, Tro & Tanke, (Uppsala: Svenska kyrkans forskningsråd, 1992:10) 239.
- Brodd, ‘The Diaconate. From Ecclesiology to Pastoral Praxis’, ibid. 248
- Brodd, ‘The Diaconate. From Ecclesiology to Pastoral Praxis’, ibid. 255
- Brodd, ‘The Diaconate. From Ecclesiology to Pastoral Praxis’, ibid. 265
- Robert Hannaford , ‘Towards a Theology of the Diaconate’ in The Deacon’s Ministry, Christine Hall ed. (Herefordshire: Gracewing, 1992), 32.
- Sven-Erik Brodd, ‘Caritas and Diakonia as Perspectives on the Diaconate’ in The Ministry of the Deacon: 2, Ecclesiological Explorations, eds. Gunnel Borgegard, Olaf Fanuelson, and Christine hall (Uppsala: Nordic Ecumenical Council, 2000) 25-26.