Sunday, July 13, 2014

What's a Deacon? or, This Is a Question that Requires Participation

What would I do without Episcopal Church Memes?

At one point in time, I had written in my "about me" section (which you can always find in the menu bar at the top of my blog or right now at this link), that deacons were the "designated liturgical Other." This is an uncomfortable statement to make, because the implications are paradoxical. I was challenged on this statement at one point in time because describing the diaconate like that isn't very kind. Additionally, it's most definitely not the ideal reputation that we, as deacons (or in my case, candidates in formation to be deacons), are striving to make for ourselves. Nonetheless, I make the statement as an observation of the way that things are in my context. That means that if anyone wants to challenge me on any point that I make in this post, I will welcome it so that I can clarify the observations I've made in my part of the world and so that I can listen to what you see in yours.

All that being said, let's first examine how things work prescriptively before I describe what I observe.


A deacon's place around the Eucharistic table is at the celebrant's side. One component of deacons' work is sacramental service, and so in liturgy, while it is the celebrant (whether priest or bishop) who, with the support of the congregation, actually blesses and makes the Eucharist, the deacon stands as an image of servanthood at the table. In this way, both the celebrant and servant reflect images of Christ's ministry.

In case an ordained deacon is not present or available, the deacon's servant responsibilities must still be performed in order for any liturgy to happen smoothly. These tasks may be given to acolytes (altar servers) or performed by the celebrant themselves. This has been the case for a long time, that deacons have been considered non-essential and thus the servant responsibilities automatically get delegated and people begin to forget that the deacon ever had that servant ministry when we celebrate Eucharist. My point here is to give a reminder that a deacon is very welcome around the table, and has designated liturgical function.

However, deacons also fill a roll that I describe in terms of John the Baptist and the Hebrew Bible prophets; the voice crying out in the wilderness "prepare the way of the Lord!" This means that, while deacons have a place at the table which is in the center of the Christian faith community, they are also the ones who go forth from the congregation and call the Church out into the world to live into its baptismal vows. And that function of continually calling out the Church means deacons always keep the Church just a little uncomfortable; deacons make sure that the Church does not become too set in its ways and forget that we can transform the world and also be transformed ourselves. But transformation does not happen without encountering something Other. And thus I describe the diaconate as the designated Other, since it is the diaconate that is calling the Church out into the world for transformation through service.

So like I said, I describe the diaconate as the "designated liturgical Other." I have also heard that deacons are ordained for the Word and service. Whichever phrase you choose, I still think that the implications are paradoxical. And I think that, no matter how wonderful the prescription is (coming from me, the one beginning formation with stars in my eyes), the way that the implications play out means that the way someone from a different perspective may describe the diaconate may not be such a shining example.

One of the first negative descriptions that I have heard about the diaconate is the gadfly motif. This motif comes from a trend I have seen where deacons are primarily interested in organizing political action, which is most often manifested as demonstrations or rallies at the state capitol. In this case, the deacon sees themselves as the voice for the voiceless only insofar as it pertains to public policy. This kind of ministry does agitate some members of the congregation to action, but it does not require anyone from the Church to actually interact with the poor, the needy, or the marginalized. Representatives of the Church are only required to advocate on their behalf. So, ultimately, it seems to me that this simply boils down to deacons being agitators.

Another disparaging attitude toward the diaconate is the expectation that is simply an order of mini-priests. This would mean that deacons are the lieutenants of the Church, where priests are captains and bishops are generals. This would mean that deacons can be pitied because something has kept them from being a "real" priest. This would also suggest that deacons have no real agency of their own, only the ability to be authorized for tasks by the grace and good will of their superiors, which seems much more militaristic than what I think the Church is at this point in time (I have to admit that there have been times in history when the Church militant was the norm). This whole top-down attitude saddens me because it denies that each order of the Church is full and equal with the other three (please note this connotation, that there are four orders in the Church: deacons, priests, bishops and laity). If we can't regard each person in the Church with the full dignity of their humanity, how can we expect to regard anyone else's dignity when we encounter them outside of the Church?

The last description of the diaconate that I'll touch on is the service representative idea. I have been in conversations before where I talk about my diaconal vocation to lead people (the Church) out of the parish building and into the neighborhood to love and serve everyone as Christ himself. I think that's a beautiful image, but when I describe it, the objection is "it's the deacon's job to serve as representative of the Church." After I swallow my pride, resist the temptation to lose my temper, and gather myself to make a response, I pose a question something like "why would a deacon deny the rest of the Church the opportunity to live into baptismal covenant?" What that means is that each Christian is charged at their baptism, in addition to confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, to also proclaim the Gospel, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to strive for justice and peace. But if a deacon goes out from the Church to serve as the only representative of it, the rest of the Christian Church is allowed to disengage from the world, which is a denial of our baptismal vows.

Now, these are some of the descriptions that I engage with when I speak about the diaconate in my context. I think that the flawed or incomplete nature of the descriptions is balanced by the prescription that I offered first. But I must confess that I cannot hold the descriptions in contempt, nor can I have contempt for anyone who describes the diaconate in any way similar; I have described it in each of these ways at some point in my life. Speaking of the holy orders of the Church is a very nuanced, tricky thing to do. And I'm sure that what I consider a prescription for the diaconate now will begin to shift, whether through conversation with others or the experiences I will glean when I, myself, am (hopefully) ordained to that order. Nevertheless, I offer my observations, descriptions, and prescriptions to you and ask you what you think of what I have written.



ADDENDUM: I know that there are already more descriptions of the diaconate out there. For example, one very articulate description of the diaconate that I have found recently is Bsp. Dan Edwards' post "The Modern Diaconate Come of Age." Another description is provided in the ordination rite of a deacon in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I, personally, think that one is a very good place to start a discussion because I am, after all, Episcopalian. But does anyone else have any other descriptions to offer?