The permanent diaconate – …to the Anglicans

While having deacons may not be as clear a pastoral need as first thought, I recently came to know an Orthodox deacon who, he points out, really has a distinct but complementary role among those in holy orders. Deacons have never become nothing more than people six months away from the priesthood in the Orthodox tradition, and every parish has a deacon. Deacons exercise two very important functions in his tradition. First, they are the liturgy’s masters of ceremonies, leading prayers, reading the Gospel, and cueing priests so that they could preside at the liturgy without distractions. Second, they are the Church’s administrators, not only of its charitable work (which in my view has led to a very limited understanding of the diaconate in the West), but indeed most of its temporal affairs. The deacons run the parish offices, and in the Patriarchate of Antioch, for example, they comprise the staff. (No priests allowed, mind you.) When I asked whether that meant ordaining parish secretaries, he says that there have been women deacons in some Orthodox churches for a long time now, and it is possible.

John Collins suggests that the role of deacon should be seen, rightly, as more than just an ordained social worker. A deacon has a particular role to play in the connection between the Church and the world, and in the various aspects of communion within the Church. But in a Church where there is a need for a strong presence in every place, the Episcopalians must understand that it starts by having a strong diaconate.

A strong diaconate can help relieve priests and bishops of the tedium of administrative work, so that they can focus on their roles as pastors and teachers. Deacons can carry out much of the social ministries of the church, supporting and training lay liturgical and other ministries, and ensuring that, consistent with the best aspects of the Anglican tradition, Morning and Evening Prayer is celebrated wherever Anglican Christians gather. Priests can still sign the checks, for one, but the parish deacons should be the ones who sign it first.

Of course, this does not discount the deacons’ role in the liturgy, and in the Episcopal Church of the present, I have not seen deacons serve at the altar in the same manner as their Roman counterparts do. In fact, the deacon, if present, must do much more: preparing the table and the gifts, standing beside the priest and turning pages in the book, holding the cup at the doxology ending the Eucharistic Prayer, and assisting with the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the cup. (I think the practice at Holy Trinity, Makati, follows this very closely, and I commend it to the Church.)

It is not necessary that Anglican deacons train in seminary. Some may do so, under an abbreviated program, preferably a year shorter than those training for the priesthood. Most would have to be trained under diocesan programs which have been tried here before but have just fallen by the wayside. Diocesan training programs of this sort, if revived, should prioritize the diaconate and lay ministries, and should make use of the best pastoral and theological resources available in the place.

But what is necessary is that, as an ideal, every organized mission, aided parish, and full parish should have at least one deacon. I say “at least” because in one full parish I know, I would not be surprised if they have a small squad of them. To enable this to happen, I think a pilot scheme should be launched in one or two dioceses for identifying, and, on an informal basis, training permanent deacons.

Another reform which should also be broached is to alter the canons of the Episcopal Church to allow for seminarians at St. Andrew’s or any successor institution, following Roman practice, to be ordained to the diaconate before or during their fourth year. This ensures that there would always be real deacons serving at the seminary’s liturgy, that seminary deacons could help in places without deacons, and that they would be able to serve as deacons for a substantial length of time. This will hopefully enable them to encourage communities to identify and help train deacons with a clear awareness of deacons’ roles.

Of course, the most important administrative reform is to ban anyone in Holy Orders other than bishops and deacons from diocesan offices. Priests belong anywhere other than that.

It must be clear to anyone that being ordained does not give license to exercising one’s office irresponsibly. Ordination puts one under orders, i.e., under authority, and accountability is one important consequence which should not be emphasized enough.

Now why would I suggest this to the Anglicans, not to the Roman Catholic church in the Philippines? I think it is the Anglicans and the Orthodox who ought to be setting an example around these parts. I do not see permanent deacons in the Roman Catholic tradition around here any time soon. But if other churches offer a model of the diaconate that clearly gives distinct but complementary roles to them, then I think many of the concerns raised by some Catholic clergy could be alleviated.


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