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Remembering and Reclaiming Diakonia

Remembering and Reclaiming Diakonia:
Reflections on the Sacramental Role and Current Status of the Diaconate

Address at Antiochian Archdiocese Clergy Symposium, July, 2010

John Chryssavgis

 

Some Preliminary Parenthetical/Personal Remarks 

I. I learned from a young age, at the feet of my presbyter-father, that the hardest task for a disciple of Christ is to bear the cross of Christ. I learned from my own experience that the next hardest task is to be a servant of all in the image of Christ, who came to serve and not to be served (Mark 10.45). This means that the hardest thing is to be a christian – a journey that begins with the sacrament of baptism. The next hardest thing is to be a deacon – a journey that begins with the sacrament of ordination. I promise you: it gets much easier after that! So it is actually easier to be a priest; and of course, by the same standard, it is perhaps easiest to be a bishop.

II. I learned over a number of years in church administration, parish ministry and tertiary education that the priesthood is often also the cause of much pain and abuse resulting from a misunderstanding of authority both by those in priestly orders and by the lay faithful of our church. This has proved deeply hurtful alike for those ordained as for those aspiring to ordination to the diaconate – both male and female, as men enter the circle of power and as women seek to revive the historical fullness of the diaconate.

The truth is that, if we understand the diaconate more clearly, then we will better understand the other orders of the priesthood, too. We will also understand why – and how – women can participate in the diaconate without arousing hierarchical fears of ordination to the presbyterate or foregoing theological discussion about the male priesthood. An honest conversation about the priesthood will only enrich our appreciation and application of the ordained ministry as well as of the priesthood of all believers.

III. Part of the problem lies in the unrealistic expectations and impossible goals we set for the priesthood, upholding the priest as icon or model. Contemporary theologians like to cite patristic sources regarding ordained priests as manifesting and realizing the priesthood of Christ and the priesthood of all believers. Now – pardon my impertinence, but – that’s really a handful!

It is romantically idealistic, if not spiritually perilous to claim that the priest represents Christ or the people; it is far more realistic and grounded – indeed, humble – to believe that the priesthood presents God to the people (as in the Old Testament) and the community to Christ (as in the New Testament). And there are innumerable “ordained” ways of doing this! One of them is the diaconate. It is equally dangerous to claim – as it very often is – that the priesthood is “not one of the ministries,” “not one vocation among many,” that the priest somehow has “all vocations” and not just a “religious vocation,” which all people have. So theologians claim that the priest has no ministry and no vocation because he is somehow the term of reference and norm of evaluation for all vocations and all ministries. According to a recent publication: “Should the priest feel called to a life of social activity, government service, monastic contemplation, or legal advocacy; or should he feel compelled to take a second wife, to join the military, to pursue an academic career, or to propagate one or another specific form of Christian activity or piety, he must give up his sacramental office.”2 Such claims are presumptuous, if not arrogant, both opening up to diverse forms of abuse and alluding to yet another confusion.

IV. One of the critical problems in our misunderstanding of the priesthood is, as I shall emphasize later, the confusion between priesthood (as inclusively embracing the ordained bishop, priest and deacon, as well as the priesthood of all believers) and priest (as a distinct order of the ordained priesthood). Unless we disabuse ourselves of this confusion – in many ways, perhaps deliberate inasmuch as it preserves an authoritarian element – then we cannot really appreciate any of the three orders of priesthood.

During a meeting of Orthodox bishops held a few years ago in Chicago (October, 2006), one of the hierarchs touched on the very heart of the problem. He asked: “Can it be said that someone is called to the diaconate? Do we not normally speak of people as being called to the priesthood?” Such questions underscore the confusion, if not the ignorance surrounding the ordained ministry. For one is not called to the diaconate any more than one is called to the episcopate; in fact, one is not even called to the priesthood at all – at least, as a distinct order – but to the priestly ministry of the Church, which has three distinct orders. After all, each of the specific terms applied to the ordained ministers – episcopos for bishop, iereus or presbyteros for priest, and diakonos for deacon – are in fact properly reserved for Christ.

Such questions, however, have forced me to (re)consider our model of the ministry. That’s what I hope to do with you this morning. So my presentation will largely bypass the history of the diaconate and, instead, focus on what form this ministry might assume today. It is neither an exhaustive or comprehensive scholarly exercise nor a theological or historical treatise. It is a personal reflection, drawing on my experience as an ordained deacon for almost three decades.

Introduction: The Sacramental Dimension of Diakonia

In the Orthodox Church, it is true, we do have deacons; the diaconate has never fallen into complete disuse. But what we do (or can do) with deacons is another question. Let me begin, then, with the words of a theologian I find myself constantly in agreement with, the late Fr. John Meyendorff:

Is the meaning of the diaconal ministry given its full potential in our Church today? Perhaps it would be worth attempting to give our deacons more ecclesial functions; and, in search for a definition, the centuries-old practice of the Church should be given more, rather than less attention.3

I have to be quite honest here. Unless we conceive the priestly ministry as deriving originally and as developing organically from the diaconal stage, we run the risk of falling either into the Scylla of “despotism” or the Charybdis of “presbyterianism.” While the central place of the bishop and presbyter ought always to be retained, it is important to reclaim the unique significance of each individual priestly degree in accordance with the practice of the Apostolic Church. Reclaiming the diaconate prevents any tendency toward “democratization” or “clericalism” in the Church, often largely the result on the one hand of historical and on the other hand of theological ignorance. 

The authentic image of the Church that we should be seeking – in our mind as in our ministry, in our theology as in our practice – is that of a dinner table, and not that of a corporate ladder. The Church is not a pyramid, where all attention and authority are turned toward the summit. We are to imagine the Church as comprising a sacrament where the primary and essential focus is always the celebration of the eucharistic feast. To paraphrase St. Irenaeus of Lyons: “Our practice should conform to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist should confirm our doctrine.”4

And if the image of the table – the picture of church-as-eucharist – becomes our formative and normative icon of the Church, then we might imagine deacons as persons waiting at tables, attending to people seated at this festive celebration, rather than as pawns on the lower end of some powerful or political organization. Then, we would appreciate the invaluable dominance of deacons in the early Church and the inviolable importance of deacons for the church today. After all, what greater gift could anyone ever ask for than to serve at the table of that Mystical Supper? I certainly know of no other, no better, no more sublime.

Allow me to develop this eucharistic image still more boldly. I believe that reflecting on what a deacon is called to do will remind us more clearly of what a priest is supposed to do and of what a bishop is ordained to do. If we do not understand the diaconate, then we shall simply move from one meaningless title to another in the church. And in our search for answers, the basic question should be: what exactly is each order of the ministry called to do? Yet, if we begin from the top down – seeking to understand the essential role of the bishop in order to appreciate the pastoral boundaries of the priest – in the end, we shall always remain confused as to how exactly the diaconate fits within any order of ministry.

Perhaps, instead, the order of consideration should be reversed; perhaps reflecting first on what a deacon is called to do will help explain what a priest is supposed to do and, by extension, clarify what a bishop is ordained to do. Otherwise, if we are honest with ourselves and honest to God, these vocations are left – arbitrarily, to a lesser or greater extent – up to the individual. A bishop who enjoys youth work may develop campsites; another with particular interpersonal skills may excel in fundraising; or should he require a personal assistant, he might ordain someone to serve as a limousine driver, carry a set of vestments, or run an office. Similarly, a priest obsessed with liturgical ritual may fill the weekly schedule with services; another with heightened administrative qualities may chair numerous committees. A parish that witnesses its priest being overextended might request a deacon, while another parish may feel self-sufficient. Yet, this is by no means the image of the diaconate proposed in the early seventh century by Isidore of Seville, who underlined the indispensable role of deacons, “without whose ministry, a priest has only the name but not the office.”5

A Word on the Origins of the Diaconate

In the two centuries spanning from Ignatius of Antioch (at the turn of the first century) to the first Council of Nicaea (at the beginning of the fourth century), deacons were essential ministers, clearly as much a part of the Church as bishops and presbyters. Ignatius of Antioch is quite clear and categorical about the role of all clergy, including deacons, for the very “constitution” of the Church: “Without these [the bishop, presbyters and deacons],” he writes, “it [the community] cannot be called a church.6” Deacons are not simply ornamental (of the bene esse) but essential (of the esse) for the Church.

Now, while the Septuagint adopts the term διακονος seven times and the word διακονια three times – there are no instances of the verb διακονειν – by contrast, the New Testament contains thirty instances of the word διακονος, thirty-four instances of the noun διακονια, and thirty-seven cases of the verb διακονειν. Moreover, in the Apostolic Fathers, a third of fifty instances where these terms are employed occur in the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch, who also uses the word διακονος in a stricter, more technical sense, signifying an ecclesiastical deacon.

Nevertheless, the origins of the diaconate are not very clear at all, much like the origins of the episcopate and the presbyterate. For writers in the early centuries, the term “deacon” was very fluid, while its application was certainly quite varied. The diaconate grew gradually, albeit naturally and organically, out of the Church’s response to the increasing needs of the people of God. For instance, among the unique services or functions attributed to deacons in the Letters of St. Paul is the collection of financial aid and distribution of support to the poor (see 2 Cor. 8.4 and 9.1; Rom. 15.25). St. Paul also commissions deacons, including St. Phoebe (Rom. 16.1-2), as missionaries to the world or emissaries to the community (see 1 Cor. 16.15) in order to proclaim the Gospel message and exercise the Gospel ministry (see esp. 1 Thess. 3.2, perhaps one of the earliest pieces of evidence regarding deacons).

Even the diverse explanations and interpretations of the deacon’s distinctive vestment, the orarion, reveal the wide-ranging service, function, and responsibility of deacons through the ages. It may be called orarion, possibly (although liturgists are not in agreement here) from the Latin derivation: “orare” means “to pray.” Other commentators, such as Balsamon, relate it to the Greek word “oran” (denoting “to see”) because the deacon is entrusted with watching over the holy mysteries, much like the bishop supervises the unity of the community. Symeon of Thessalonika connects the term to the verb “oraizo” (namely, “adorn”), since this vestment represents the beauty of angelic hosts. Finally, some liturgists link the orarion to the word “ora” (“hour” or “time”), since the deacon informs the congregation of the important moments in the liturgy, raising the orarion with the first three fingers of his right hand. Finally, the word may also – and quite simply – derive from the Latin “orarium,” a cloth used to wipe the brow. Thus, for Isidore of Pelusium, it represents the towel with which Christ humbly washed the feet of His disciples.

Therefore, even as it is tempting to speak retrospectively, it is difficult, if not dangerous, to search for a fully developed diaconate in the New Testament or early Apostolic Fathers. However, a classic text in regard to the biblical origins of the diaconate is Acts 6.1-6, which also reveals the social and liturgical dimensions of diaconal ministry. This passage discloses how the institution of the diaconate was in fact the early community’s natural response and spontaneous reaction to the challenges of the day. It was not some “programmed” or “planned” development of an institutionalized or ordained priesthood. We read, then, that the appointment of “the Seven” was to serve at the tables of the widows of Jerusalem. Some (Hellenist Jews) had complained that the needs of the widows were being neglected. Therefore, “the twelve” (disciples) responded by calling an assembly of the community to “ordain” “the seven” (deacons) – although, curiously, the word “deacon” nowhere appears in this passage.

Now the purpose for which the twelve apostles appointed the seven deacons to serve the poor is of critical importance for us today. The primary service of the apostles was the ministry of the word (diakonia logou)). “Serving at tables” proved a distraction in their effective preaching and prayer. Yet, the effective ministration to the poor and the widows (the pastoral dimension of ministry) was so vital and indispensable that they gathered the community to elect seven deacons for this task, which they considered part and parcel of their apostolic ministry and discipleship. In their mind, there could be no distinction between the proclamation of the Gospel (as divine Word), the celebration of the Eucharist (as divine Body and Blood), and the ministration to men and women of the community (as divine Body of Christ). I sometimes wonder whether much of what is today interpreted – or perhaps justified – as essential to parish ministry is in fact a distraction from the priestly sacrament. 

Effective ministry, then, was one reason why deacons were appointed or ordained in the early Church; administration, for instance, was another. Of course, these two dimensions were not sharply distinguished. In Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, administration was integral to the role of deacons in the edification (oikodome) of the Church. Deacons were highly regarded as episcopal assistants and ambassadors. Indeed, in 453, Pope Leo reprimanded Anatolius of Constantinople for “degrading his deacon by ordaining him presbyter!” Deacons were responsible for conveying official letters among bishops and for representing bishops on significant occasions or at Councils. Deacon Hilary represented the Pope of Rome at the 4th Ecumenical Council. This may not say much about what the Pope thought of councils; but it speaks volumes to what the Pope thought of deacons!

In the early part of the 7th century, under the Emperor Heraclius, the number of deacons at St. Sophia was fixed at (in fact, reduced to!) 150; the number dwindled to sixty by the late 12th century. From the 11th century, some deacons were members of the Endemousa Synod (the most powerful ecclesiastical structure at the time!), wielding considerable influence within the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Indeed, the Ecumenical Patriarchate to this day preserves a central role for deacons. Beyond their liturgical duties, deacons exercise administrative responsibilities and pastoral functions: the Archdeacon, for example, retains the keys to the courtyard, represents the Patriarch in the absence of the Chancellor, is escorted by a lay attendant, issues permits and appointments (even to Bishops!), sits on important Synodal committees, and even issues encyclicals to communities. The late Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, while still a deacon, served as chief secretary to the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece (from 1919 to 1922). Moreover, Patriarch Theodosius VI of Antioch was, as deacon, named Patriarchal Vicar of the diocese of Diar-Bekir in Asia Minor, whose see was vacant at the time.

The Current State of the Diaconate

The diaconate is the first order or office of priestly ministry. We can all agree with that! The Church has always held that the ordained ministry includes “three divinely-established degrees” – those of bishop, presbyter, and deacon. In recent centuries, however, the diaconate has enjoyed only a symbolical or transitional role.

A concise and honest appraisal of the present state of deacons in the Orthodox Church was articulated over half a century ago in a brief, yet insightful article by Fr. Lev Gillet. Writing in 1955, Fr. Lev decried the decline of the diaconate, which in his opinion could not be revived:

What is likely to be the future of the Orthodox diaconate? In so far as it was a charitable institution, it has been replaced by other organizations. In so far as it was a form of ecclesiastical administration, it is steadily losing its meaning. As a liturgical institution, it is becoming rare and is not considered by everyone to be desirable. Few parishes are financially capable of supporting a deacon, and the faithful often look upon a deacon as a useless luxury. Priests sometimes regard a deacon as an encumbrance. In places where appreciation of the liturgy is growing, the priest reads aloud the prayers called “secret” and the faithful do not want a deacon to come between them and the prayers of the priest. Candidates for the permanent diaconate (the old Orthodox tradition was that a deacon remained a deacon throughout his life) are today few and far between, and in some respects the disappearance of the professional diaconate is not a matter of regret.7 Permanent deacons may remain in some monasteries, for they fit in well with monastic life. Probably bishops will continue to have deacons by them, but already the deacons who reside in bishops’ palaces are usually young men who intend to become priests and who are serving a kind of liturgical apprenticeship with the bishop. The bishop is more often assisted in his administrative work by priests and lay officials. For students in theological colleges, the diaconate is only a stage of preparation for the priesthood. Parochial deacons also, if they have the necessary education, are often aiming at the priesthood; during their diaconate, they engage in preaching and teaching. In short, everything suggests that, apart from monasteries, the permanent diaconate is bound to disappear more or less quickly and to give way to a temporary diaconate, a step towards the presbyterate.8

The truth is that, if it is difficult to discern the historical roots of the diaconate, it is even more difficult to assign any clearly defined “profile” to deacons. Yet, the diaconate still serves as the introduction and initiation for every person called to the sacramental priesthood. Simply put, no one can become a priest or a bishop without first being ordained to deacon. This means that the diaconate can be neither overlooked nor undermined for a balanced and comprehensive understanding of the priesthood.

Nevertheless, as we know, in contemporary reality and practice, parish clergy in the Orthodox Church are for the most part ordained to the priesthood after serving only briefly as deacons. It is as if they are expected to “move on!” The diaconate has been reduced to little more than a preparation or stepping-stone for the priesthood or the episcopate. The latter two stages are normally considered more significant, more substantial for the ordained ministry, whereas the diaconate resembles a kind of sub-priesthood, rarely perceived as a lifelong office or permanent service. By the way, I dislike and deliberately avoid terms such as “permanent” or “part-time,” both of which are probably influenced by the Roman Catholic canonical emphasis on universal priestly celibacy. Now, while Orthodox tradition has historically not been as emphatic or exclusive about “keeping the interstices” – i.e., rushing through the stages of ordination – as Roman Catholic canon law, nonetheless this has still been generally discouraged, even frowned upon over the centuries. However, more importantly, it is – in terms of our discussion of the diaconate – simplistic and presumptuous to imagine that this refers simply to the sudden installation of a bishop and does not also include the immediate induction to the priesthood! Each of the three orders merits proper value, individual attention, and distinct duration. Indeed, there is a sense in which ordination to the diaconate is not only permanent but even perpetual in the church; for when one is ordained to the presbyterate and the episcopate, one nevertheless continues to exercise functions of the deacon. In many ways, it is only to the degree that one retains the diaconal dimension of the priesthood that one can also become a genuine presbyter and bishop. The priest and the bishop are what they are called and meant to be when they live as Christ, who “was among us as one who serves.” (Luke 22.27) As we observed earlier, the priesthood is not ambition, authority, or power; it is, in fact, the struggle to “lose one’s life” (Matt. 6.25) “for the life of the world” (John 6.51). It is no wonder, then, that the word “diakonia” shares the same etymological root as the word “konia” in Greek, which signifies “dust” or “nothing.” The ordained ministry symbolizes and demonstrates the cost of Christian discipleship. And the diaconate is so distinctively connected and conformed to the sacrifice and service of Christ, elements that can never be absent from subsequent orders.

In some Orthodox churches, the diaconate has been reduced still further, relegated to a purely musical or aesthetic – at best, to an exclusively liturgical – office. While not insignificant, these functions only partially express the full potential of the diaconate. In fact, from an historical perspective, in the early church, the purely liturgical obligations were often delegated to sub-deacons, who were neither ordained (acheirotonetoi) nor consecrated (insacrati) but simply “named” or appointed. Deacons were always responsible for much more than liturgical order. Originally attached to the bishop, they were later attached to the presbyter or the parish. This development resulted in a gradual reduction of the diaconate to a decorative, almost superfluous, aspect of an otherwise multi-faceted community.

Yet if we consider the wide-ranging dimensions of diaconal ministry in the first centuries, we might appreciate the diaconate as a ministry permitting greater flexibility in the pastoral care of a community. The Orthodox Church ordains deacons because they are an essential part of the priesthood, without which the pastoral ministry would be incomplete. In many ways, then, deacons could comprise the active and accessible dimension of a parish. Consider this image: When we think of doctors, we think of “primary” physicians; we may not immediately – or, at least, not only – envisage surgeons. When we think of the military, we imagine privates at the front line of battle; we may not readily – or, at least, not only – consider generals. By analogy, when we discuss the priesthood, we should think of deacons; we should not instantly – or, at least, not only – think of presbyters. Deacons might be the visible and vibrant extension in the community of qualities often associated with priests.

There is something seriously missing from the ordained ministry if deacons are discernibly omitted in the overall picture. A fuller vision of the sacramental ministry should recognize the role of the bishop as the bond of unity and spokesman for doctrine. It should likewise respect the role of the presbyter in celebrating the presence of Christ in the local community. Yet it should also realize the role of the deacon as servant in completing and complementing this circle of unity and community, reaching out to “the least of our brothers and sisters” (Matt. 25.40) in the local Church.

Moreover, the diaconate could provide occasion for expressing the diversity of gifts found among the laity as the “royal priesthood,” which ought to be embraced and enlisted in a sacramental and ordained manner by the Church. Thus, a ministerial dignity would be conferred upon certain members of the laity, whose particular qualifications or skills would be incorporated and fully integrated within the community. Such persons would be embraced and empowered through the imposition of the hands and by the grace of the Spirit, their various charismata and professional contributions recognized and intimately bound with the altar. They would support – and not substitute – the priestly ministry of the Church.

Matters of pastoral care, practical administration, financial concern, and even theological education may quite readily be delegated to and undertaken by deacons. Here is my vision: Someone whose administrative gifts are welcomed for the organization of a parish might be “ordained” to perform this task in the community. He (or she) could be a deacon that serves (part-time or full-time) in that capacity. The same could occur with someone that offers gifts in particular areas as youth minister or financial comptroller or catechetical instructor or hospital pastor, and so on.  Deacons might be officially commissioned to preach, or counsel, or perform functions of social service, as well as to assist in liturgical affairs or administer the sacraments to members of the community that are in need.

One could almost envisage the diaconate as being a ministry shaped by the socio-economic conditions of our time. For – again, if we are to draw on the experience and practice of the early church – not only is the diaconate profoundly sacramental; it is also deeply grounded in the ways that the church meets the world. There is clear historical precedent for this diversity of skills; in the tradition, the diaconate was often combined with a particular position within the Church – whether an abbot, an attorney, or a physician.9 Even in the list of ordained saints, it is interesting to note that, while bishops are normally recognized as saints by virtue of being bishops (or teachers) and presbyters by virtue of being priests (or pastors), deacons are always saints by virtue of being something else in addition to deacons, such as martyrs or evangelizers. Think of Athanasius expounding doctrine at the First Ecumenical Council, Ephraim preaching in fourth-century Syria, Romanos composing hymns in sixth-century Constantinople, or Francis experiencing his mystical visions in thirteenth-century Assisi. I believe that this serves to underline the particular and unique contribution of deacons to the Church’s mind, ministry and mission.

I would go further and dare claim that there is no reason whatsoever for theological educators in seminaries (such as Holy Cross, St. Vladimir’s, St. Tikhon’s, etc.) to be ordained presbyters unless their principal ministry lies in a parish and their part-time ministry in a school. After all, there is an entire tradition of this in our church. Otherwise, in my humble opinion, we are simply and clearly surrendering to the temptation of clericalism – no matter how spiritual or reasoned our justification! Here is the basic question for me: Does someone have to be a priest in order to do what he is doing? “Ordained” is one thing; “ordained a priest” is another!

Naturally such a renewal begs many questions. Just how will local communities appreciate and accept – even afford – this broadening of the ministry? What are the issues related to spiritual formation, pastoral training, and theological education in preparing deacons in a way that is appropriate to the circumstances as well as proper to the Church’s needs? Will our leaders (bishops or even parish priests) be comfortable with or confident in endorsing this kind of diaconate, where some deacons will retain their “lay” professions, contributing their talents to the parish on a part-time basis, while other deacons may assume fuller pastoral responsibilities?

Conclusion: Fulfilling a Vital Role

While it may be argued that, in its present state, the diaconate remains unexploited, the role of the deacon is more than one of mere convenience; in my opinion, it is one of cohesion. More than any other order of the clergy – at least more apparently and more visibly than any other order of the clergy – the deacon is both minister and mediator: minister before the altar of God and to the people of God; mediator between the heavenly altar and the earthly reality. The deacon has one foot in heaven and one on earth, functioning in two worlds simultaneously, bringing and holding together two different realities. This mediation between heaven and earth is liturgically symbolized by the dialogues between deacon and priest or bishop and between deacon and congregation during the divine liturgy as well as by the incessant liturgical movement of the deacon, who gravitates between the space of the altar and nave during services, sometimes turning toward the people, at other times gently bowing before the bishop, while at other times approaching the holy icons. This may well be why the office of the deacon has traditionally been regarded as two-fold: for the deacon is both clergy and laity; or, more accurately, the deacon is fully identified with neither clergy nor laity. The role of deacons is blurred because the deacon is both at once – an ambivalence reflected in the burial of the deacon, which is traditionally that of a layperson and not a clergyman. 

To demonstrate how the diaconate is apparent, if inconspicuous, in the early church, let me close with the miracle in Cana of Galilee, a Gospel story we hear so often, but whose words we sometimes miss:

There was a wedding in Cana of Galilee and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him: “They have no wine.” … Then, His mother said to the deacons: “Do whatever he tells you.” … Jesus said to them: “Fill them up with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them: “Now, draw some out and take it to the steward of the feast.” So they took it. Then, the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the deacons who had drawn the water knew) …. (John 2.1-11)

Every translation of this passage refers to “servants” and not to “deacons.” Yet, the text itself refers to deacons (diakonoi). The deacons are the ones who go back and forth between the Mother of Jesus and Christ Himself, as well as between the guests and the steward of the feast, just as they go back and forth inside and outside the altar. The feast functioned smoothly, miraculously, because the deacons fulfilled their role.

The diaconate may present a modern response to a modern need, even while being rooted in the historical apostolic ministry and the unbroken “succession” of charismatic and liturgical experience. Reclaiming the diaconate for both men and women should, of course, occur within a traditional ecclesiological context, where the bishop (or the parish priest) may – to adopt the wording of the Apostolic Tradition – “gather together the deacons on a daily basis, unless illness prevents them. When they are all assembled, the deacons should instruct the people; and, after they have all prayed together, should each should proceed to their respective duties.”10

Now, within this communal structure, the ordained bishop is given “the charisma of [speaking the] truth” in order to preserve “the unity of love” shared by all. Likewise, the ordained presbyter receives “the charisma of offering” the bloodless sacrifice for the life of all. And, by extension, the ordained deacon accepts “the charisma of service” extended to all members of the Body of Christ. However, at all times, this unity, communion, and service remain the obligation and vocation of all Christians – ordained clergy and laity alike. Certain specific functions are delegated to particular orders. Yet, the ministry always belongs to and is shared by all.

I am convinced that the revitalization today of the diaconate is not merely a practical or administrative issue. It is a matter of profound theological and spiritual significance. The diaconate may – if reconsidered and reclaimed in its full historical and sacramental dimensions – in fact provide a crucial response to a contemporary need. Another etymological source of the word “diakonia” is the ancient Greek verb “koneo,” which implies “sharpening,” “enhancing,” and “urging.” Perhaps deacons can awaken other ministries from their hardened roles and traditional expectations. A creative revival and restoration of the diaconate could become the source of resurrection for the ministry in general, playing a vital role in the mission of the church. In this respect, the restoration of the diaconate may well prove very timely and critical.

(i) Select Bibliography

Collins, J. Diakonia: re-interpreting the ancient sources, Oxford University Press: 1990.

Fitzgerald, K. Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church, Holy Cross Orthodox Press: 1998.

Florovsky, G. “The Problem of Diaconate in the Orthodox Church,” in R. Nolan (ed.), The Diaconate Now, Corpus Books: Washington DC, 1968, 81-98.

Khodr, G. “The Diaconate in the Orthodox Church,” in The Ministry of Deacons, World Council of Churches: 1965.

 An Orthodox Approach to Diaconia: consultation on church and service, World Council of Churches: 1980.

Walker, A. and Carras, C. (eds.), Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World: Orthodox Christianity and society, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2000.

Zizioulas, J.D. Eucharist, Bishop, Church: The Unity of the Church in the Divine Eucharist and the Bishop during the First Three Centuries, Holy Cross Orthodox Press: 2001.

 1 Opening address during the biennial Antiochian Archdiocese Clergy Symposium at Antiochian Village, Pennsylvania, July 19-23, 2010, sponsored by the Department of Theological and Pastoral Education, Antiochian House of Studies. The theme of the symposium was: “The Priesthood: Diakonos, Presbyteros, Episcopos.”

2 The Presbyter: Publication of the Archdiocesan Presbyters Council, xii, 1, June 2010.

3 “A Final Word in Defense of Ecclesiology,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 32, 4 (1988) 398. My emphasis.

4 Adversus Haereses IV, 18, 5 PG 7.1028.

5 De Ecclesiasticis Officiis, in PL 83.788.

6 Letter to the Trallians 3.1.

7 Footnote by Fr. Lev Gillet: “The professionalism in mind is that which looks upon a deacon as primarily a cantor. This error was common in Imperial Russia, where the first quality the public required of a deacon was a powerful bass voice. To some young men, it was a matter of indifference whether they became deacons or opera singers. It is a good thing to be finished with that type of deacon. Does the future of the diaconate lie in preaching? I think not, because Orthodox priests are increasingly given to preaching themselves, and also because in the Orthodox Church not only a priest or a deacon but a reader or layman can exercise the ministry of the word.”

8 Lev Gillet, “Deacons in the Orthodox East,” Theology 58, 1955, 420-421.

9 See Cyril of Alexandria, Letter 69; Theodoret of Cyrus, Letter 27; and Eusebius of Caesarea, On the Martyrs of Palestine 2.1 PG 20.1457.

10 Apostolic Tradition, Chapter 33.