A Puzzling Order

By H. Boone Porter

Parish administration involves the wise use both of the gifts of grace and of the human resources which are available. One neglected area involving both grace and human ability is the diaconate, or order of deacons. It has been neglected both in the administration of the parish and in the life of the church as a whole. We applaud Bishop Sorge for taking steps to initiate a national study of the diaconate in the Episcopal Church (p. 6) and rectors such as Canon McCabe (p. 8).

The order of deacons originated in the first age of the Church and expressed in a special way the meaning of the ministry of the Christian community. Deacon is a Greek word for servant, and this order finds its basis in Jesus Christ who came among us “as one that serveth” (St. Luke 22:27).

The other two ordained orders, that of bishops (the episcopate) and that of priests (the presbyterate), are in a sense more easily understood and dealt with. They are, after all, somewhat comparable to the regional and local officials of other religious or secular organizations. Deacons, on the other hand, do not make sense by the world’s standards. They are officers without command, leaders without power, dignitaries without privilege. In the institution of the diaconate, the church acted out of obedience to our Lord’s saying, “Whosoever would become great among you shall be your servant (‘deacon’), and whosoever would be first among you shall be your slave” (St. Matthew 20:26-27). This is an odd puzzle to the non-Christian; ironically it has been a puzzle to the church as well. Yet this office remains there to challenge and confront us.

There are in fact large numbers of dedicated, thoughtful, and able men and women who would respond, after seeking God’s guidance, if the church called them to undertake the obligations and responsibilities of this order. Unfortunately, the Episcopal Church has for many years been grudging and condescending in its attitude toward the diaconate as a whole. Because seminary graduates spend about a year (or less) as deacons before being ordained to the priesthood, the diaconate has been viewed as a mere apprenticeship. Worse, it has been viewed as a youthful initiation into the ministry, a period during which a young minister might be tested not only by hard work but by occasional disrespect and discourtesy. Those who believe they are called to spend the rest of their life in the diaconate (some of them older persons) have often been unwittingly insulted by lay people who ask them when they are going to be “really ordained,” or why they aren’t “real ministers.” Priests have sometimes been resentful of them — sometimes (sad to say) because some older deacons have a measure of human experience and pastoral sensitivity which younger priests have yet to attain. Sometimes deacons have been at fault in associating too much with priests and casting themselves in the same role. Bishops have often been puzzled at having persons who, in principle, are assistants to the bishop, but whom the latter may not know how to utilize in a constructive fashion. In some dioceses, the ordination of permanent deacons has been so sharply resided that only ambitious, aggressive, self-assertive, and clerically oriented persons were able to persevere in achieving it. If you have this kind of process of selection and preparation, then that is the kind of person you get.

Open and positive attitudes tend to attract open and positive people. Where both the letter and the spirit of the canons are followed in allowing local churches a responsible role in the proposing and training of candidates (Title III, canon 10, section 10), the results can be very favorable. Whatever may have been the procedural infelicities in the past, the fact remains that the so-called perpetual deacons have in almost all cases served with devotion and success. Often they have ministered in difficult situations where no priest was either available or willing to serve. In some cases they exercise an extensive ministry outside the boundaries of the Episcopal Church. Possibly some of the most effective diaconates are being carried out in ways largely unknown to most of us. We hope that during the months ahead we will receive reports and articles from different areas where the diaconate is proving significant. In the meantime we hope that many members of the church will be devoting some reflection to this topic. Both for the parish and the diocese, the diaconate is a largely untapped resource, both for the ministry of the grace of God and the good stewardship of the talents he has given to his people.

The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977 to 1990. This article was published in our January 15, 1978 issue.

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