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One Solution for the ‘Clergy Shortage’: Restore the Diaconate

This column by the Rev. Roberts E. Ehrgott (1925-1997), then rector of the Church of the Nativity, Indianapolis, addressed what he called the “Clergy Shortage” in the late 1960s. Fr. Ehrgott was held in a German prisoner of war camp in the final months of the Second World War after his capture while serving as an Army corporal. Following the war, he studied at Seabury-Western, being ordained deacon and priest in 1949. He served parishes in the dioceses of Chicago, Indianapolis, and Northwestern Pennsylvania and worked as a consulting editor for Saturday Evening Postin addition to contributing occasional articles to The Living Church. (Small formatting and punctuation changes have been made to the article below.)

From The Living Church, December 15, 1968, pp. 10-1, 14.

By Roberts E. Ehrgott

In an attempt to offset the “clergy shortage” or bottleneck which occurs whenever the Holy Eucharist is celebrated and a number of communions are administered without the diaconal assistance of a minister, the Church of England and the Episcopal Church USA now permit layreaders, under special episcopal license, to administer the chalice. This is admittedly a stop-gap measure, designed to meet a real need caused by increasing use of the eucharistic liturgy. Our “glorious handicap” — the common cup — does lengthen our Eucharists when one priest must communicate more than 100 persons and perhaps bless droves of small children at the parish communion.

Another method of ministering Holy Communion expeditiously has been attempted: that of intinction. But it is our stated Anglican position not to deny the Cup of the Lord to the laity. At the Anglican Reformation the chalice was restored and the rubrics direct that the sacrament, in both kinds, shall be delivered into the communicant’s hands, ostensibly so that he can be not just ministered unto but also minister to himself in priestly fashion. Methods other than the rubrical directions cause a kind of passivity on the part of the communicant. The effort to expedite the administration of the chalice, which takes perhaps three times as long as that of the hosts and unduly lengthens the Eucharist, by using lay readers, is an attempt to retain the traditional method. However, it is without precedent and it would seem to violate the Ordinal’s statement that “…no man shall be accounted or taken to be a lawful Bishop, Priest, or Deacon, in this Church, or suffered to execute any of the said Functions, except he be (ordained).” Elsewhere in the Prayer Book we learn that the deacon is to assist the priest in divine service. If, then, the Prayer Book cannot be superseded by canon law, it follows that this use of laymen is irregular.

Legalities aside, however, the new permission does point up the need for full restoration of the diaconate; the difficulty is that it circumvents the diaconate. Further, it seems to create a new “minor order,” contrary to general Anglican polity. The use of layreaders in a diaconal function also flies in the face of growing ecumenical attention to the diaconate.

The World Council of Churches has issued Studies No. 2, The Ministry of Deacons, in which there is a paper, “The Diaconate in the Anglican Communion.” A new book, The Diaconate Now, discusses Anglican use of the third order in depth. Studies XVII by our liturgical commission ends on the wistful note that the diaconate ought to be used more fully. Bp. Emrich of Michigan submitted a report to Lambeth on the subject, and the Conference issued a statement. The diaconate is receiving attention in the Church of Rome: the deacon of the Eucharist is now communicated with the chalice and can administer it at certain Eucharists; deacons are being released from seminary to work in parishes; the place of married deacons is being explored — these would no doubt be “worker-deacons.” All these studies and more indicate that the diaconate is being viewed in the light of its ancient integrity and as a current need.

Anglicans have used the diaconate all along, to read the Gospel, to preach, to administer the chalice, and in the absence of a priest, to baptize. However, three major errors crept in. First, the diaconate has been kept in an inferior position, and the Ordinal even speaks of “this inferior office.” We delegate (in compounded error) to the deacon the administration of what medievalism tended to suggest — that the species of consecrated wine is itself somewhat inferior to the consecrated bread. The second error has been to treat the diaconate as a kind of apprenticeship to priesthood, and the third has been to put deacons only under the direction of parish priests. Anglicanism should be able to restore the diaconate to its rightful place as an office and function which has both an integrity of its own and a function which relates to the whole, and not just to the other two orders of the ministry in a hierarchy.

As to the first error — that of regarding the diaconate as an inferior office — the practice of allowing the deacon only to administer the chalice should be examined. The House of Bishops has already gone on record as stating that deacons should be allowed to administer Holy Communion to congregations as well as to the sick, and this would involve ministering the sacrament in both kinds, presumably. Deacons in the earliest times ministered both species to concelebrating priests, and the tradition that has the celebrant ministering the hosts did not spring out of protocol, but was a sequential thing. And, if there are two assistants acting as deacons, we know that using them to administer two chalices coordinates best with the celebrant ministering the hosts. But this is not to make the two functions of differing degree. In the case of one assistant acting as deacon, then, he need not be limited to the chalice. It is sometimes more convenient for the celebrant to minister the cup while the assistant delivers the paten.

The second error — that of using the diaconate as a kind of apprenticeship to priesthood — has been somewhat offset by ordaining “perpetual deacons,” but the vast majority of deacons are of course en route to priesthood: “temporary deacons.” Perhaps we should use this description, if we retain that of “perpetual deacon,” to correct the thought that to remain in deacon’s orders is to remain in an inferior position.

The third major error — that of putting deacons under the jurisdiction of parish priests — in practice is, of course, part of the training of “temporary deacons” learning to function as priests. However, the old phrase, “under the direction of the bishop,” indicates that the diaconate is not immediately subordinate to the presbyterate but to episcopal control. And we know full well, from the New Testament and early writings, that the office of deacon is older than the presbyterate and that deacons were the right-hand men of the early bishops: their liturgical and pastoral assistants, in a close relationship. Then too, deacons were used flexibly in the field until the presbyterate was evolved as an extension of the bishop’s priesthood in a stable situation in what became the parish. The perhaps more parallel ministry of the priest involves stability, incumbency.

Anglicanism has lately evolved a more apostolic functional use of the diaconate beyond “apprenticeship,” but the deacon of both types — temporary and perpetual — has been made into an assistant of parish priests, only. However, a deacon is not historically and originally a parish minister, and the mistake in latter days has been to ordain perpetual deacons to a particular parish. This has caused some problems. Men ordained to the diaconate frequently regard the “superior” office of priest wistfully and are sometimes priested, out of sentiment, without adequate training. There have been cases where such clergy have been advanced “career-wise” beyond those who had seminary training. Many a new rector inherited a perpetual deacon who had seen younger pastors come and go while the deacon remained as the link in the succession of the parish’s clergy, with consequent personality problems. Often the perpetual deacon is ordained later in life and soon becomes less active — even handicapped by age. There have been many professional and personal problems in our misuse of the diaconate.

A solution would be in the use of “worker-deacons.” Most perpetual deacons have been engaged in secular work, so that this is no new suggestion. But, to repeat, Anglican use of permanent deacons has been based on their stability in one parish and on a certain professionalization. A decade ago the “worker-priest” was tried in a sister Communion on the Continent, but this failed in part because this type of priest was too freelance. The priest-pastor needs stability and full-time function as long as the parochial system remains; the presbyterate is a geographic extension of episcopacy. The priest is not pastorally and liturgically the same kind of assistant as the deacon should be.

After the development of the presbyterate, deacons continued to be used as the bishop’s assistants in a more roving capacity: the office of archdeacon gives a clue to this. Inherent in the diaconate, then, is itinerate liturgical and pastoral assistance to the episcopate. We have a tool already forged and to hand, to meet many shortages and emergencies: a diaconate which to a greater extent than most Churches we have used. It would then be only a logical further step to create in the diocese a corps of deacons much like the scriptural and pre-Nicene “Seven.” In this transient age the Church needs a more flexible ministry, but before wiping out the parochial system on the one hand, or admitting laymen to diaconal function on the other, the Church could well restore her diaconate to more efficient and full function.

Already established is the tradition that a deacon serves “under the direction of the bishop.” It is no affirmation of inferiority to say that the diaconate is by definition a “ministry of service.” A corps of deacons functioning directly under the bishop (or his suffragan or archdeacon) and responsible primarily to him, could prove of invaluable assistance so long as it is not used to supply cheap curates or to substitute permanently for a priest. Deacons sent forth by the bishop could fill temporary vacancies, nevertheless, in the missions and parishes; they could supply agencies and institutions which are too often woeful blanks. This ministry could be kept flexible, mobile, and adjustable; it need not and should not become entrenched in any one place nor be used where priestly functions would thereby be supplanted.

All bishops and clergy have seen men aspiring to the ministry but restrained by family and economic responsibilities. Many young men must wait until retirement to attain holy orders. But it is the priesthood which has been held up as the ideal, for some unattainable, while the diaconate has been neglected as a vocation in itself, or treated as “this inferior office” — a stepping-stone to “the higher ministries.” Throughout the Church there are good, loyal, consecrated laymen of character and sufficient education to serve as deacons. We see them often in our layreaders now. A worker-diaconate, volunteer, “unprofessionalized,” and devoted to assisting the bishop wherever needed could prevent the fragmentation of the ordained ministry which seems to be happening with the admission of laymen to diaconal function.

Parish clergy know what help our retired priests and those in weekday secular work are on Sundays, but these men are in limited supply. They do point up the need for diaconal assistance because while they are priests, their use in the parishes is mostly in their assistance in the administration of the sacrament; a diaconal function. Just as the House of Bishops has said that a deacon need not be limited to the communion of the sick, but can conduct a “deacon’s mass,” so this minister can do more liturgically than read the epistle, minister communion, preach, and baptize in emergencies. He can administer Holy Communion in both kinds, he can prepare the bread and wine for the offertory, and he can perform the ablutions. In the Eucharist he could possibly recite some portions not specifically the function of a priest.

In a day when liturgical renewal is occasioning increase in the number of individual communions, it is only a step, and a natural one having precedent, for the Church to restore its diaconate much as the office was originally instituted. The day has passed when medieval reluctance to receive Holy Communion combined with other factors to concentrate on the lone figure of the priest-celebrant; nowadays the lone priest in a station cannot satisfactorily function at the Eucharist; no amount of liturgical renewal will offset the inordinate length of time it takes for him to administer communion. Restoration of the Eucharist to its proper place, coupled with increasing numbers of individual communions, will be negated if we continue with the bottleneck caused by using one sacred minister at the altar. The use of laymen for help with communion shows the need for diaconal assistance. The difficulty is that lay sacramental ministration fragmentizes rather than restores and integrates ministerial function.

Restore the “Seven,” and let them fully serve God’s Church!

Richard Mammana is archivist of the Living Church Foundation, clerk of the vestry at Trinity Church on the Green in New Haven, Connecticut, and a member of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences.


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