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What's a 'lay deacon'?

21 December 2012


Write, if you have any answers to the questions listed at the end of this section, or would like to add to the answers below.

I recently visited another diocese on holiday. At the Sunday eucharist, I was surprised to observe that the Gospel was read by a lay person. This same person prepared the altar at the offertory, assisted at the distribution, administering individual blessings, and then performed the ablutions. I was later informed that he was not in holy orders, but was a "lay deacon". Am I mistaken in feeling that this is a contradiction in terms? Can anybody please enlighten me on this practice? Is it widespread, and what is its legality?

The answer is on page 158 of the main Common Worship volume: "the deacon's liturgical ministry provides an appropriate model for the ministry of an assisting priest, a Reader, or another episcopally authorized minister in a leadership ministry that complements that of the president."

My experience of praying the eucharist is certainly quite different when a competent liturgical deacon frees me to preside. Perhaps, unknown to the questioner, creatively interdependent lay and ordained roles are features of that parish all week, and are simply being made visible in this way at the eucharist on Sunday.

(Canon) Peter Mullins

All of the concerns raised are answered in the notes and rubrics of the communion services in the Common Worship service book. The notes on pages 158-59 refer to a variety of traditions, but make it clear that only those actions annotated in the rubrics as "the President . . ." must beperformed bya priest, and even those elements of the Gathering and Service of the Word may be led by a lay person in the absence of a priest.

Note 21, on page 334, states explicitly that a lay person authorised to distribute communion may pray for non-communicants.

(The Revd) Malcolm Garratt
Dunchurch, Rugby

The questioner might find it helpful to think in terms of function, not status. In our parish in Poole (Salisbury diocese), six of us are privileged to do this work. Two of us are Readers (known as LLMs in Salisbury); so we do other things, too: preaching, teaching, leading worship, home communions, etc.

We do the job as described, except that we do not give blessings to non-communicants; that is the clergy's privilege and responsibility. But we do have the awesome privilege at our main Sunday service of helping in the fraction. This is because we do not use individual wafers, but large ones that are each broken into six pieces, so everyone has a piece of wafer consecrated and then broken. We have two teams administering, and, if no other clergy are present, then the lay deacon administers the consecrated bread for the second team. We also lead the acclamations, if any, in the Eucharistic Prayer, and the dismissal. We do each get prayed for, before reading the Gospel, that we may do it worthily.

We had a stipendiary deacon four years ago, but he served his title, and left last summer for a parish of his own. We don't get a new one till next year.

(Mrs) Ann Johnson
Poole, Dorset

I have been a Reader for more than 15 years, and have served in five parishes in three dioceses. In each parish, my priest encouraged me to learn and then exercise the deacon's ministry as far as is permitted by my Reader's licence.

This has included leading the Ministry of the Word, apart from giving the absolution, and reading the Gospel, preaching, and setting and clearing the altar for and after the eucharist. I have also administered the chalice, and on one occasion a second paten at a very large service. Where there is another Reader, we carry out these duties in our turn.

We also have an ALM worship leader (accredited lay minister), who carries out the deacon's duties apart from setting and clearing the altar, by her own choice. I have also acted as Bishop's chaplain at two confirmation services, with different bishops, and presented my parish's candidates at a third service.

In my 15 years, I have never served in a church that included a deacon in the ministry team.

Anne King (Reader of St Mary the Virgin, Willesborough)
Willesborough, Ashford, Kent

Without the "lay deacon" appellation, I'm on our readers' rota, so read the Gospel at the first holy communion service of the month. As sacristan, I assist the Vicar in preparing the altar at the offertory, and with the ablutions at the close. As one of our lay ministers of communion, I assist at the distribution of the elements, and often pray with or for individuals who are not confirmed and do not receive communion.

Willing volunteers are always welcome to join our readers' rota. The work of the sacristan, appointed jointly by the Vicar and PCC, is essential for the smooth running of holy communion services. Our lay ministers of communion, licensed by our Area Bishop, deem it an honour to be able to minister in this way. If the requirement for any of these roles were being in holy orders, I am not sure we would have many volunteers at all; either that, or the church would be staffed by several members of the clergy (which the diocese wouldn't be able to afford), or a Vicar run ragged doing everything.

Nicholas Pond (Sacristan/Verger of St Paul's, Clacton-on-Sea)
Clacton-on-Sea, Essex

It has been the custom in some C of E churches, since the 19th century, for a layman, sometimes a parish clerk or Reader, to wear the vestment of a subdeacon (an order suppressed in the C of E at the Reformation) while acting as the epistoler, and fulfilling certain other liturgical functions, at a sung celebration of the eucharist.

Reading or singing of the Gospel has, however, normally been reserved to a person in deacon's orders, following the mainstream tradition of the Catholic Church.

Though our canon law now allows a lay person to read or sing the Gospel at holy communion, for him or her to do so does obscure the fact that the celebrant, or any other priest who is present, has also been ordained as a deacon, and that this character is indelible. I am sure many priests - despite the current emphasis on status, and ordination as a career path - are happy to be reminded by this that their ministry should remain true to the deacon's vocation of humble service.

Marjorie Grove
London SW4

It is commonly known that, as things now are, the British monarch can not be a Roman Catholic; but what if a future monarch should be a Methodist, Baptist, Orthodox, or, for that matter, a Muslim or atheist? G. S.

I wonder if anyone has come up with a suitable form of address, the equivalent of "Father", which could be used when speaking to or of a lady priest. The titles "Mother" and "Sister" clearly have other connota-tions, and yet using just the lady's Christian name could seem an inadequate acknowledgement of her ministry.       A. M.

"As the bishop said to the actress." Which bishop? Which actress?        J. C.

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