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More upstairs than downstairs?

18 December 2015

Sister Teresa CSA has reservations about diaconal assertions


Diakonia Studies: Critical issues in ministry
John N. Collins
OUP £51
Church Times Bookshop £45.90 (Use code CT589) 

THESE “studies” collect into one volume four decades of Collins’s writings on ministry, which feature two main themes emerging from his study of the word diakonia. Except for the third, these chapters are lightly revised versions of books, articles in theological journals, and one unpublished lecture.

Collins’s first theme: the Greek word diakon- and its cognates do not indicate humble service to the needy. He explains how diakonia as “humble service by slaves” in the 1957 lexicon became, through his work, “religious work done by eminent persons” in 2000.

Instead of presupposing the linguistic situations described in his Diakonia: Reinterpreting the ancient sources (1990), it would have made things clearer if he had in one place shown the unity in German translations of diakon- by “serve/servant/service”; in English, the disunity of 14 words; and the Vulgate’s use of “minister”.

Germany, in the 19th century, developed lay deacons and deaconesses who served the needy. Diakonie as humble service became the name of the mammoth social-service department of the German Evangelical Church. Collins concluded that the linguistic evidence absolutely contradicted this practice. It was more than a decade before some Germans began to reply.

At the Greek symposium/dinner party, there were both food and words. The Passover Seder involved a meal with readings, questions, and answers. In those traditions, words and food belonged together. Thus, it is very difficult to claim, as Collins does, that “the daily distribution to the Greek-speaking widows” did not include some food for the needy. Collins does not refer to Barnett’s critique “Diaconate Defined Not by Word Study but by Early Church” (Diakoneo, Vol.17, No.5, 1995, pp.1-3).

Although the Anglican diaconate declined into a preparation period for priesthood, in the 1662 Ordinal the deacon is responsible for both a ministry of the Word and for initiating care for the poor and needy. The current Roman Catholic permanent diaconate is “in service of the liturgy, of the gospel, and of works of charity”. Collins observes that service has often been thought of as humble servility. But “servant” need not imply “below the stairs” or servility — e.g. the responsible civil servant.

Collins’s treatment of the origins of the permanent diaconate does not mention the two priests interred at Dachau who recommended the permanent diaconate for post-war pastoral provisions.

After Diakonia (1990), I expected Collins’s understanding of diakon- as agency, mission, messengers, agents of God, mediating and transmitting, to be used to form a positive theology for the permanent or distinctive diaconate. But Collins’s subsequent studies have mainly attacked older views rather than built up new ones. Often, when one is examining diakon-, the idea of responsibility occurs. In searching for an English word to translate diakon-, this reviewer would suggest “response, responder, and responsibility”.

Collins’s second theme: ministry (diakonia) is not the role of all Christians, but of ordained office-bearers, including deacons. Earlier translations of Ephesians 4.11-12 supported the view that ministry is an ecclesial office into which selected people are installed by way of ordination. But the second edition of the RSV removed the comma; so Ephesians 4.12 became “for the equipment of the saints [,] for the work of ministry”. Thus, ministry (diakonia) became the work of the saints, i.e., by every baptised person.

Collins has challenged this view, but also thinks that ordained ministry should not be “hierarchical and sacerdotal with sacramental ritualism, and should not involve mandatory celibacy, lifetime appointments, large congregations, global uniformity, exclusive language and lack of ecumenical will”. A hint to the way forward: the Roman Catholic “exclusion of women (from diaconal ordination) . . . is not ‘definitely’ established as it is in regard to the presbyteral ordination”, because deacons have now been put into a different category from priestly presbyters and bishops. But what is the part played by the laity?

Because the two main themes are argued in various ways in the 14 chapters, a synthetical rewriting of them in historical sequence might have been preferred by the non-specialist.


The Revd Sister Teresa White is a member of the Community of St Andrew.

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