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Proclaiming the gospel in word and deed

08 July 2016

Paul Avis considers the distinctiveness of deacons

Inferior Office? A history of Deacons in the Church of England
Francis Young
James Clarke & Co. £25.75


WHILE the Roman Catholic Church has many “permanent” deacons, and some
Churches of the Anglican Communion make extensive use of “distinctive” deacons, the Church of England still does not really know what to do about them. As Francis Young puts it, the Church of England has “vacillated on the question of deacons for 175 years”. Of course, all priests and bishops are deacons because the significance of their ordination to the diaconate remains with them. But what is the significance of ordination to the diaconate?

That question can be answered in at least three ways: pragmatically, historically, and theologically. The pragmatic answer is that deacons are probationary priests, priests in waiting. But the fact that the General Synod has commissioned many reports on the diaconate over the past 30 years shows that the “half-priest” (as a Puritan put it in the 17th century) notion of the diaconate cannot be held with a good conscience.

A historical answer to the question of the diaconate is offered in this book. Young shows that the standard one-year period between being ordained deacon and being ordained priest is a 20th-century invention. In the 18th century, many clergy remained deacons for a longer or a shorter time than they do today. John Wesley was a deacon for three years before being priested; George Whitefield for two and a half; while Charles Wesley was priested after three days. There were deacon-fellows of colleges, deacon-schoolmasters, deacon-chaplains, and so on. The historical account shows that pragmatic adaptation is nothing new.

This book does not set out to provide a theological account of the diaconate (either in the form of sequential ordination, or as distinctive deacons). But it does review some still-useful theological material, particularly the reports Deacons in the Ministry of the Church (1988), For Such a Time as This: A renewed diaconate in the Church of England (2001), and The Mission and Ministry of the Whole Church (GS Misc 854, 2007). We are reminded that the Ordinal of the Alternative Service Book 1980 went overboard on the “servant” concept of deacons, in a way that was soon undermined by John N. Collins’s ground-breaking research in Diakonia: Reinterpreting the ancient sources (OUP, 1990).

In spite of overstating his case a bit, Collins showed conclusively that diakonia in classical and New Testament Greek (particularly in Paul and Luke) refers not to humble service but to undertaking a responsible, commissioned task. Collins’s interpretation readily lends itself to a reconstruction of the diaconate on missiological and ecclesiological lines. The Common Worship Ordinal reflects the hermeneutical shift when it speaks of deacons as “heralds of Christ’s kingdom”, “proclaimers of the gospel in word and deed”, and “agents of God’s purposes”. In sequential ordination (deacon-priest-bishop), ordination to the diaconate becomes the indispensable foundation of all ordained ministry, an ecclesial sign of what the whole Church is called to be: herald, proclaimer, and agent of God’s salvific purpose.

That missional-ecclesial understanding provides a robust rationale that was previously lacking, for ordination to the diaconate on the way to priesthood. But it also suggests that there is a good case for distinctive or ongoing deacons who do not seek to be priested. They will not be incumbents, and will not preside at the eucharist, but they will be agents of God’s mission in the extremely challenging space between the celebration of the liturgy in Church, and the wider, unchurched community with all its pastoral needs.

Deacons are the original “pioneer ministers”. Could any ministry be more suited to our present missionary situation in England, where overloaded priests are pressed into becoming mainly chaplains to the congregation? Deacons, as in Paul’s diakonia, are apostles to those not yet churched.

Young’s treatment is even-handed; he sets out a case for and against distinctive deacons. He puts the weight on history, but presents enough theology to make a case. There are a few historical and theological foibles. The Church of England is not a “Reformation Church”; Readers are not “officially known as Licensed Lay Ministers”, except by individual diocesan decision; in the Early Church, deacons did not become “concelebrants” of the eucharist by virtue of assisting the bishop; the Church of England between 1662 and the 1830s is no longer thought to have been “quiescent”, “stagnant”, and “complacent”: far from it.

These are fairly minor aberrations in a book that is readable, thought-provoking, and a useful addition to studies of the diaconate.


The Revd Dr Paul Avis is a former general secretary of the Council for Christian Unity and is currently a Chaplain to the Queen, Honorary Professor of Theology in the University of Exeter, and editor-in-chief of Ecclesiology.

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