Handshakes and metal plates
I grew up around deacons. In my Southern Baptist upbringing, deacons were most commonly observed at the doors of the church offering handshakes and smiles. Otherwise, they were found in their other natural habitat: at the end of a pew passing or taking a metal plate. Often, this was an offertory plate, but on special occasions, those plates had little chiclet-sized crackers for the Lord’s Supper.
As a child, I imagined that deacons were selected for their cheery disposition, impeccable pew-alternating skills, and thick wrists to hold those perforated trays of little shot-glass juice cups. I witnessed deacons being called and having hands laid on them by other deacons. It seemed like a high honor for normal church-going chaps.
However, it never occurred to me that a deacon was “doing ministry.” The real work of ministry was done by pastors, missionaries, and worship leaders.
So, when someone suggested that I consider ordination as a deacon, my first response evoked flashes of handshakes and metal plates. I had no context for the ministry of a deacon. I also had no concept of the complex history of this office/order throughout church history.
My education about the diaconate (the office of a deacon) began with Ormonde Plater’s Many Servants: An Introduction to Deacons. I recommend this book as a resource for further study, but here is a summary of the requirements and commission of deacons in the Anglican tradition:
- Deacons are called by God to a special ministry of servanthood directly under a bishop.
- In the name of Jesus Christ, deacons are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, sick, and lonely.
- Deacons study the Holy Scriptures to seek nourishment from them and to conform their life to them.
- Deacons make Christ and his redemptive love known by word and example to those among whom we live, work, and worship.
- Deacons interpret the needs hopes and concerns of the world to the church.
- Deacons assist the bishops and priests in public worship in the administration of God’s word and sacraments.
- Deacons also carry out other duties assigned to them from time to time.
- At all times, a deacon’s life and teachings are to show Christ’s people that, in serving others, we are serving Christ himself.
The sentence that caught me was one that Plater repeatedly used throughout the book:
“The role of a deacon is to learn and communicate to the church the needs, hopes, and concerns of the world.”
In my own discernment process, this description came like a bolt from the blue. It was a perfect encapsulation of my gifts and desires.
I have nothing against priests or the work they do, but I have never felt a call to their particular ministry. The deacon exists within the flock and society. We have our place in worship and liturgy with our fellow priests, but we also specialize in other areas.
I am a college chaplain. Some of the other deacons in my diocese minister in prisons, catechesis, food pantries, with the homeless, in youth ministry, addiction recovery, church planting, and with refugees.
We deacons communicate the needs of the world to the church, and we lead in building bridges between the two.
“Just” a deacon
There are two common myths worth dispelling about deacons.
One is that a deacon is some kind of demotion or sub-ministry.
I am proud of the Anglican church for working to restore and build up the diaconate. Few denominations afford us this opportunity.
In our sister denominations, as well as our own, I will get questions about the role of a vocational deacon (or what I just like to call a deacon) and the role of a transitional deacon (a deacon who is proceeding to the priesthood).
It is true that every priest, bishop, or archbishop all had to be a deacon first. But this does not make deacons a smaller, lesser order of ministry. In fact, this makes the role of a deacon a foundational quality of all ordained life. We are mission control.
The diaconate is so important that it is a lesson all clergy engage personally and extensively before heading towards other orders.
Early on in my ministry, I used to use the phrase “I’m just a deacon,” as if needing to qualify that I am under-ranked as a minister. It was not long, however, before I dropped the “just” and proudly asserted that “I am a deacon.”
I am not a would-be priest who couldn’t hack it.
I am not a lesser clergyperson.
I’m not a junior priest.
I am a deacon, and my order is historically and ecclesiologically situated to function beautifully in the local church—whether on our way to other orders or if called to continue always as a deacon. Both deacons and transitional deacons are in every way deacons.
Whether one becomes a priest makes no difference in what a deacon is and does. Every priest, bishop, and archbishop retain the mission of our order and partner with us in those goals.
Females in the collar
A second myth that needs dispelling is one I can speak to because of my gender. I am a female deacon in a diocese that does not ordain women as priests. (If you are curious about why some dioceses ordain women to the priesthood and some do not, then that will have to be for a different blog post.)
What I want to dispel is the myth that, since I am female and since I am a Deacon, then I must be in a state of frustration and anger because I cannot become a priest in my diocese.
Well-meaning friends from other dioceses have raised the question with me, assuming that I wanted to be a priest, and I am stuck being a deacon.
There are major problems with this assumption that I wish to address.
First, if I am not called to be a deacon, then our leadership is doing a poor job with the ordination discernment process. The implication is that I have been ordained to an order I am not actually called to, simply because it’s all I can get.
This may not be readily recognized by those asking the question, but the assertion is actually a slight against me and the leaders who ordained me. Why ordain a life-long deacon if that person is not called to be a life-long deacon?
The discernment process we use is meant to put us through a thorough examination. Those who have used and trust this process would not, I assume, wish to disparage it with the implication that I was ordained to the wrong order (or worse, that I sought ordination under false pretenses, simply to get whatever was attainable).
Second, this goes back to the implication that a deacon is a second-class clergyperson. But there is no such hierarchy of prestige and importance.
I love my friends who are priests, but I do not want to be them. I am not called to the work they do. Even if I were in a diocese that ordained females to the priesthood, I would still be a deacon.
This is where I am called and gifted by Christ. I am not stuck, nor am I second-class. I function in the Body, and I am proud of my order.
Serving Christ Himself
Our work as deacons is unique and important. I do not wish to chastise the thoughtful and beautiful Anglican brothers who have, in their concern and kindness, made this mistake. But please friends, do not assume that, since I am a woman and a deacon, I am wearing a collar born of injustice.
There are injustices in our world and church, for sure. But my ordination is not one of them. I cannot speak for others, but I can caution you, my friends from other dioceses, to not make this mistake.
Get to know us before assuming we are being held back. I can tell you that this deacon is right where she needs to be. I am empowered by my Anglican diocese in ways that few deacons are considered and empowered.
Anglican pastors, if you wish to help, I recommend you work towards enriching all orders of ministry within your diocese. Read some books and learn about the history behind the diaconate. We have been around a long time, and we are not just here for handshakes or metal plates.
We are deacons, here to communicate the needs of the world to the church. We serve the poor and the marginalized. We assist our priests and bishops. We love and serve because we are called, commissioned, and joined up with our fellow clergy to serve all as though they are Christ.