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Extended History of the Diaconate

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Deacons in the early church

From the very earliest days of the church deacons were understood to occupy a special place in the Christian Community, set apart along with the bishops and presbyters (priests) for a special role modelled on that of Christ himself.

Some hold that the very origin of the diaconate is recorded in the New Testament - in the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles - when a complaint was made that some widows were not receiving the food they needed.

The apostles were concerned that they did not have enough time to attend to the ministry of the word of God as well as 'wait on tables'. At the very core of the matter was the taking of bread and wine - to share in the great eucharist/thanksgiving feast of the church. The first 'deacons' were those who brought the 'bread of life' to those who were socially isolated. This is why the seven were selected carefully as men 'known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.' They were appointed, and 'hands laid on them', as the early church's first teachers, as well as social workers where the need arose.

Among them was one Stephen, "a man filled with grace and power", who for his courage in proclaiming the Good News of Christ soon became the first Christian martyr (cf. Acts 6-7).

While these seven early Christians were not deacons in the developed sense, the account in Acts accords with the understanding of the diaconate as it emerged and evolved in the church. 'Deacon' comes from a Greek word - diakonos - which means a servant or helper. It occurs frequently in the New Testament and is sometimes applied to Christ himself.

In the early church deacons worked more closely with their bishops than with the presbyters in order to serve the Church of God. Bishop Ignatius referred to a deacon as his "co-slave" in the service of God in Christ.

In early post-apostolic times, a threefold pattern of ordained ministry - deacons, presbyter and bishop - emerged as the universal normal in the Church.

Women deacons in the early church

Before the time of the Pastor who wrote 1 Timothy, women were being selected as Deacons in parallel to the male Deacons. Deacon Phoebe (Romans 16:1) of Corinth and her sister Deacons were essential in being able to visit women in their homes and also in the baptism of women to preserve their modesty. By the late fourth century women Deacons were largely taken for granted at least as far west as Greece. Women were referred to as 'Diakonos' in official documents as late as the 14th century.

Decline of the Diaconate

In the Roman Church, even as the diaconate flourished, the causes of its eventual decline began to appear. This began in the fourth century but the process itself was a complex one which extended over many centuries and centred largely on the changing roles and identities of presbyter and deacon. Deacons, rather than presbyters, were generally consecrated as bishops, (including Gregory the Great as late as 590) but as the presbyterate became increasingly associated with Eucharistic presidency, presbyters demanded to know why deacons had so much power.

As early as the patristic age, the very meaning and purpose of the three orders came to be organised in a new way. One's role in the Eucharist came to be the factor which governed one's place within the church. Deacons came to be assistants of priests, as they were of bishops, and primarily at the altar.

By the fifth century the diaconate was becoming no more than an introductory stage in orders, a step on the way toward ordination as a priest. Its value as an integral part of the three fold nature of orders – deacons, priests, bishops – was obscured.

In the eastern church the diaconate did not decline, the practice of a distinctive diaconate continuing throughout to today's church but with a predominantly liturgical and much reduced caritative function.

The Greek Orthodox Church has recently agreed to admit women back into the diaconate.

The Reformation

At the Reformation, the English Church continued the historic three-fold ordained ministry and the diaconate remained transitional to priesthood. After the Uniformity Act of 1662, it was common for men to be ordained deacon then priest on the same day or within a few days, in order to license them to the sole charge of a parish.

In the 19th century, with the emergence of a new sense of professionalism among the clergy and growing awareness of huge pastoral needs in large urban parishes, the diaconate was taken more seriously. As a consequence, the diaconate was developed as a probationary year during which the priest learned his priestly duties under supervision. In one sense, this strengthened the diaconate giving it professional identity. On the other hand, the move affirmed the 'transitional' model.

It was the development of the deaconess orders which pointed to the possibilities of a distinctive professional diaconal ministry.

The Deaconess movement out of Germany

Diaconal ministry found new expression in Germany in the 19th Century. Industrialisation had begun to leave a devastating legacy of poverty, over-work, neglect of children, child labour, lack of education, insanitary conditions and ill-health. In response to great need, male deacons were restored in Hamburg.

The early church office of Deaconess was also revived. Key centres for this development were Kaiserswerth and Zehlendorf. The idea of a sisterhood of unmarried women spread throughout the world in a surprisingly short time. This diaconal activity gave a new image to nursing, social work and education within and outside the church parish. Florence Nightingale was one of Kaiserwerth's most famous students. The Deaconess movement made a significant contribution towards the emancipation of women.

In some Lutheran dioceses, (eg Sweden, Norway) deaconesses and deacons are now accepted as minor orders, sometimes entitled to wear clerical dress, and in a few places even a deacon's stole is permitted in the Eucharist. The Lutheran tradition still recognizes only one (major) Order, that of Pastor (the equivalent of Presbyter).

Diaconal work in Britain

Deaconesses became an integral part of the churches' response to poor health and social conditions in 19th century Britain too. The Methodist Church, Presbyterian Churches of Scotland and Ireland, and the Church of England all commissioned deaconesses to the work of social relief, education and nursing care. Deaconesses were not at that time permitted to marry.

In 1993 the Methodist Church restored its original Wesley Deaconess tradition to form the Methodist Diaconal Order, a connexionally recognised Order of Ministry for men and women in itinerant ministry and committed as a religious order.

In 2002 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland made the decision to ordain its deaconesses and deacons.

Deaconesses in the Church of England

Elizabeth Catherine Ferard was the first deaconess in England, receiving her licence from Bishop Tait of London on 18th July 1862. She founded a community of deaconesses which was also a religious sisterhood, the (Deaconess) Community of St Andrew, working first in a poor parish in the King's Cross area of London and at the Great Northern Hospital.

St Andrew's House is now the world headquarters of the Anglican Communion. Reverend Dr. Sister Teresa, CSA, is still resident and serves as chaplain to the staff of the Anglican Communion Office. She is still in active ministry contributing towards discussions and papers on diaconal ministry.

DIAKONIA World Federation

After World War 2, Deaconess communities across Europe sought to encourage initiatives towards reconciliation. Diaconal Communities and Associations around the world were invited to come together as a Federation.

The DIAKONIA World Federation now has 70 member groups representing 20,000 diaconal workers within a wide range of traditions. The Federation is organised into three geographical regions and meets on a world basis every four years.

Recent history in the Church of England

The Lambeth Conference of 1968 recommended the restoration of a distinctive diaconate. In 1974 the Advisory Committee for the Church's Ministry (ACCM) produced a report that recommended abolishing the diaconate altogether. The 1977 debate in General Synod declined to follow this advice.

In 1980 the Ordinal in the Alternative Service Book gave greater emphasis to service and caritative function in the community and a sense of the deacon acting on behalf of the whole body.

In 1986 the Church of England commissioned further work which resulted in the report 'Deacons and the Church' (1988). The ordination of women to the diaconate in 1987 brought an urgent need to understand the order theologically and at the ministerial level to develop diaconal ministry in a new professional way. The report recommended the setting up of a distinctive diaconate for both men and women.

Diaconate renewal in the Church of England

In the 1990s much change affected the Church including women in priestly orders. During these changing times emerged a small but committed group of men and women to the ministry of deacon. The Diaconal Association of the Church of England, once well-subscribed by women deacons, became a smaller association for those whose calling was distinctively diaconal, despite their support for women colleagues in priestly ministry.

In 1996 the Anglican-Lutheran International Commission (related to the Porvoo process) produced the Hanover Report 'The Diaconate as Ecumenical Opportunity'…

"The renewal of the church's Diaconate at this time presents a unique opportunity for deepened unity and joint endeavour in the life and mission of the Anglican and Lutheran as well as other churches."

The Windsor Statement on the Diaconate

DACE contributed to ecumenical discussions on the diaconate through a series of Windsor Consultations on the diaconate, including 'Raising the Dust' in 1996 leading to the 'Windsor Statement' of 1997…

"The Diaconate is a growing movement whose voice is audible around the world – from catholic and reformed traditions. We are discovering a converging vision for this ministry – an agent for change, transcending boundaries and barriers."

The Methodist Diaconal Order (see above) were partners in these consultations with Roman Catholic and Orthodox representatives. A Church of England Windsor Consultation on the diaconate was also held in 1998 with Reader representation.

Report to Synod 'For such a time as this'

In 1998 General Synod asked the House of Bishops to set up a Working Party on the renewed diaconate. Two members of DACE were invited onto the working party. Their report, 'For such a time as this' was brought to Synod in 2001. The Synod debate became confused with issues other than the diaconate and the report was sent back to Ministry Division for a re-make.

"A renewed diaconate… operating as a catalyst for Christian discipleship, in the mission space between worship and the world, can help the Church to become more incarnational. In worship the Church gathers to receive and to celebrate its identity, to be renewed in the Spirit, and to be sent forth in the name of Christ and in the power of the same Spirit to bring God's reconciling, healing grace to a world full of brokenness.

We have not been good at doing equal justice to these two vital movements of the Church's life: sending and gathering. The re-envisioned diaconate can help to hold them together."
Page 30 - 'For such a time as this' (Report to Synod, 2001)

Some dioceses have taken their own initiatives following the report, including Salisbury. 'The Distinctive Diaconate' was published by Salisbury in 2003.

DACE commitment

DACE continues to work towards the restoration of the diaconate as a full and equal order of ministry, with its focus on Christ the Servant, Christ who entered our world and our pain to befriend us and lead us to Life.

For a more detailed version of this history see the document 'An Extended Short History of Diaconate' (PDF - Adobe Reader required).

Material for this page has been collated from a variety of sources, including
'For such a time as this', the report to General Synod on the Diaconate 2001, and a yet to be published (at time of writing) history of women in the diaconate by the Revd. Dr. Sr. Teresa Joan White, CSA.

Some material is adapted from other website sources and author(s) are unknown. There are no known copyright issues. However, please contact us with any copyright information and we will amend this page accordingly.

Page last updated: Saturday, 04-Jan-2014 11:41:15 CST