In baptism, the candidate is given godparents to support them in their early Christian growth and nurture. The diaconate is a visible sign and reminder of this baptismal calling (rather like a post-it note for the Church) and deacons encourage, enable and equip people to live it out.
The word diakonos is the NT Greek word for “minister/servant/deacon and diakonia is the word for service/ministry. Diakonia is a very open and general term that is used multiple times in the New Testament to describe Christian life and ministry. It does not neatly translate into English; not helped by the vague way the word “ministry” tends to be used today. Diakonia is often translated in different ways so it is not always clear what may be referring to a specific office or ministry as opposed to more general Christian calling. Particularly close are the words “ministry” and “service”. Diakonia often has another word attached to it to define what sort of ministry is being referred to – indicating that it is a very familiar/general word, e.g., in Paul we find “ministry of the spirit” or “ministry of letters” (2 Corinthians 3).
Key here has been the work of John Collins and others such as Paula Gooder, summarised clearly and succinctly in the 2007 Church of England document The Mission and Ministry of the Whole Church. Collins and others explore how the group of words diakon- are used in terms of context and meaning. This exploration does not remove the concept of servanthood, but says that this is not the only aspect of diaconal ministry.
Being and Doing
We like to define something by what makes it unique. However, this is not possible with the diaconate because there is no one thing that only deacons can do. One of Collins’s key points is that the deacon is defined not by what they do, but who has sent them to do what they do. A doulos, or slave is owned by the master, but a diakonos, a servant is paid by the master. The diakonos therefore has a particular authority from the master. This shifts the focus from function to authority.
Because it is not defined by function, diaconal ministry has a certain fluidity and potential vagueness about it, but at the heart of a deacon’s call is being sent by God through the Church to be a servant of God and a herald of the Gospel in a particular place. That is true for all the baptised to some degree, but deacons have this calling in a magnified way.
Deacons minister in diverse roles within the Church of England and some will have exercised their ministry in varied contexts. Many deacons work in parishes, particularly with people on the margins of the church and society, but others work in diverse roles such as chaplaincies.
Part of the three-fold order of ministry
The Church of England has a three-fold order of bishops, priests and deacons. Some churches (such as Methodists) practice direct ordination in which a candidate is ordained straight to a particular ministry. The Church of England has sequential ordination: all are ordained deacon first, then some are later priested and later still a few are ordained to the episcopate to serve as bishops. However, the diaconate remains at the foundation of their ministry. Those that are later to be priested are often called ‘transitional’ deacons, but this is an unhelpful term because the diaconate is permanent for bishops and priests. No one ordained to an order of ministry can be subsequently “divested of the character” of that order (Canon C12). However, the role and functions of that order can be laid aside, either voluntarily or for disciplinary reasons.
Because those called to priesthood are rarely deacons for longer than a year, they do not have the opportunity to deeply inhabit their diaconal orders and so the character of the diaconate for them can become neglected after priestly ordination. Sometimes bishops vest in a pontifical dalmatic under their chasuble as a reminder of their diaconate and priests kneel and wash the feet of parishioners on Maundy Thursday. However, the danger is that such sacramental signs can end up as a token occasional nod to diaconal ministry, rather than being something deeply held and underpinning their priestly and episcopal ministry.
The Church of England has a separate set of selection criteria for distinctive deacons, which can be helpful when discerning vocations. The danger is that this moves towards separating the orders in an unhelpful way. The same set of criteria are equally relevant for those called to be deacons and priests, but you would expect slightly different emphases or giftings within each of the criterion.
How we understand authority and leadership in relation to deacons is related to their place in the three-fold order of ministry. The CW Ordinal says:
Deacons are called to work with the Bishop and the priests with whom they serve as heralds of Christ’s kingdom…They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless…Deacons share in the pastoral ministry of the Church and in leading God’s people in worship.
Theologically, a priest’s ministry is an extension of the bishop’s, but in reality, he or she can function and preside at sacraments on their own. In contrast, a deacon cannot preside at the Eucharist on their own, just as one cannot be a practicing Christian on one’s own outside of the church.
In formal liturgical traditions the deacon stands on the right of the bishop (or priest), a position which reflects their relationship. The term “right-hand man” (or woman) indicates someone who works closely with the person in overall charge; someone who is trusted and given a share in their authority. Deacons will tend to speak about the authority and leadership they exercise as an extension of episcopal or priestly ministry – it is collaborative.
Diaconal leadership expresses something important about the foundations of apostolic leadership. All bishops, priests and deacons should
embody and proclaim for all to see what is true of the whole body…All the faithful are marked by baptism and share in the messianic identity of Jesus as Prophet, Priest and King, an identity he imparts to his Church because it is his Body and one with him.
(The Mission and Ministry of the Whole Church, p.72)
In a very real theological sense therefore the authority bishops, priests and deacons exercise is not their own and must not get confused with power as the world understand it.
Images of diaconate
Certain images can help our understanding of the diaconate and particularly so for people discerning a possible vocation to this ministry.
The image of deacon as servant focuses on being sent by God with his authority, serving as ‘heralds of Christ’s kingdom’ in a way appropriate for a given context. The deacon can be seen as an icon of the servant Jesus. Owen Cummings says:
there is no one way to be a deacon, but every way must be identifiable and recognizable as a form of service, inviting and empowering others to serve in such a way that communion with God and communion among people is advanced. 
This image has a strong apostolic dimension – potentially being sent from community to community, task to task. Useful biblical passages to reflect on are: Acts 6: 1-4; John 13 and Romans 16:1-2.
In the OT the word for servant (particularly used by Isaiah) is the one sent to follow out God’s mission in the world and bring light to the nations. The Ordinal draws out the prophetic dimension to the deacon’s ministry: ‘They are to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, as agents of God’s purposes of love…searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible.’
Deacons are often a voice for the voiceless, a “herald of the kingdom” speaking out where there is injustice and calling and equipping others to respond. This prophetic dimension to diaconal ministry can speak also within the church, echoing Jesus turning over tables in the temple. Useful biblical passages are: Stephen in Acts 6; Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-3; Acts 2:18.