The Diaconate – Renewing an Ancient Ministry

The Revd Canon Michael Jackson

24 January 2018 9:25AM


Having been ordained in 1977, the Revd Canon Michael Jackson from the Diocese of Qu’Appelle is the longest serving deacon in the Anglican Church of Canada. In this blog, he explores the permanent diaconate.

Our liturgies invite us to pray for “all bishops, priests and deacons.” But what do most Anglicans and Episcopalians think of when they hear the word “deacon”? Very probably a person on their way to the priesthood, spending a few months or a year in a vaguely-defined but clearly secondary form of ordained ministry. Yet this is not what the order of deacons – the “diaconate” – was originally meant to be, nor what it is becoming again today.

When the three-fold ordained ministry emerged in the post-apostolic and early church, deacons were a “full and equal order,” along with priests and bishops. Deacons acted as agents for the bishop, especially in pastoral, charitable and administrative work and in the liturgy. There is considerable evidence that women were ordained deacons from the third through the seventh centuries.

But starting in the fourth century, the diaconate declined in importance. For a number of reasons, “sequential” ordination in three steps, deacon to priest and then in some cases to bishop, replaced the direct ordination to all three orders which had been the original practice. By the second millennium the diaconate ended up being an apprenticeship for the priesthood, what we now call the “transitional” diaconate. And so it stayed for the next thousand years – at least in the western Church, for the Orthodox east retained the permanent diaconate as well as the transitional variety.

The diaconate as a permanent, not transitional, form of ministry has rebounded in the past half-century in the western Church. This revival was due in large part to the Second Vatican Council, which reinstated the diaconate as a permanent vocation in the Roman Catholic Church, open to married men. Encouraged by several Lambeth Conferences, the Anglican Communion followed suit. The “permanent,” “vocational” or “distinctive” deacon is now a fact of life in both Communions. In 2017 it was estimated that there were 400 such deacons in the Anglican Church of Canada, 3,000 in the US-based Episcopal Church, and close to 20,000 in the American Roman Catholic Church. What form does this renewed diaconate take?

The biblical Greek word diakonia, from which we derive “diaconate” and “deacon,” is usually translated as “service.” Many deacons today have a ministry of direct service, pastoral, social or charitable in nature, outside their parish – as hospital or prison or institutional visitors, or working with the poor and the marginalised, with minority groups, with the disabled and with advocacy organisations. In parishes, deacons may undertake Christian education, youth work, home visiting, taking the reserved sacrament to shut-ins, seniors’ residences and care homes, and administrative, organisational, preaching and liturgical duties.

Some provinces of the Anglican Communion have been reticent about restoring the vocational diaconate. The most frequent objection is that ordained deacons clericalise lay ministry and in any case lay people can do anything that deacons can. Also, bishops and priests are already deacons, so a separate order is redundant.

But part from ignoring the historical roots of the diaconate, this approach negates the purpose of ordination. Deacons are officially commissioned to a leadership role by the Church, to which they make a lifetime commitment. A leading deacon in the US-based Episcopal Church, Susanne Watson Epting, has put it this way: “Even though ordained, [the deacon’s] primary identity remains baptismal and our ordination charges and vows serve only to expand, enhance, and urge us on in animating and exemplifying the diakonia to which all the baptised were called.” Experience with the renewed diaconate has amply fulfilled this assertion.

As for bishops and priests already being deacons, there are those, including myself, who turn the argument on its head. The Church should return to its original practice, end sequential ordination and abolish the transitional diaconate, which serves little purpose and inhibits the ministry of the vocational deacon. Food for thought!



‘It is a movement from diaconal ministry as something Deacons undertake on behalf of the church ‘out there’ to Deacons equipping and empowering the laity, the whole people of God, for diaconal ministry, and Deacons collaborating in collective action with others in the community, beyond the four walls of the church’.

DIAKONIA President Rev Deacon Sandy Boyce, in her final presidential address to the Chicago delegates this month, poses a profound question.

Sandy Boyce - Deacon

‘what kind of model for (diaconal) ministry is required in our time and place, for our particular context?’

She quotes Methodist Deacon David Clark‘s vision for the whole church to become diaconal in its outlook and movement.  At a time when we Anglicans are seriously considering unity with the Methodists, maybe this is the question we should be asking ourselves.

Here is Sandy’s whole address:

Chicago 2017

DIAKONIA World Federation Assembly

22nd Assembly: Shaken by the Wind

Visions for the Future

Address by President Rev (Deacon) Sandy Boyce
During my term as President of DIAKONIA World Federation I have learned just how diverse are the expressions of diaconal ministry around the world and how diverse are the structures in which diaconal ministry is couched. There is no one way – but we have found we can all learn from each other. And that’s the great work, I believe, of the DIAKONIA World Federation, that within and between the member associations we can all learn from the experience of the other, to affirm as well as to be a catalyst for change when need be.

It is worth briefly pausing to look at the development of the Deaconess movement in 1836 under the leadership of a German Lutheran pastor, Theodor Fliedner. It was a response to the challenging contextual issues of the day, especially with the rise of industrialisation, the movement from rural areas to the cities for employment, the subsequent rise of the urban poor who lacked the community support they might have enjoyed in rural communities, the rapid spread of disease, the end of the Napoleonic wars that left society in upheaval, and so on. It was into this particular context that Fliedner established a deaconess motherhouse and a diaconal community that would enable women in the 19th century to find a meaningful vocation and that would respond to these challenges in society.

Now, I want to suggest that this direct correlation between the context as the catalyst for the shape and ordering of ministry may at times be disconnected. It is necessary from time to time to step back from the immediacy of ‘doing’ ministry, to reflect on the pressing challenges for our time, and how may we together to respond through releasing lay and ordained people to exercise ministry and mission within the church and in the community.

You know the many current challenges in the world – globalisation, the unjust distribution of resources, weapons of mass destruction, the rise of terrorism, increasing disparity between the rich and the poor, complex inter-faith relations, accelerating climate change, the worldwide refugee crisis, to name but a few. The pressing overarching question may be, how can we live together in peace as a global community? The particular question for the church may be, how do we respond most effectively to this particular context in which we find ourselves?

Using the example of Theodor Fliedner and the development of the deaconess movement, the question may be, what kind of model for ministry is required in our time and place, for our particular context? (We have heard this morning some thoughtful insights about that)

David Clark in his two books, Breaking the Mould of Christendom and Building Kingdom Communities, offers very compelling arguments for a new way of thinking. He provides a comprehensive vision of church and ministry from a diaconal perspective. The movement is away from what is ‘done to’ people, and towards collaborative and collective action – what people do together to address the issues and needs of the day.

It is a movement from diaconal ministry as something Deacons undertake on behalf of the church ‘out there’ to Deacons equipping and empowering the laity, the whole people of God, for diaconal ministry, and Deacons collaborating in collective action with others in the community, beyond the four walls of the church.

It places Deacons within the heart of the congregation – visioning, animating, equipping, empowering, sending.

It places Deacons within the heart of the community – building relationships, standing in solidarity, drawing alongside people and groups, committing to collective and collaborative action in cooperation with community groups to work towards an outcome that will enable flourishing for all.

‘The role of Deacon is not so much a personal vocation lived out in the community, but a vocation that releases all members – the whole people of God – to live out their baptism in service in the community, ‘to recognise, encourage, develop and release those gifts in God’s people which will enable them to share in the ministry of caring, serving, healing, restoring, making peace and advocating justice as they go about their daily lives.’ (Report on Ministry in the Uniting Church 1991 Assembly)

The role of the diaconate is very much a live issue for Deacons in the Methodist Church in the UK, where there is currently a debate about the future of the Methodist Diaconal Order.

David Clark suggests that the kind of leadership required for a church that orients its life towards diaconal ministry requires new understandings about leadership. He suggests that Presbyters (Leaders and Pastors and Ministers) take responsibility for the renewal of the gathered church through accessing the kingdom community’s gifts of life, liberation, love and learning.

The diaconate as an order of mission would assume responsibility for furthering the ministry of the laity as the church dispersed in the world, educating and equipping lay people for their task of building communities which make manifest the gifts of the kingdom community throughout the whole of society.

David Bosch’s definition of mission picks up this idea of ‘participation in the liberating mission of Jesus, the good news of Gods love incarnated in the witness of a community for the sake of the world.

What flexibility do we need in how we are church together in order to respond to the particular context and challenges of our time? What ways of organising ourselves as church will best enable a collective response to a particular context – social, political, economic?

Inga Bengtzon served 65 years as a Deaconess, and served for 13 years as the President of DIAKONIA World Federation. She was a visionary. Referring to the General Assembly of the WCC in 1983, she argued for the inclusion of a self-critical dimension of the diaconal role that challenges the church’s “locked, frozen, static and self-centred structures” in order to turn them into a “workable, living instrument for the church’s task of healing, reconstruction and sharing with each other.” Diaconia, she said, cannot be limited to institutional forms. It must “break through the already established structures and demarcations in the institutional church” in order to act, heal, and build in the world. (Bengtzon, 1984, translated from Swedish).

David Clark casts his vision to what he calls the kingdom community and suggests that in order to be able to undertake a kingdom-focused mission, the church has first of all to break the mould of Christendom, and become a diaconal or servant church, where all the ministries serve that purpose, and all the ministries orient themselves to servant leadership.

The diaconate should be responsible for encouraging and equipping the laity to exercise their ministry of kingdom community building in every sphere of the life of society.

What will enable us to most fully respond to God
s mission in and through the church? Its a question for us all, and particularly how we orient what we name as church to be a kingdom community with a kingdom-focussed mission.

And I return to the question I asked when I introduced Theodor Fliedner’s initiative to establish a deaconess community in 1836 in Germany: what kind of model for ministry is required in our time and place, for our particular context? How can the church best shape ministry so that the diaconal mission of the whole people of God can be best equipped?

It is a continuing conversation and perhaps calls for a conversion of how we ‘do’ church.

4th July 2017 

[David Clark is a member of the British Methodist Diaconal Order]


Clark, D. (2005, reprinted 2014) Breaking the mould of Christendom – kingdom community,

diaconal church and the liberation of the laity. Peterborough: FastPrint Publishing

Clark, D. (2016) Building Kingdom Communities – with the diaconate as a new order of

mission. Peterborough: FastPrint Publishing

[Available via Amazon]

David Clark has a blog at http://www.diaconalchurch.com