Understanding the role of the deacon

By the Rev. Joe Mazza

The sixth chapter of Acts of the Apostles describes a dispute in the early church between Greek-speaking Christians and Aramaic-speaking Christians. The Greek speakers felt they weren’t getting a fair share of the goods the community provided for those in need.

To resolve this situation, the community chose seven men of good standing, laid hands on them, and sent them out to do the work of charity.

Thus was the office of the deacon born. Our own Deacon Joe led a discussion about the ministry of the deacon at our Coffee Hour class on April 30. Here are some excerpts from his talk:

He explained that while these seven men named in Acts were not officially deacons, their appointment is in line with the understanding of deacons as they evolved in the church. But the model for today’s deacon was actually Jesus himself, who taught his disciples about servanthood.

Early on, only men on their way to becoming priests served – temporarily – as deacons. In the 1900s, the canons of the Episcopal Church were revised to allow for the ordination of permanent deacons; first men only, then about 18 years later finally revised to permit ordination of both men and women to be vocational or permanent deacons.

So after centuries of being dormant, the diaconate in the Episcopal Church underwent a rebirth, and the numbers of vocational deacons continue to grow today, although more rapidly in some dioceses than others.

Deacons serve in every imaginable setting in the Episcopal Church. Some work as chaplains in prisons, and for law enforcement and firefighters, and in hospitals and hospices. The parish deacon is called to lead, model, and encourage servant ministry in their parish.

Now, it is true that deacons serve directly under their bishop; however, parish deacons report to the rector or priest-in-charge of the church they are assigned to.

Deacon Joe spoke about the deacon being one who is supposed to stand on the edge, one foot in the church and one foot in the world, as a bridge to interpret to the church the needs, concerns and hopes of the world, and to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.

Deacons are to see the world in all its messiness, because they are to walk among the needy and have access to what their needs concerns and hopes are, and to try and understand how social and political systems work. Then they bring back to you the opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ.

In other words, deacons are not here to perform servant ministry by themselves, but are called to inspire all baptized Christians to discover and exercise ministry, as Christ’s body in the world.

So hopefully, even though we at St. James are a small congregation now, we can look toward joining with other congregations in our area, and add new opportunities to our outreach.

Deacons do not compete with or replace lay ministry; rather they lead, enable, and encourage Christians in service. They also clearly do not substitute for or infringe on the role of a priest.  The deacon is normally not the officiant or celebrant at most of the services in the Book of Common Prayer. The only exceptions could be in institutions or settings where a priest is not available and reserved sacraments are necessary, but only with the permission of the bishop, and only for a very good reason.

Deacons cannot consecrate the bread and wine, cannot absolve someone of their sins, and cannot bless, but only ask God to bless. Most deacons have no interest in trying to cross those lines.  We have our own job to do.

Our former presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, speaking to the 2010 conference of the Association of Episcopal Deacons, stated, “Deacons are to be the nags of the church.”