On June 10th, D.J. Johnson and Robert Little were ordained to the Sacred Order of Deacons in the Anglican Church of North America. But what exactly does that mean? Many denominations use the term "deacon," but what they each mean can be vastly different. Since so many folks at All Saints are new to Anglicanism, I thought that perhaps a quick primer was due.
What is the Diaconate?
As Anglicans, we view the Diaconate as one of the three orders of ministry along with the Presbyterate (i.e. priests) and the Episcopate (i.e. bishops). Every priest is first ordained as a deacon, and every bishop is first ordained as a deacon and then a priest. In the Anglican church, we view ordination as a sacramental act. Thus, the result is not simply functional, but also ontological. A person is ordained as a deacon not simply for a local congregation, but rather for the entire church, and he remains an ordained deacon for the rest of his life. This is because the deacon is under the authority of a bishop rather than a local congregation. In the ordination service, the new deacon confesses, "And I do swear by Almighty God that I will pay true and canonical obedience in all things lawful and honest to the Bishop of ___________ and his successors: So help me God." So even though most deacons serve in a parish, their ministry to that parish is through the Bishop. Thus, a deacon must always be under the authority of a bishop.
How does one become a deacon?
Becoming a deacon in the Anglican church is not like being elected to the Vestry or joining the altar guild. It begins with a call on the heart of the individual to serve the church in a specific way. A vocational deacon (i.e. a deacon who is not seeking ordination to the priesthood) must have a heart for service. It is his or her job to bring the concerns of the world into the church and the Gospel of the church into the world, esentially standing with one foot in the church and the other in the world. For this reason, deacons typically serve without monetary compensation. When a person feels called to this type of servant ministry the first step is to meet with the Rector, who will then form a discernment committee in the local parish. This group will meet regularly with the aspirant and explore his or her call to the diaconate. It is important to note here that ordination is not primarily about affirming the value of someone's ministry. Just because a person is a respected leader in a church does not necessarily mean that he or she is being called to ordination. The committee will explore the reasons the person feels called while at the same time evaluating the church's own need for a deacon. Things like personal theology, interpersonal skills, and a willingness to serve under authority will all be discussed with the committee.
If the committee approves, the diaconal aspirant then meets with the Vestry and Rector. If there are no stumbling blocks, the Rector will recommend the aspirant to the Bishop. In some dioceses (like Pittsburgh), there will be a diocesan Commission on Ministry that will evaluate each aspirant and make a recommendation to the Bishop. The bishop then decides to reject the aspirant or accept him or her as a postulant. Requirements for postulants vary from diocese to diocese but usually involve classes and other course work, regular communication with the Bishop, and perhaps some practical ministry experience in a parish or hospital. Eventually the postulant becomes a candidate, which means that ordination has been approved and an ordination date has been set. Finally, the candidate is ordained through the laying on of hands by the Bishop in a public service. Since deacons are ordained for the entire church and not just a parish, they are typically ordained in the Cathedral of a diocese along with several other diaconal candidates.
What does a deacon do?
The main role of the deacon is service. In the ordination service, the Bishop tells the ordinand, "It belongs to the Office of a Deacon, to assist the Priest in public worship, especially in the administration of Holy Communion; to lead in public prayer; to read the Gospel, and to instruct both young and old in the Catechism; and at the direction of the Priest, to baptize and to preach. Furthermore, it is the Deacon’s Office to work with the laity in searching for the sick, the poor, and the helpless, that they may be relieved." Liturgically, the deacon will vest and process for all services, read the Gospel lesson and the Prayers of the People, prepare the altar for the consecration of the elements, and assist in the distribution of Holy Communion. In the absence of a priest a deacon can lead Sunday morning services and distribute Holy Communion from the Reserved Sacrament. In addition, a deacon will typically have a ministry to the congregation, such as of assisting the priest in the spiritual care of the people, helping the poor and needy, leading specific ministries, or teaching classes. The job description for the deacon of the church could simply read, "All duties as required."
What is a deacon unable to do?
Although deacons traditionally serve as volunteers, there are no prohibitions for deacons serving on the paid staff of a church or diocese. However, a deacon cannot serve as the Rector of a parish. Liturgically, a deacon can lead the first half of a Holy Eucharist service but cannot consecrate the elements. A deacon is not permitted to pronounce absolution or to give a priestly blessing. For this reason, while deacons are able to perform weddings and baptisms, they are not permitted to bless the water for a baptism or give the nuptial blessing at a wedding.
What do deacons wear?
Deacons traditionally wear clergy shirts and collars when serving in an official capacity. Liturgically a deacon will wear a stole over his or her left shoulder (as opposed to the priest which wears the stole over both shoulders) and can wear a dalmatic (a sleeved garment similar to the priest's chasuble) when serving at the altar.
What do I call a deacon?
The title "Reverend" is afforded to all deacons in the Anglican Church. However, they should not be addressed as "Father," but rather as "Deacon." So, for example, Robert will become "The Rev. Robert Little," and we can refer to him as "Deacon Robert."
For more information on the diaconate in the Anglican Church, please take a look at the ordination service by clicking here.
The Rev. Eric Zolner
Father Eric is a 3rd generation Anglican and the Rector of All Saints Anglican Church in Springfield, MO.