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Diakonia: Serving with Authority

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Jesus came to bring good news to the poor. That is one of the reasons the Church calls people to be deacons, who will help us find and be among those who are poor of body and spirit. Churches of the Orthodox, Catholic, Reform and Evangelical traditions all have some way of signifying the ministry of diakonia (pronounced dee-AH-kon-ee-ah). As a sacramental church, we Anglicans ordain people to the diaconate, to be living signs and reminders to the people of God that Christ came to serve.

When speaking of the diaconate, I like to stay with the Greek word diakonia rather than the common translation of “ministry” or “service” because it has a richer meaning. The noun form, diakonos, has been linked with konis (dust), suggesting someone who works close to the ground, not as a doormat, but as one whose authority comes from being in touch with what is basic and earthy, who reminds us of the dust of which we are all made.

For centuries, the diaconate has been considered an inferior and largely transitional order in the life of the Church. At best, it has been understood primarily as having an “assistant” role in relationship to the priesthood. Slowly, in my lifetime, the diaconate is coming to be seen as a ministry with its own meaning and integrity, a “full and equal” order alongside the episcopate and the priesthood.

Louise Williams, a Lutheran deaconess and former president of an ecumenical diaconal association, gave five pictures or snapshots of the ministry of a deacon: servants, table-waiters, story-tellers, door-keepers, and light-bearers. We are most familiar with the image of the deacon as the one who washes feet, just as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Jesus’ action was both practical and symbolic, both menial and authoritative. He was setting an example to his disciples: this is how you are to be with one another. The deacon’s role is to be an example of service to others, and to teach and lead with authority.

In the Eucharist, deacons act as table-waiters, preparing and cleaning the altar vessels and receiving the bread and wine, actions that elevate simple, domestic tasks to the level of the sacred. Jesus’ daily ministry often took place at table, sharing meals with “outcasts and sinners.” Deacons signify to us that we live out our baptism among those we meet in our daily lives, not just among fellow Christians on Sundays.

Deacons are story-tellers, door-keepers, and light-bearers. Reading the Gospel, whether done by a deacon or layperson, is still a diaconal function, in the sense that every Christian is called to share the good news of God in Jesus Christ with others. There is a role for deacons to serve as Christian educators, as catechists who help prepare people for baptism and confirmation, and as leaders and facilitators of Bible study.

As door-keepers, the place for deacons is as go-betweens, interpreters to the Church of the needs, hopes, and concerns of the world. Good deacons will have a spirituality that is grounded equally in Scripture and in the daily news, able to help the gathered community to pray for justice and peace and to remember those at risk or in need who are not among us.

At the Easter Vigil, deacons are light-bearers. It is their privilege to carry the Paschal Candle, singing “The light of Christ!” and to sing the Exsultet, the great proclamation of the resurrection. Deacons minister especially in places of need and vulnerability, where they may also witness hope and resilience: that is what gives them the authority to speak or sing of resurrection.

The BBC series, “Call the Midwife,” is a wonderful illustration of what deacons are about and why the Church needs them. It’s the story of a group of midwives working in the slums of East London while living among a community of Anglican nuns. Nurtured by the prayerful life of community and faith, they are strengthened to go out on their bicycles to help women give birth to new life, indeed to help wherever there is need. Just as the Church needs priests to gather us in community for prayer and worship, we also need deacons who lead us out in service and action.

Maylanne Maybee is a deacon and the Principal of the Centre for Christian Studies.