On June 8, Laura Palmer and I will be ordained to the transitional diaconate, a ministry that lies between our work as lay people and our future as Episcopal priests. For those in the priesthood process in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, this ordination occurs about six months before priestly ordination.
Many have asked about the difference between a transitional deacon and a permanent deacon, such as the Rev. Carol Duncan. It’s a good question, and the answer reflects several hundred years of conflicted church practice.
In his article “Lifting up the Servants of God: The Deacon, Servant Ministry, and the Future of the Church”, Thomas Ferguson explains that the sacred order of deacons is the church’s oldest ordained ministry. Acts 6:3-4 recounts how the Apostles delegated the first deacons to oversee table fellowship in order to make sure Greek widows and orphans were treated justly in the early Christian community. That focus on service to the poor and assistance to the bishop marked the diaconate for about three hundred years.
With Christianity’s new-found legitimacy after the conversion of Constantine, the church took on the deeply hierarchical structures of Roman society. A series of sub-orders developed that Clerics-in-training passed through on their way to ordination, from doorkeeper to exorcist to lector to subdeacon. The diaconate, which was originally its own order with its own particular ministry, was folded into this succession. For several hundred years it lost its early singularity. Even so, there were important exceptions in monastic communities, Ferguson writes, noting that St. Francis of Assisi, was a deacon throughout his life as a friar.
In the 20th century, Christian churches recognized the need for ordained ministers that served vulnerable people, and the distinctive ministry of the diaconate as a holy order was reclaimed in the Lutheran, Catholic, and Anglican churches. The permanent diaconate was restored throughout the churches of the Anglican Communion in 1968.
Meanwhile, as the various suborders that made up the path to priestly ordination fell away over time, the transitional diaconate remained part of the path to priesthood. As a result, the church now ordains two kinds of deacons in the same ordination liturgy. It’s in that liturgy, specifically in the “examination”, that we can best discover what the deacon is ordained to do.
“My sister,” the bishop will say, “every Christian is called to follow Jesus Christ …. God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood directly under your bishop. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.”
Then the bishop will commend us to do the following:
- Study the Scriptures and model our lives upon them;
- make Christ known to the world, by word and example;
- bring the “needs, concerns, and hopes of the world” to the attention of the church;
- assist the bishop and the priest in public worship;
- and all other duties as assigned.
But most importantly, the bishop will say: “At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.”
For me, this last statement captures well how this period in which we practice diaconal ministry will shape the ministry of our priesthood. While priests and deacons practice their ministry “to represent Christ and the Church” in different ways, this fundamental call to serve the most vulnerable is an essential charism of ordination. We do not lay it down with priestly ordination, just as bishops do not lay down their priesthood when they are ordained.
At the same time, the ministerial roles among the three orders of deacon, priest, and bishop do differ significantly. Ferguson offers a helpful way to think about these orders of ministry by considering where they are located in the church. The bishop serves from the center of the local church, or diocese, leading this regional community in its practice of the faith as the people of God in worship and the Body of Christ in practice. The priest serves from the center of the parish faith community, leading it in living out its common identity as part of the wider people of God. The deacon serves from the edge of the community, leading the Body of Christ into its work in the world.
For the next six months or so we transitional deacons will be practicing leadership from the church’s edge, inviting its members to step intentionally into the world as representatives of Christ. It is a perspective that should ever orient us and ground us in the direction that Christ always walks in the world.
Associate for Spiritual Formation and Care
Laura Palmer and Barb Ballenger will be ordained to the diaconate on Saturday, June 8, at 10:00 a.m. at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, 19 S. 38th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104. The ordination is open to all. Complimentary parking is available at Laz Parking, 39th and Market Street, entrance on 39th Street. Click here for directions and public transit options.
For further reading:
“Lifting Up the Servants of God: The Deacon, Servant Ministry, and the Future of the Church” by Dr. Thomas Ferguson. Found on the website of the School for Deacons, an educational institution of the Diocese of California, sfd.org.
In The Book of Common Prayer see “The Ordination of a Deacon” (p. 537-547) and the catechism (p. 855-856) for our liturgy and teaching around the ministry of the deacon.