Who Are Deacons and What Do They Do?

My first time serving as a deacon during the Eucharist, at my ordination.
Nearly two years ago now, Fr. Scott shared with me an invitation from our church leaders to discern a calling to the diaconate. As an Anglican church we recognize three ordained orders of ministers in the Church - bishops, priests, and deacons - but Christ Church hasn’t had a deacon yet. After a lot of prayer, conversations with mentors and friends, references, background checks, and taking my ordination exam, I will be ordained as a deacon during our Sunday morning service at Christ Church on December 18th. 

Many denominations have “deacons”, but their role in the life of the church varies widely depending on the tradition. I’ve gotten a lot of questions about what deacons do in our church. At some point in the near future, Fr. Scott, Fr. Kent and I are going to teach about Holy Orders and lay ministry more broadly, but we thought it might be helpful to share a little more about deacons in particular before my ordination.  

Anglican Deacons
A great place to start to try to figure out what Anglicans believe about anything is to look in the Book of Common Prayer - our prayers and liturgies describe what we believe in a really beautiful and concise way. The liturgy for the ordination of a deacon says: It belongs to the office of a Deacon to share in the humility and service of our Lord Jesus Christ, for the strengthening of the Church, which is his body. My elevator pitch is that a deacon is a lifelong servant of the Church whose ministry models the humility and service of Jesus, but can involve a wide variety of things outside the liturgical tasks in the worship service. Here’s the rest of the bishop’s exhortation to the person being ordained as a deacon (i.e. the ordinand):

You are to read the Gospel and proclaim Christ at all times through your service, to instruct both young and old in the Catechism, and, at the direction of the Bishop or Priest, to baptize and preach.

You are to assist the Priest in public worship, to guide the intercessions of the Congregation, to aid in the administration of Holy Communion, and to carry the Sacrament to those who are kept from the Table by illness, infirmity, or imprisonment.

Furthermore, you are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. It is the Deacon’s office to encourage and equip the household of God to care for the stranger, to embrace the poor and helpless, and to seek them out, so that they may be relieved.
-  Book of Common Prayer (ACNA, 2019), p.477-478

The order in which different aspects of the role are described is important - it reflects how each task flows out of the ones that precede it. Like a multi-tiered fountain, a deacon’s ministry is fueled by the life-giving waters of Christ’s humility and service. Those waters cascade out into the first pool, expressed through the reading and proclamation of the Gospel, then trickle down into another tier of assisting in public worship and administering the Sacrament. Finally, the deacon’s service flows out through spouts and channels into the midst of the specific needs and concerns of the people, in what our diocese loves to call a holy “field ministry”.  The fountain is not just there to be admired, though Lord-willing a deacon’s ministry is a beautiful sight to behold. Rather, the deacon exists to strengthen the Church - the water is there to strengthen the body of Christ as we drink of it.

Like any metaphor, this is an imperfect one, but it helps to illustrate the fact that all the deacon’s tasks will flow out of sharing in Christ’s humility and service, and that the first and most organic expression of that connection is reading the Gospel and proclaiming Christ at all times. Deacons throughout Church history have modeled this gospel-proclaiming lifestyle, each in their unique contexts, and I’d be happy to nerd out about some of my favorite historical deacons over a cup of coffee, if you’re interested. (Get excited about Philip the Evangelist, Athanasius of Alexandria, Irene of Chrysovalantou, Francis of Assisi, and Cuthbert Sympson!)

What’s Changing
Once I’m ordained, the most visible change will be that I’ll start wearing a collar and a robe in worship settings. (If you haven’t read Fr. Scott’s awesome blog post about why he started wearing a robe, you can find it here.) I’ll also take over leading a few liturgical things in our services, which others have been covering so far, including reading the Gospel, leading the Confession, setting the Table for Eucharist, and giving the Dismissal at the end of the service. Basically I’ll be assisting the priest in a more visible way. 
The most significant change, though, is one I can’t really describe to you yet because I doubt I’ll understand it until I’ve been a deacon for a while (and maybe not even then!) As Anglicans, we believe an ontological change (within one’s very being) occurs when the bishop lays his hands on the ordinand and prays for the Holy Spirit to give a special spiritual grace for the life of service ahead. That’s why I prefer to talk in terms of who a deacon is vs. what a deacon does - because it’s not only a calling to lifelong service, it’s a life-altering calling.

What’s Not Changing
I will still be our Ministry Director - nothing in my job description is changing (any more than usual in church plant life), so I’ll continue supporting Fr. Scott in running the day-to-day operations of Christ Church, including administration, communication, volunteer management, and whatever else is needed. I’ll keep praying and dreaming about how we can grow in our life of prayer together as a church through intercession (including Prayers of the People), prayer ministry, silent retreats, and spiritual disciplines. I will continue learning and growing through my online program at Trinity School for Ministry (I’m pursuing a Certificate of Diaconal Studies there). Over the summer I took a class on the history and theology of the diaconate, which was mind-blowing and super exciting. 

If you have any questions about my ordination, or the diaconate in general, please reach out and I’d love to get together for coffee or tea and chat more. When you come to church on December 18th you’ll get to participate in our first ordination service at Christ Church, and just like worship any other Sunday, it’ll be something we all do together. I hope you’ll be able to be there, and I heartily invite your prayers in the meantime! Thank you so much for the outpouring of support and love since we announced my ordination. I look forward to what God has in store for us, Christ Church!  

Grace and Peace,

If you want to read more about how we think about deacons, priests and bishops, check out this resource put out by our diocese: “Understanding Holy Orders”.
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