Some of you may know that I’ve spent the last year serving as a Deacon at my church. In some faith traditions – notably Catholic – Deacons are actually ordained in their own right, but not in the UCC. I’ve served as a member of a 12 person board of lay people. These folks are the first stop on the In-Care process, which I’ll talk about later, but I just like the history of the role.
Diakonos is roughly and WAY too literally translated (by people who actually read and speak Greek, not by me) as “person who waits on tables”. This makes me giggle… a lot. Most likely, anyone with some history of Communion in their past will probably jump to a more meaningful translation to me: “person who waits on THE table.” (One of the major responsibilities is to assist in the serving and preparation of communion.)
Anyway, it seems that the Early Church needed help with some of the daily business of worship and ministry, and so authorized a cadre of folks to do these tasks instead of having all of them done by the disciples, who had decided it wasn’t fitting for them to take time off from spreading the gospels to – wait for it – wait on tables. Acts 6. (It’s my understanding that daily worship did actually involve more than just the Holy Feast; there were a lot of full meals as well.)
So, the highly busy disciples found their first Deacon: Stephen. Which was swell for the church, because he went out and did wonders and spread the Gospel. He might have had mixed feelings, to say the least, because he was promptly arrested, allowed to make a really killer speech, and then stoned to death. Acts 7. Somehow, this wasn’t a deterrent for new recruits, and the job continues to this day.
Ordained Deacons in the Anglican and Catholic Communion are sometimes confusingly thought of as “priest-lite”. Anglicans had a stop along the way to ordaining women during which they would allow women into the diaconate, but not into the priest-hood. Interesting to note that this led to a massively female diaconate, and so it seems that a culture sprang up that if you were male, you would spend a brief period of time as a deacon, but would then move up to priest. The hold-out on ordaining women is interesting because deacons are only limited from:
- presiding at the eucharist – OK. That’s a big one.
- absolving sins – apparently this gets fudged a bit.
- pronouncing a blessing – same here.
Other than that, they wear their stole (sash) differently. Did they just think the ladies couldn’t pull off the over the neck look with the sash? The deacons MAY:
- Be witness at a marriage
- perform Baptism
- read the Gospel
Catholics don’t ordain women into the diaconate at all, but they do ordain married men, and will allow a current deacon to marry. Neat tidbit here? Even if the Pope were to show up, rules of the road state that if a deacon is present, HE reads the Gospel.
All of this is besides the point in the UCC; we’re just folks. In true congregationalist form, there isn’t a real set of rules that I can find about the role the diaconate plays in congregational life. I’m assuming our resident Jonathan Edwards scholar, Ken Minkema, pulled this quote and other info from his work:
“Deacons are to have a watchful eye on the state of the whole flock, to take notice of the circumstances of their bodies, to observe who are under straits and in necessities, that their necessities may be supplied. . . . Deacons are stewards in the household, that every one that is in necessity and is a proper object of charity may be relieved and may have his portion of meat in due season. . . The office of minister fitly answers to the office of the eye, that guides and directs the body; the office of a deacon seems well to answer the office of the hand in the natural body, that feeds it and helps its suffering members.”
In short, it’s a cool gig. I’ll talk more about what it means to me, and certainly how the deacons at my church have helped me and (hopefully) will continue to help me as I pursue my call.
A neat wiki article on deacons in all traditions. (Fair warning, I love wiki’s. More fair warning: that doesn’t mean that I claim that they – or I – am actually right about anything.)
I’m hunting around for a UCC article on deacons.