Analyse the theological, ecclesial and contextual basis of the Ordination of Deacons

This essay was submitted for a module called “Preparation for Public Ministry” during the Spring of 2017. 

Analyse the theological, ecclesial and contextual basis of EITHER the Ordination of Deacons OR the Ordination of Priests (2500)

The notion of a ‘threefold’ order within the priesthood is referenced as far back as Ignatius of Antioch in 110AD.[1] Then it was bishops, presbyters and deacons. Through the Medieval Church they were known as priests, deacons and sub-deacons. One feature of the English Reformation in the 16th century was the return to the language of bishops, presbyters and deacons[2] – and it is with the identity, role, and ordination of the last of these with which we are concerned in this paper. Who are deacons in the Church of England? What is the ecclesial basis of their ministry?

Following the 1882 Lima Report by the World Council of Churches, concerning baptism, eucharist and ministry, the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation began a series of three statements in response. At Berkeley, California, in 2001 the statement on ministry and ordination was agreed upon by representatives of 30 of the 37 Anglican provinces.[3] This statement opens with a fresh articulation of the baptismal ecclesiology of the Anglican Church:

‘Through the Holy Spirit God baptizes us into the life and ministry of Christ and forms us into the laos, the people of God, who as signs and agents of God’s reign participate in God’s mission of reconciling humanity and all creation to God. This is the ecclesia, the church, the new community being called into being by God’.[4]

This is worth quoting at length as it proves to be foundational for the understanding of ministry which follows. In response to the idea which has, at times, been present that ordination ‘confers a status which elevates priests above the laity’,[5] Berkeley insists that ‘having a baptismal ecclesiology leads us to see ordained ministers as integral members of the body of Christ…’[6] That’s not to say that there isn’t anything which is distinctive about ordained ministry, but to emphasise that which is in common between the laity and the priesthood; namely, our equal soteriological participation in Christ through baptism. The distinction comes from specific participation in the ministry of Christ which all are called to generally participate in by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Berkeley goes on to define bishops, priests, and deacons. Here they do not innovate but rather explore the Virgina Report.[7] Briefly, bishops are understood ‘particularly as apostle, chief priest, teacher and pastor of a diocese… to continue Christ’s ministry’.[8] Priests are then understood to ‘share with the bishops in the overseeing of the church’.[9] This naturally contains the understanding of a priest as one who unites the proclamation of the word with the administration of the sacraments and pastoral care of a community.[10] However there is a sense in which the relation between the bishop and the priest is relatively clearly defined; the bishop has oversight and is the primary priestly figure and priests share in the exercise of their ministry derivatively wherein the diocese the bishop is not personally present. When it comes to deacons, though, it is clear that Berkeley acknowledges something of an ongoing ambiguity.

Berkeley says:

‘In the Anglican communion today there are various experiences and understandings of the diaconate, not only from province to province but even within provinces’.[11]

They acknowledge a shift from the historical position as managers of the Church to becoming a transitional order on the way to the presbyterate in the Middle Ages. This places the diaconate as the first stage in sequential ordination as one advances toward becoming a bishop. To say this risks diminishing the distinctive characteristics of each order and, in my view, could well seem to undermine the insistence that a baptismal ecclesiology unites us in participation in Christ; advocating, in appearance if not in words and statements, a meritorious, semi-gnostic and imperial perception of the three orders of ordained ministry. Berkeley tentatively suggests that Anglican provinces may wish to consider the pre-nicene practise of direct ordination to either the presbyterate or episcopate as a recognition of the distinctiveness of the three orders.[12] For this to be a persuasive concept, the diaconate needs to be more rigorously and simply understood as an order in itself, rather than as merely a transitional phase in training for ordination as a priest.

Sansom chronicles something of the debate on the nature of the diaconate in the 20th century. He observes that the question of a permanent diaconate has been on the agenda of the Lambeth Conference since 1878. Opinion has clearly been divided with the Lambeth Conference in 1958 calling to consider if it would be wise to recover the diaconate as a distinctive order, while an ACCM working party, ‘reporting in 1974, advocated the discontinuance of the diaconate’, proposing a glorified internship instead.[13]

This situation led to the General Synod document ‘The Ministry of Deacons and Deaconesses’ (GS 344). Rather than trying to advocate either way it settled for concluding with a presentation of three possible options available moving forward. The first was to maintain the status quo, leaving the ‘diaconate as a short, intermediate stage through which all candidates for the priesthood should pass’. The second was the abolition of the diaconate in line with the 1974 proposal, and the third was the possibility of enlarging the diaconate so that a permanent diaconate could be established. This would be available irrespective of gender and would not preclude the possibility of later being ordained as a priest.[14] At this point it would be worth referencing the five guiding principles and acknowledging that women are at this time able to be ordained to all three of the orders of the church. I suspect that some of the complications surrounding the diaconate in the 20th century may well have been the political backdrop of the feminist campaign to enable women to participate in the ministerial structures of the Church. These issues, and more, are chronicled and explored in Field-Bibb’s work Women towards Priesthood. Our intention here is not to investigate that particular movement but rather to try and theologically discern the nature of the role of deacons.

Before turning to look more specifically at the canons of the church and the ordinal, it is interesting to note that at the same time as the deacons were being discussed in the 60s and 70s in the Anglican Church, they were also being revised in the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, in 1967 Pope Paul VI restored the permanent diaconate for those who were to exercise the office of deacon while not being considered for the priesthood. This broader conception of the diaconate is comparable with the third option outlined in GS 344. In 1973 there was the ‘Agreement on the Doctrine of the Ministry’, a joint statement between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. There was much which was significant ecumenically, but as Charley observes, what is more significant is what isn’t said. He was referring to the lack of mention of the Eucharist as sacrifice. However upon inspection, there is no statement on deacons, other than an acknowledgement of them as an order and that they, like presbyters, are ordained by a bishop.[15] This could be indicative that, given the recent clarification on deacons in the Roman Catholic church, there couldn’t be a ‘true consensus’[16] because of either a lack of clarity of the Anglican conception of the office of deacon or because it lacked commonality with the Roman Catholic conception of the office of deacon. Given the concurrence of the discussion above, it seems that this statement in what it does not say is indicative of the lack of a clear Anglican conception of what the diaconate is, other than a received tradition.

Thus far we have discovered that the office of deacon is ecclesially rooted, as with the other ordained orders, in the baptismal ecclesiology of the Anglican Church; a foundation which should be considered empowering and secure, grounded in turn, as it is, in participation in the saving reality of the living and ascended Christ who continues his mission and ministry through the power of the Holy Spirit. Sadly our contextual understanding of the role through the last century has led to a degree of confusion with parts of the church simultaneously wanting to develop and abolish the diaconate. To contend for the preservation and significance of the order of deacon we now turn to explore cannon law, the ordinal and something of the scriptural basis.

There are several canons which pertain to deacons: A4, (B18.2), C1, C3, C4, C5, C6, C7, C8, C13, C14, C15, C 21.1, C27, and (D).[17] These canons range from recognition of the office of deacon as a holy order through to necessary oaths, rules of dress and access to residentiary canon positions in cathedrals. Extensive comment need not be made on the minutia. However Canons A4 and C1; C3; C4, C13, C14, and C15 merit brief attention.

Canons A4 and C1 both establish the office of Deacon as one of the Holy Orders of the Church of England. C1.2 states that deacons can never be ‘divested of the character’ of their order, even if, voluntarily or by discipline, they may legally be ‘deprived of the exercise’ of their orders. This seems to infer the general recognition that Holy Orders, even as deacons, are vocational; further, that vocation is enduring.

Entrance into the order of deacon is through ordination, as described in C3. These services should happen in a cathedral (C3.2), and those ordained deacons should generally be at least aged 23 (C3.5). In reference to our question surrounding sequential or direct ordination, C3.7-8 is interesting. C3.7 says that a person may only be ordained both deacon and priest (in that order, contrary to most references in the canons of ‘priest and deacon’) if they have a faculty from the Archbishop of Canterbury. C3.8 proposes that a deacon not be ordained priest for at least a year, so that ‘trial may be made of his behaviour’ before they are admitted to the priesthood. As such it would seem that the conception of holy orders within Canon C3 binds the notion of ecclesial hierarchy with, at least an element of, progression. This means that the cultural understanding of deacons as a ‘training’ period on the way toward priesthood has a not insignificant basis within canon law.

Nevertheless, this is not to say that the orders are not held to the same standards. Canons C4 and C13-15 detail first the quality of the candidates for the orders, and the oaths and declarations they must make. C4 is concerned both with the capacity of the candidate to be a good witness of the Christian faith (and the church) and with their capability to practically exercise their ministry. This provides the canonical context for the prolonged discernment process which ordinands are subject to, from the initial conversations with their priest, to conversations with their DDO and appearance at a Bishops Advisory Panel, and throughout their time training at institutions such as Cranmer Hall. It is actually by this process that A4’s emphasis that those ordained ought to be accounted ‘both by themselves and others, to be truly bishops, priests, or deacons’; those ordained deacons are ordained in confidence given by the context of their rigorous discernment process which led them to that ordination.

The oaths of Allegiance, to the queen and her heirs, and Obedience, to the bishop (C14.3) express a legal fidelity to the institutions through which the baptismal faith finds its articulation in holy orders. The declaration of Assent (C15) instantiates this articulation explicitly, professing that ‘the Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. The declaration ‘affirms your loyalty to this inheritance of faith as your inspiration and guidance under God in bringing the grace and truth of Christ to this generation’ making him known to those in your care.

This stress upon the unity of the orders by these promises, universally taken by the clergy, is in keeping with the baptismal unity of the people of God. It must never be forgotten that for all the legalese and regulations ordination is liturgically celebrated within the ‘prayer of the church at Eucharist’, responding to the proclamation of the Word.[18]

This is appropriate for each of the orders but particularly so at the ordination of deacons, questioned, as they are, to whether they believe in the scriptures and if they will fashion their lives by its doctrines. The ordinal outlines the office of deacon as: assisting in the distribution of sacraments, the public reading scripture, to instruct youth, to preach, to seek out the sick, poor and impotent to give them charity.[19] While Berkeley acknowledged that the ordering of ‘bishops, presbyters, and deacons emerged within the wider context of the ministry of the whole church’, they point towards Ephesians 4.11-12, 1 Timothy 3.1-13 and 1 Peter 5.1-5 as valid scriptural basis for leadership of this kind.[20] Indeed, an examination of 1 Timothy 3:8-13 illuminates a clear scriptural basis for much of the preceding discussion. It reads:

Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of faith with a clear conscience. And let them be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons… Let deacons be married only once, and let them manage their children and their households well; for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

The office of deacons in the church of England finds its basis clearly within the historical tradition of the wider church, a tradition which in turn is grounded firmly, if not directly analogously, in the principles found within Scripture. Moreover, the holy orders themselves are ecclesially conditioned by the baptismal ecclesiology of the Church of England; resisting as best as it is able any gnostic tendency or superiority. Although there is clearly an ongoing discussion around the nature of the diaconate moving forwards the contextual, ecclesial and theological basis seems solid, and as such the office should be accounted, along with bishops and priests, as a lawful and true order which exercises a healthy and significant ministry.


Buchanan, Colin, Ordination Rites in Common Worship, Grove Worship Series W 186; Cambridge: Grove Books, 2006.

The Canons of the Church of England: Seventh Edition: Kindle Edition; Church House Publishing, 2016.

Charley, Julian W., Agreement on the Doctrine of the Ministry: The 1973 Anglican/Roman Catholic Statement on Ministry and Ordinantion (with historical appendix) with Theological Commentary and ‘Notes on Apostolic Succession’, Grove Booklet on Ministry and Worship 22; Bramcote: Grove books, 19723.

Field-Bibbs, Jacqueline, Women Toward Priesthood: Ministerial Politics and Feminist Praxis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Gibson, Paul, Anglican Ordination Rites, The Berkeley Statement: “To Equip the Saints”, Grove Worship Series W 168; Cambridge: Grove Books, 2002.

Sadgrove, Michael, Ordinantion Liturgy, The Cathedrals’ Liturgy Group Occasional Paper 2, September 1996 (John’s, 264 SAD Liturgy Pamphlet Box).

Sansom, Michael, Liturgy for Ordination: The Series 3 Services, Grove Booklet on Ministry and Worship 60; Bramcote: Grove Books, 1978.

Toon, Peter, The Ordinal and its revision, Grove Booklet on Ministry and Worship 29; Bramcote: Grove Books, 1974.

Scripture References taken from the NRSV, 2007.

End Notes

[1] Buchanan, Ordination, 5.

[2] Buchanan, Ordination, 6.

[3] Gibson, Berkeley, 3.

[4] Gibson, Berekely, 4.

[5] Paraphrased.

[6] Gibson, Berkeley, 5.

[7] Gibson, Berkeley, 6; The Virginia Report: The Report of the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission.

[8] Gibson, Berkeley, 6.

[9] Gibson, Berkeley, 7.

[10] Gibson, Berkeley, 8.

[11] Gibson, Berkeley, 8.

[12] Gibson, Berkeley, 9.

[13] Sansom,  Ordination, 4.

[14] Sansom, Ordination, 4-5.

[15] Charley, Ministry, 9.

[16] Charley, Ministry, 11.

[17] The canons in parentheses pertain to the office of deaconess. These help clarify some of the details of what a deacon does; being provision made prior to ‘Deacons (Ordinantion of Women) Measure 1986’ – as explained in D2.

[18] Sadgrove, Ordination, 11.

[19] BCP, 565-566.

[20] Gibson, Berkeley, 4.