Deacons and diaconate
When I was ordained deacon some five years ago, several people came up to me immediately after the service and asked when I was going to be ordained a priest, and my answer, getting more emphatic with each one who asked, was “Never, I hope.”
At various times over five years since then people have asked the same question, and I have usually answered that I would start to think about being a priest when there were two deacons in every parish in the diocese. More recently my bishop asked me if I was ready to be a priest yet, and a priest friend asked me the same question, so to thought I had better give a more comprehensive reply. I am posting the gist of it here as well, especially after seeing a related post by Bosco Peters on per saltum ordination | Liturgy.
When I was an Anglican, I was at seminary in my final term, and the prospect at the end of the term of being ordained as a deacon, and then, usually after a year as a deacon, I would become a priest.
But the first thing I would become would be a deacon, and I suddenly realised that I knew nothing about it. The bishop would ask “Do you think you are called by God to this ministry?” and I would have to say “I think so”, but I had not given much thought to it at all.
So in my last month in seminary I started reading about the ministry of deacons, and the more I read, the more I realised that it was an important ministry, and that it had been neglected in the church. It was far more neglected among Anglicans than among Orthodox, because even when people were ordained as deacons in the Anglican Church, their liturgical duties of a deacon were unclear.
So by the time I was ordained as a deacon in the Anglican Church (in Pietermaritzburg December 1968) I was not sure that I really was called to be a priest any more. I served as a deacon in Durban for six months, and then the bishop kicked me out (that’s another story — you can read about it here, if you are interested: Notes from underground: Psychedelic Christian Worship — thecages).
During my six months in Durban I was assistant chaplain at the Missions to Seamen, where I learnt something of the practical side of a deacon’s ministry. There were two ships under arrest in Durban harbour, the Cyrus II and the Persian Cambyses II. Both were owned by the same firm, though they were registered in different countries. One had a Greek captain, the other a British captain. One had a Greek crew, the other an Indian crew. They were moored side-by-side in the bay, and the crews were stranded. In any other port in the world, the crews would have first claim on the ships’ owners for the wages owing to them, but an old Natal law stipulated that the first claim was on the last person or body that made the ship seaworthy. Until the repair bills were paid, the ships could not sail and the crews could not be paid. For two months we bussed the crews round the bay for 17 miles to the Missions to Seamen, where they could see films, play games, and phone their families and things like that. I got to know the local Orthodox priest, who was particularly concerned with the Greek crew. I came to suspect (rather uncharitably perhaps) that if the captain of one of the ships had not been British, and not so concerned about the welfare of his crew, the Missions to Seamen would not have been quite so involved in ministry to them. Nevertheless, I learned something from that, and made friends with the Iranian second mate and the Iraqi third mate of one of the ships, Changiz Jarihi and Abdul Musil Al Salim. Ten years later their countries were at war, and I lost touch with them. Abdul had become the captain of a dredger at Basra. I’ve often wondered what happened to them since.
Though I learnt something of the practical ministry of a deacon, I was not allowed to perform any of the liturgical duties of a deacon, not even reading the gospel. After being fired by the Anglican Bishop of Natal I nearly joined the Orthodox Church, and for a month went to services at the Orthodox Church in Durban, but then the Anglican bishop of Namibia, Colin Winter, invited me to go there, so I did.
I still wanted to be a deacon, but then I started going to a congregation in Gobabis, about 200 km from Windhoek, who had been neglected. After making contact with them, and visiting them monthly, I asked a couple of the priests in Windhoek to go to Gobabis so the people there could have communion. They refused, and so I thought it would be better to be a priest, so that the Anglicans in Gobabis could have communion. So I was ordained a priest in the Anglican Church in July 1970. I was a worker deacon and a worker priest, and earned my living, first as a water-works attendant with the Department of Water Affairs. I was fired from that (the government did not like to employ Anglicans, because the Anglican Church was opposed to the apartheid policy), then as a proof reader on the local newspaper, the Windhoek Advertiser. I was fired from that too, for similar reasons. The owner of the newspaper, under pressure from the Security Police, made a purge of Anglican staff.
In 1972 I was deported from Namibia, and was back in Durban for a few years. Then I went to the Anglican diocese of Zululand, and in 1977 was asked to be Director of Training for Ministry for the diocese, with special responsibility for training self-supporting priests and deacons. One weekend a month we would have training for the self-supporting clergy, most of whom were working in secular jobs.They came to the diocesan training and conference centre at KwaNzimela.
In the middle of the week once a month we had Post Ordination Training (POT) for the church supported clergy, who had been to seminary. That started on Monday evening and ended on Friday morning, and they then went back to their parishes. Since it required one week and one weekend a month, it wasn’t a full-time job, so I was also rector of All Saints Church in the nearby village of Melmoth.
Just before I started doing it, six of the self-supporting men had been ordained as deacons, and so when they came I sent them into the local parishes (including my own one in Melmoth) on the Sunday to be deacons at the services. And it became very clear that none of them knew the first thing about what a deacon was supposed to be doing in the service. No one had told them, no one had taught them, and the priests in their home parishes didn’t know what deacons were supposed to do either.
The duties of Anglican deacons are slightly different from Orthodox ones, and not as complex, but they still didn’t know what to do. So I revised the training course to make sure that the people who came were taught how to lead worship — as readers, deacons and then priests. In the case of self-supporting priests and deacons, that was one of the most importan t aspects of their ministry — to lead the community in worship. The church-supported clergy were paid to be pastors, not priests. Some of the priests in their home parishes got quite angry about this, because they had got so used to doing what the deacons were supposed to do that they thought it was the priest’s job and not the deacon’s job and they didn’t want to let the deacons do these things. But the Bishop, Lawrence Zulu, was a wise man, and he knew what I was trying to do and he encouraged and supported me in doing it, and when the priests came to meetings and complained, he told them that there was no point in the church having deacons if they were not allowed to do the work of deacons.
Then there was a drought. It was a bad drought and crops failed in many places and cattle died and people were hungry. People in the cities heard of this and send gifts of food to help the people in the rural areas. But how to distribute it was a problem, because no one knew which people were really suffering, and which people came to ask for free food so they could sell it to others for a profit. But the deacons, they should know. That’s exactly why deacons were introduced in the church in the first place. I wrote a paper on it called “Deacons and drought”. One day I’ll find it and perhaps post it in my blog. So I came to believe quite strongly that the diaconate was neglected and needed to be revived and restored — liturgically, pastorally and evangelistically (at least two of the first deacons were evangelists — Stephen and Philip). Many times I wished that I could stop being a priest and go back to being a deacon, but it was too late for that. I started writing to some other people, and we spoke, only half-jokingly, of forming a Society of the Restoration of the Threefold Ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, because for most people the only ministry was that of the priest, and the bishop was regarded as a kind of superpriest and the deacon as a priest manqué. Actually it should have been the fourfold ministry, because the ministers of the church are bishops, priests, deacons and laity. But the ministry of the priest was regarded as the ministry. So it was thought that if anyone was called to ministry, they must be a priest — to be a deacon, an evangelist, a teacher, a healer was simply not an option. Clericalism was rife.
Then I was elected to represent the diocese of Zululand at the Anglican provincial synod, which met once every three years. I travelled to Grahamstown, and one of the things they discussed was deacons, and one priest had prepared a report on lay ministers (readers, catechists etc.) where he said that deacons should be abolished, because lay ministers could do everything deacons did. The synod voted to accept his report. Then they voted that women could be ordained as deacons — so they wanted to ordain women to a ministry they said should be abolished! I said that it was silly, because no one really knew what a deacon was, so how could they make such decisions. The Archbishop then appointed a commission to study the diaconate and report back to the next session of provincial synod in 1982, and I was appointed as a member of that commission.
So for the next three years I studied deacons even more deeply, not just for myself this time, but for the whole Anglican Church in Southern Africa, and the other members of the commission did the same. I studied Orthodox documents, Roman Catholic documents, Lutheran documents and others. I went to meetings of the Roman Catholic Church where the people who trained deacons met. Our commission met several times at great expense, because we all lived in different parts of the country and had to travel long distances to meet.
We produced a 100 page report, and the synod did not even look at it. When it came up for discussion they voted to pass to the next business, and so our three years work counted for nothing, and was simply tossed aside. Soon afterwards I resigned from the Anglican Church and became Orthodox.
And so after 15 years of being Orthodox I was made a deacon, a real one this time. And it is not something that I want to throw away, because there is no going back.
I think it is important that there should be deacons in the church. For my first 8 years as an Orthodox Christian in South Africa I never once saw a deacon. The first time I saw one was when I went to Russia in 1995 to do research for my thesis. People speak of the shortage of priests and it is true that some parishes in the diocese do not have priests. But far more parishes in the diocese do not have deacons. The people know when they are short of priests, but most of them don’t know when they are short of deacons because some of them have never seen a deacon. Some of the church’s service books have even begun to print that the priest should do the deacon’s parts of the service, so when there is a deacon, it is hard to know what the deacon should do and what the priest should do.
So that is one of the main reasons that I believe that God is calling me to be a deacon and not a priest.
There are also some minor and more personal reasons not just for wanting to be a deacon, but also for not wanting to be a priest.
I believe that part of the ministry that God has called me to is to help new congregations and mission parishes to worship in an Orthodox way by using the Hours and the Readers Service. This may seem like a small thing, but I believe it is a very important foundation for our mission congregations, so that they can continue even without a priest. They need to see that the church belongs to them, and not just to the priest. But a priest cannot teach congregations to use the Hours and Readers Service, because when a priest is present he is expected to serve the Divine Liturgy.
Also as part of introducing people to Orthodoxy I may need to travel with other people, people like Father Frumentius, to far-away places to help them in the first steps to Orthodoxy. It is easy, and in fact very good, for a priest and a deacon to travel together to do such things. But it is very difficult, and indeed strange, for two priests to do it. People would say “Why send two priests to a place like Mokopane, or Polokwane, when one of them could have been serving the Divine Liturgy in Springs or Brakpan or Benoni while Father So-and-so is on holiday?”
Why indeed? But with a priest and a deacon going together it is easier.