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Deacons and diaconate

9 February 2010

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.

Three deacons serving together — a rare sight in South Africa

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.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 February 2010 11:36 am

    Steve – this is really interesting. But I have lots of questions. Some Orthodox bishops have apparently indicated a willingness to ordain women as deacons. And there were women deacons in the New Testament. So what about women as deacons?

    Can deacons go behind the iconostasis? How does their role differ from that of a priest – presumably the priest can do the Divine Liturgy and the deacon can’t? What else?

    Where does the word ‘deacon’ come from? What was their role when the deaconate flourished?

    • 9 February 2010 12:42 pm


      There were deaconesses, who, as far as I know, had a related ministry, though not quite the same. In the early church it seems that among womens’ ministries, widows were more prominent. Bishop Kallistos Ware writes:

      If we had been visiting a church beside the Nile soon after the year 300, what kind of parish community might we have found? For an answer let us turn to the fragmentary document known as the Apostolic Church Order. This begins by mentioning the bishop, who is not yet a distant administrator, but still the immediate head of the local community, the normal celebrant at the Sunday eucharist. He is assisted in the parish worship by two or more presbyters, by a reader and three deacons. Thus far there are no great surprises, except that the reader seems to rank higher than the deacons. The parochial staff is larger than what is customary today; but, apart perhaps from the bishop, most of the others are doubtless earning their own living with ordinary jobs. The Apostolic Church Order does not stop, however, with the deacons. After them it goes on to speak of three widows, “two to persevere in prayer for all who are in temptation and to receive revelations when they are needed; and one to help the women who are ill”.

      And he goes on to say

      we observe the size and diversity of the local parish ministry. There is no clericalism, no concentration of responsibility exclusively in the hands of a single, full-time “professional.” Next, we see that the ministry includes women as well as men. The women are not just elderly ladies who arrange the flowers and prepare cups of tea, but they constitute a specific ministry or order recognized by the Church; they are more or less equivalent — although not actually given such a title — to the deaconesses mentioned elsewhere in early Christian sources While one of the three is entrusted with charitable or social work, the other two have tasks immediately connected with prayer and worship. It is noteworthy that the particular role assigned to them is the ministry of intercession and prophecy.

      My emphasis in that last sentence, because Martin West, in his book Bishops and prophets in a black city notes exactly the same thing among African independent churches in Soweto. Even denominations founded and led by women had male bishops (the husband was often dragged in for this), and the women concentrated on intercession and prophecy. I’ve heard it said that the early Irish church was similar.

  2. b wielenga permalink
    9 February 2010 2:51 pm

    In the reformed tradition since the days of Calvin deacons are involved in the social ministry of the church, which becomes in Holland for instance more important in these times of recession. The social aspects of missions are their responsibility. Their only liturgical function is to wait on the table of the eucharist where the ordained minister is the one in charge.

    • Alan permalink
      10 February 2010 1:57 am

      b wielenga writes that in the Reformed tradition the “deacons are involved in the social ministry of the church” and that “their only liturgical function is to wait on the table of the eucharist where the ordained minister is the one in charge.”

      In the Reformed churches with which I am familiar, the only part played by the deacons in the liturgy is to take up the offering and bring it forward to the minister, who may or may not offer a prayer of thanksgiving and a petition for that offering to be used for the glory of God.

      (I am not too happy with the claim that “the ordained minister is the one in charge”: in some Reformed churches the minister is admitted to the pulpit by an elder as representative of the Consistory/Session. Even if that relationship is not made visible, the congregation is supposed to be governed by the Consistory/Session, not by the minister[s] alone.)

      I am still wondering how the role of the deacon changed from being one of providing material assistance to those in need to being largely liturgical.

      • Alan permalink
        11 February 2010 5:10 am

        I wrote:

        “I am still wondering how the role of the deacon changed from being one of providing material assistance to those in need to being largely liturgical.”

        As I have thought about this further, I cannot help wondering whether the deacons brought forward the people’s offerings *including the bread and wine to be used for the Eucharist*, and their role in the liturgy expanded from there.

        • 11 February 2010 6:28 pm

          The liturgical and other aspects of a deacons ministry are closely related. It’s “waiting at tables”. I supect that the problem here is the “liturgical” understanding of the liturgy, as Fr Alexander Schmemann put it.

  3. 9 February 2010 11:26 pm

    Another very readable post Steve!

    As to female deacons, is there the case that women married to male church officers sometimes received the feminine title of their husband’s post? Not sure if I read that in Herrins’ Byzantium or am making it up!

    • 10 February 2010 3:50 am

      No Chris, you are ont amking it up. Our priest, Father Athanasius Akunda from Kenya, refers to my wife as “Diakonissa”, especially when giving her communion, and it is quite common for priests’ wives to be called “Presvytera” or “Khouria” or “Matushka”. I suppose the English equivalent would be “Priestess”, but that I haven’t heard.

      • 10 February 2010 9:02 pm

        “Presvytera” or “Khouria” are both feminine forms of the Greek and Arabic words for ‘priest’ respectively, but “Matushka” is a diminutive form of the Russian word for ‘mother’ (“Batyushka” is ‘father’). “Matushka” is the appropriate honorific, but a literal Russian equivalent of presvytera/ ‘priestess’ would be “Svyashchenitsa.”

  4. Joshua L permalink
    11 February 2010 2:50 am

    Here I am intruding again on a conversation that has nothing to do with me, and I know nothing about, but I thought people here wouldn’t mind an interfaith comparison.

    Jews have something called “Gabbai” which I think is similar, though I have no idea what a Deacon is. Ordination among Orthodox Jews doesn’t keep one from being a Gabbai though, it doesn’t even keep one from being a laymen, and many are, as ordination of people who will not be either at a pulpit or the more prestigious position of Rosh Yeshiva or Rabbi at a Yeshiva (Jewish higher education) is very common.

    Ordination (Smicha) in Orthodox Judaism has become simply a way of saying you did very good at yeshiva, with no real demands that one make a living out of it as there if anything is an oversupply of Orthodox Rabbis rather than a shortage. Of course, the non-Orthodox rabbinate is different, they go to a seminary and are pretty much career clergy.

  5. Alan permalink
    11 February 2010 7:35 pm


    You wrote: “The church-supported clergy were paid to be pastors, not priests.”

    Would you please explain the disctinction you are making here. I know of at least one Orthodox priest who is described on the church’s Web site as “Pastor”: he is “Father x” but he is the pastor.

    • 11 February 2010 9:44 pm


      There is the threefold ministry: bishops priests and deacons. These are ordained ministries. And then there is what is sometimes called the fivefold ministry: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers. These are also sometimes called charismatic ministries (by Bishop Kallistos Ware, among others). Actually there are more than five, it’s just that those five are listed in Ephesians, but Romans has a different list.

      It is possible for people to have more than one ministry; I mentioned St Stephen and St Philip, who were both deacons and evangelists. And so it is possible for priests to be pastors as well. A parish priest is a pastor, because he is shepherd of Christ’s flock in that parish, but a hieromonk who serves mainly in a monastery is not. In that situation the Igumen of the monastery is the pastor of the monks, whether ordained or not. So not all priests are pastors and not all pastors are priests, though some may be both.

      So when I said that the church-supported clergy were paid to be pastors, not priests, it doesn’t mean that they were not priests, just that that is not what they were being paid for.

      I hope that makes it a bit clearer.

  6. 18 February 2010 3:33 am

    Just fascinating. You have an interesting tale to tell!

    I have to admit that, even though I’m still fairly new to things as far as being a Christian goes, I still sympathize with a lot of what you’re saying about the roles of deacon vs. priest within the church. It’s something I’ve often wondered about in regards to the denomination I have been a part of: why doesn’t anybody seem to have a clear idea of the critical role that deacons play within the body of this church, and why isn’t anybody doing anything about it? I’ve seen deacons so overwhelmed by other duties not a part of their calling that they cannot properly serve in some instances, and I’ve seen others lacking in direction and don’t know where to start. I’ve also seen some usurp the pastor’s role when boundaries aren’t clear. And that has created a lot of tension and gridlock– not to mention a weakening of the unity of that church as an instrument of Christ.

    Putting the vast differences between Orthodox and Protestant worship and pastoral care aside, I think your point is an important one within an evangelical Protestant context too (indeed, I think you would agree that the problem is much, much more acute!)

    In any case, thank you for sharing. As always, you always make me think– hard.

  7. Lungelo sibisi permalink
    21 August 2014 5:46 pm

    Well as an anglican server on his way to becoming a self-supporting deacon i did gather a lot thank you


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