Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Exodus from Privilege: Reflections on the Diaconate in Acts

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Exodus from Privilege: Reflections on the Diaconate in Acts

Article excerpt

In this ecclesial reflection on Luke's account of the institution of the diaconate (Acts 6), I explore the thesis that ordained ministry is the church's instrument of self-criticism and self-correction in the face of the dynamics of privilege, exclusion, and inertia within the body of Christ. For Luke, the post-Pentecost Jerusalem church betrays a failed exodus from these dynamics, as becomes evident when it is discovered that the widows of the non-Palestinian segment of the community have been neglected in the daily distribution of food. The church responds by setting Stephen and six other diaspora Jews apart, not only to ensure future fairness, but (as Stephen's sermon shows) to call the church and Israel to renewed exodus. I argue that this sets the pattern for all ordained ministry, and suggest that priesthood and episcopacy are best viewed as specific variations on diaconal ministry, grounded in diakonia.

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer brought the ministry of all the baptized front and center. If baptism is full incorporation into the body of Christ, then every baptized person is fully authorized to be a minister of Christ's reconciling work. Not surprisingly, this insight has led to a fresh examination of all kinds of authority, particularly that of the ordained. As we live into the ministry of all the baptized, what role, if any, should bishops, priests, and deacons play? The tensions packed into this question are nowhere more evident than in the church's ongoing reflection on the diaconate. The rise of the modern diaconate is inextricably bound up with the recovery of the ministry of all the baptized, and could be said to have been its precursor. Yet it is sometimes said that deacons usurp the servant ministry that belongs to all God's people, repossessing it as a ministry proper to the ordained.1 There is ample justification for this complaint in the history of our own church. In the late nineteenth century the Episcopal Church routinely ordained men from ethnic minorities as permanent deacons for missionary work among their own people (David Pendleton Oakerhater being a prime example). Around the same time, women were permitted to function as deaconesses - "set apart" but not ordained. For about twenty years, beginning in the 1950s, men were ordained as "perpetual deacons" to shore up the shortage of priests in a then rapidly growing church. Following on the Second Vatican Council's decision to revive the diaconate as a distinct order, and the Lambeth Conference's similar call in 1968, our development of the so-called vocational diaconate proceeded at a rapid pace, on the understanding that the diaconate complemented lay ministry rather than competed with it. Such complementarity remains the ideal, although it is still not uncommon for deacons to lead public worship in the absence of a priest, where laity could do as well or better.

On the other hand, the diaconate is also seen as a challenge to inherited assumptions about ordained ministry. For instance, the emergence of the diaconate as an order with its own distinctive integrity has prompted calls for the abandonment of the so-called transitional diaconate, the ancient practice of ordaining to the diaconate as a step toward ordaining to the priesthood. If the diaconate is a distinct order, then why are those who are called not to the diaconate but to the priesthood ordained to the diaconate at all? Admittedly, this argument speaks to the integrity of the priesthood as well as the diaconate, but it also raises what is perhaps a deeper - and less priest-friendly (and bishop-friendly) question. Are priesthood and episcopacy "higher" than the diaconate, such that one moves from one to the other as from one rung of the hierarchical ladder to the next? If so, are we still in the grip of a neoplatonic paradigm that places the laity on the bottom and bishops on the top? Perhaps the recovery of the diaconate, far from demoting the laity, presages a flattening of our hierarchy, a redistribution of ministerial power that calls the very purpose of ordained ministry into question. …

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