Fr. David, a reposed OCA/Antiochian deacon (ordained by Archbishop +Dimitri of Dallas) whose Doctoral Thesis this is (may his memory be eternal), immediately sets out the issue to which he intends in this work to bring resolution: Orthodox deacons today greatly misunderstand or are ignorant of their role and function in the Church. This problem stems from a lack of understanding of the true nature and role of the diaconal office and particularly its long-since-practiced and historical ministerial capacity.
Commonly seen in latter times as merely a brief step towards the priesthood, he notes, the diaconate suffers an overall occlusion and is reduced to another type of acolyte. In haste to make pastors and archpastors, the Church has largely passed over the office, resulting in a fragmented modern condition where most bishops and priests today “have never served as deacons or worked closely with deacons as ‘brothers and fellow-ministers,’” Fr. David writes, quoting the dialogue between prime celebrant and deacon just after the Great Entrance at the Liturgy from the Sluzhebnik (Service Book).
Fr. David estimates these causes of the potential atrophy of the orthodox diaconate in America stem from the Church hierarchies who “perpetuate the status quo – either due to indifference to the departure from ancient tradition or through conscious adoption of the minimalist teaching as a convenient Church policy, despite its historical inaccuracy” (1).
Thus, to avoid something like the case of the Coptic Church where all acolytes are tonsured readers that are called deacons, or perpetuating the preceding conditions of non-instruction in serving and the specific ministerial role of the deacon, we must act now, Fr. David writes. But Fr. gets the impression that the little-known longstanding role of the deacon as “exercising a viable active ministry to the community beyond a liturgical function – even though seminary training prepares us for pastoral ministry” is not something everyone necessarily wants.
He gives the example of when he was briefly assigned by his pastor to serve a neighboring mission with no priest by preaching, teaching, and distributing Holy Communion. His bishop discontinued the assignment out of concern “that parishioners would become confused over a deacon exercising a pastoral ministry.”
He also had singlehandedly founded a college ministry program locally to where he served in the southwestern U.S. but was not given a blessing to continue as clergy advisor once he was ordained a deacon because that would make it a parish ministry as well as a campus ministry, over which, he was told in a letter by his bishop’s secretary, by definition rules the parish priest. The bishop then assigned a local priest de jure to take his spot, and the program soon fell by the wayside.
Fr. David proceeds to attribute this restriction of the diaconate to its liturgical function to rigid parochial protocol of subservience of deacons to priests as well as possibly “further confusion between the presbyterate and the episcopacy.” Also deacons often predictably fall into the mindset that “they were called to serve a priest” rather than to help serve the community as fellow minister, or rather than “functioning with a certain amount of independence as trusted and respected co-laborers in the Lord’s vineyard.”
Fr. at once cites the case of the epoch of the Great Cathedral Tradition of Hagia Sophia where deacons (the Stavrophoroi or “Cross-Bearers”) were “often more powerful than higher-ranking clergy,” and given a forceful personality might even be elevated to the episcopacy and assigned a metropolitinate see.
Such grandeur Fr. David juxtaposes with his description of the situation nowadays (and, we would add, endemic to his particular jurisdiction given our own contrary experience on the conciliar count) where deacons not only are not paid and do not typically serve on parish councils as ex-officio members with voting privileges. Such exclusions also relegate, he says, to the regional and national level—again I must add, endemic to his own ecclesial jurisdiction—as deacons are not considered clergy at larger Church councils and pay their own travel expenses unless they attend as laymen.
“Thus,” Fr. David writes, “they are often treated like laymen—even by the laity, who typically call them by their first names rather than using proper clerical terminology such as ‘father deacon’ or without using clerical prefixes, such as ‘Deacon David,’ etc.” (4).
And despite having clergy status at Diocesan Assemblies, in Fr. David’s jurisdiction they pay their own travel expenses for these, as well. These factors cause a disconnect from parish, diocese, and ecclesial jurisdiction. Of this, Fr. David concludes the following:
“Thus, it is not likely that a contemporary deacon would have the kind of influence in American Orthodoxy as did the likes of St. Athanasios of Alexandria in the First Ecumenical Council or Archdeacon Nicephoros, who was chairman of the Council of Constantinople in 1592.”
We have pointed out elsewhere that St. Athanasias the Great was allowed charge of the critical supplanting of the Arian heresy at the Council of Nicea (325), as he attended as archdeacon of Archbishop Alexander of Alexandria. He also was an obvious fit to succeed the latter as Archbishop, which he did upon +Alexander’s repose in 328.
Archdeacon and Martyr Nicephorus at the council in 1592 was charged with chairing all subsequent councils of Constantinople and making all spiritual decisions, and subsequently ran the patriarchate. In 1595 he was sent to Ukraine as patriarchal exarch to defend the faithful against the Polish Unia usurpers, and was slain.
A decline of diaconia (which he names “the dignity of the diaconate”) resulted from both the fall of Constantinople and the fall of Imperial Russia through “fear of persecution, indifference, laziness and neglect.” Deacons themselves in part share responsibility for this due to a lack of their own understanding of the “sacerdotal character and dignity of the order.”
Fr. then mentions that pectoral crosses were required regular attire of all priests after one day when Peter the Great was leading his entourage in public and was refused a blessing he requested from a deacon he took to be a priest. “Had the Tsar encountered a bold and courageous deacon like the staurophorai of Byzantium,” Fr. David writes, “he might well have awarded the pectoral cross to the order of deacons for their legitimate responsiveness to the needs of the faithful.”
Though we currently find no mention of such legend, we do find that historically it is known that Tsar Peter I merely made pectoral crosses worn if so awarded to distinguished priests, while it was much later made official tradition by decree of Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II on May 14, 1896, that all priests of the Russian Church would be awarded the pectoral cross by one’s bishop on the day of one’s ordination.
Nevertheles (and obedience and respect notwithstanding) Fr. David uses this legend to make what he admits a bold claim, and turns immediately to Canon 39 of the Holy Apostles. He announces his method of application to his claim to consist of “deductive logic.” Canon 39 reads:
“Let presbyters and deacons do nothing without the consent of the bishop. For he is the one who is entrusted with the Lord’s people, and it is from him that an accounting will be demanded with respect to their souls.”
From this he makes the claim that, like priests, deacons can also be recognized in this canon as delegates of the bishop. Specifically, that priests may only bless in absence of the bishop also theoretically indicates that a deacon may bless in the absence of a priest “if the bishop recognizes him as his delegate by canonical attachment and has enough confidence in his representative to provide consent to his actions.”
But beyond that, even, Fr. David asserts that in some cases it is understood that even without formal episcopal delegation to clergy, such as an Hegumina, may bless, which further he claims may indicate absence of a bishop altogether given some monasteries are stavropegial. I would advance here that even stavropegial monasteries within the jurisdiction of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Church Abroad a blessing is gotten for everything from the First Hierarch.
The same is true of the primate of the OCA, etc. Thus, I am not so sure about the point of circumventing the diocesan level of the episcopacy to grasp for some practical paradigm case of exemption from episcopal blessing.
Fr. David advances that deacons also by virtue of their receiving the mystery of their ordination “possess the requisite spiritual gift to bless,” but would just do it in a fitting manner concomitant with the bishop and priest doing so each in his own manner. However, he himself likens this manner to the way a layperson might bless his or her own family (making upon each person the sign of the cross just as one does upon oneself). And for this he cites the Catholic Epistle of St. Peter where all faithful are named a Royal Priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). (Nowhere are the exemplary, purifying capacity of the deacon as angelic minister who leads the faithful in the fullness of corporate prayer, blesses such sacrifice of all with the censer, bringing to them and lifting the prayers of and to God as he goes in and out of the altar, etc.).
Together these insights should be cause enough, he says, for deacons to go ahead and bless without hesitation (in the absence of a priest). Also grounding such a role, he says, is the requisite education and resulting intuitive knowledge of a greater magnitude “than most people about the sanctification of life, time, and space as Christ’s ambassadors.”
When at the Divine Liturgy deacons lift the Holy Gifts during the Anaphora at the Epiclesis, he says by way of qualification, such ambassadorship is indexed by such priestly offering up, including the requisite skill and labor of producing the bread and wine. We were created to be God’s focus inasmuch as we humans are given by God dominion over the earth.
Deacons in particular typically understand the moral insight available in the stories and parables of our Lord in the Gospel: to find and honor God in our neighbor. Furthermore, he writes, just as the orthodox deacon understands our Lord’s teaching about prayer and piety in Luke 11:11-12, that “[i]f a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? […],” so also would the diaconate have been awarded the right to wear the pectoral cross if it would have blessed Tsar Peter the Great that day, thereby overcoming the three greatest obstructions to taking up its true responsibility of ministry to the needs of the faithful: ignorance, fear, and inertia.
Fr. David proceeds to set out the scriptural and patristic record in order to address the problem he has advanced in the foregoing.
Acts 6: the diaconate as “expansion of the shepherding (i.e. leadership) role of the Apostles,” independent yet harmonious with the apostolic ministry.
“Deacon” comes from “diakonos” which means “minister” or “servant.” Deacon is used in Holy Scripture in the following ways:
Esther, 2:2 and 6:3: “Then said the king’s servants who ministered unto him….”
Matthew 20:28: “Even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
Ephesians 3:7: “Of this Gospel I was made minister according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me by the working of His power.”
Philippians 1:2: “[To] all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.”
1 Timothy 3:8-13: “Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for gain; they must hold to the mystery of faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then if they prove themselves blameless let them serve as deacons. […] Let deacons be husbands of one wife, and let them manage their children and their households well; for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.”
Acts of the Holy Apostles, Chapter 6, sets out in narrative the institution of the office of deacon (with the first ordinations to take place in Holy Scripture, of the first seven deacons, Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas, who were chosen by the people and ordained by the Apostles who charged them with overseeing the temporal administration and assets of the temple, and then to minister to the material needs of the widows and children.
First half of Acts 6 reflecting Numbers 1:47-54: diaconal spiritual ministry similar to that of the Levites of the Old Testament holding priestly ritual. Deacon as priestly concelebrants at the Eurcharistic table of the Lord and ministers of the Word of God.
Second half of Acts 6 and Acts 7: St. Archdeacon Stephen sermonizes well the scriptural economy of salvation:
Faith of Abraham
Sojourn of Israelites in Egypt
Moses leading Hebrews out of Egypt
Building Temple of Jerusalem
Coming of the Lord and Messiah
Accusing those listening of murdering the Lord
Vision of the Lord Jesus standing at the right hand of God (which we mention elsewhere along with patristic exegesis of such standing), resulting in his own and the first Christian martyrdom.
Acts 21:8: Deacon Philip known as “the Evangelist” and second ordained served the poor and widows, then preached in Samaria during the persecution in Jerusalem, working wonders such as exorcism and healings.
Acts 8:26: Deacon Philip was chosen by the Lord to enter Gaza, where he catechized and baptized a eunuch of Queen Candace of Ethiopia. Was then translated by an angel of God to Azotus, where he evangelized to and converted many to Christ. Later appointed bishop of Tralles in Lydia.
The Apostolic Constitutions (unless so-marked otherwise) indicate the following capacities of scope of diaconal service in the early Church (Fr. David likely does not know that The Apostolic Constitutions were rejected by the Quinisext Council (692) due to the “adulterous matter” added to them (Canon II, Eerdmans, 361)):
Stewards of Church assets (2, 27)
Guardians of Church order (2, 57)
Heralds and teachers of the Gospel (2, 57)
Preaching and baptizing with permission of the bishop (Didache 15.1, 2; Tertullian – “On Baptism” 17; Didascalia Apostolorum 16)
Assisting the bishop in celebrating the Divine Liturgy (8).
Distributing Holy Communion, especially to those who cannot attend the Divine Liturgy (St. Justin Martyr, “First Apology,” 65).
Seeking out the ailing and poor and reporting their needs to bishop and following his directives (3, 19, 31, 32).
Relieving bishop of laborious, less important functions with his blessing of their expanded jurisdiction (usually the Protodeacons and Archdeacons) – deputies of the episcopate.
Seeking out and reproving various offenders.
Direct access to and ability to act directly by authority of the bishop and execute his commands, unmediated by the priest. “When the deacon is ordained, this is the reason why the bishop alone shall lay his hands upon him. He is not ordained to the priesthood but to serve the bishop and to carry out the bishop’s commands. He does not take part in the council of the presbyters. He is to attend to his own duties and to make known to the bishop such things as are needful” (Apostolic Tradition, 9).
Impose with bishop’s blessing canonical penances upon minor clergy and laymen for small offenses, and bring great transgressions to the attention of the bishop (2, 44).
In absence of priest may excommunicate minor clergymen for just cause (8, 28, Canon 39 of Holy Apostles).
Be the “eyes, ears, mouth, and heart” and “soul and senses” of the bishop (2, 3, 19, 44).
Be both (deacon and bishop) one body, father and son, as the likeness of your Lordship (Didascalia Apostolorum 11).
Occasionally absolve penitents in cases of extraordinary necessity (St. Cyprian: “If a presbyter should not be found and death begins to be imminent, before even a deacon, be able to make confession of their sin, that with the imposition of hands upon them for repentance, they should come to the Lord with the peace which the martyrs have desired” (Epistle 12, 1).
Preside at the agape meal if bishop or presbyter were absent (Apostolic Tradition 26), and thusly, Fr. David marks this as sufficient precedent to justify conducting by bishop’s blessing Office of Typica or Obednitsa with distribution of the presanctified or reserved Holy Gifts.
To assist the priests and to serve in all aspects of the sacraments of Christ, Baptism, Chrismation, paten and chalice, bring oblation to the altar and arrange, set the table and drape it, carry the Cross, to proclaim Gospel and Epistle, carry out the office of prayers and recital of the names, give warning to attend to the Lord, exhort and announce peace. (St. Isidore of Seville, Epistle to Leudefredus, 7th Century)
Deacon as Divine institution essential to constitution of the Church; and as respected by all men “as Jesus Christ, even as they should respect the bishop as being a type of the Father and the presbyters as the council of God and as the college of Apostles (St. Ignatius of Antioch, To the Trallians 3:1). (One may even cite here, as Archbishop Dimitri himself does in his The Kingdom of God, the dialogue between the deacon and the priest which precedes the Liturgy: “Bless Master, it is time for the Lord to act.”) [Ye faithful], “give thy deacons the same reverence as ye wouldst a command of God (To the Smyrnaeans, 7), “[they are] ministers not of meat, but of the Church of God” (To the Trallians, 2:3).
Thus, Fr. David concludes, deacons were and therefore are “fully equipped to exercise their particular forms of apostleship by virtue of their ordination.”
Yet somehow St. John Chrysostom (Homily XIV) was of the opinion that the Seven were not truly ordained because there were not yet any bishops (meh, just APOSTLES!). Fr. Georges Florovsky seconded this claim, and its implication that deacons were only “intended for the dispensation of temporal goods through social service” or are “nothing more than liturgical assistants.”
But to this Fr. David replies, citing the foregoing Scriptural and Patristic Tradition, “the Apostles did not ordain the first deacons to serve them, but to help them serve the congregation, and were and thusly are to be understood “to be co-laborers in the same vineyard as the Apostles” (or bishops and priests). He consequently sets out the aforementioned dialogue between priest and deacon after the Great Entrance to which this conciliar shepherding refers, from the Sluzhebnik:
The Priest, having set aside the censer and bowed his head, saith to the Deacon: Pray for me, my brother and concelebrant.
Deacon: May the Holy Spirit come upon thee and the power of the Most High overshadow thee.
Priest: May the same Spirit act within us all the days of our life.
Then the Deacon, having himself bowed his head, and holding the orarion with three fingers of his right hand, saith to the Priest: Remember me, holy master.
Priest: May the Lord God remember thee in His kingdom, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.
This humbling of oneself by the main celebrant before the deacon and commensurate serving with the Holy Spirit of both ranks forms, Fr. David says, an ideal example of the image of synergistic humility in being led by the Holy Spirit in the ministry to serve others, both liturgically and otherwise. Thus, we do good to contemplate the essence and basis of what it is to be a deacon, or diaconia, by which Fr. David refers to “nothing less than Christ’s diaconia,” as pondered upon by the Holy, preeminent Apostle Paul in his Epistle Philippians 2:1-11:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this in mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the Cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to glory of God the Father.”
Thusly concluded is the non-project portion of the text—the rest Fr. David spends surveying various conferences on their views and responses to his hope to revive the full tradition of the diaconate. He also mentions in closing that he would refrain from pushing for his own expanded responsibilities into any of these capacities himself, but would continue to serve as he has all along, waiting on the will of God and the hope that this work bears fruit.
Fr. David completed this work in 2006 for his Doctor of Ministry program, but served as a deacon from 2001 until his repose in 2015, two years after losing his wife to cancer.
By way of my own reflection on this quite instructive work I am struck by how starkly different my own experience and approach to the diaconate has been directed in the Church Abroad.
For us, it is among the highest honors to be unpaid and, like the Apostle, all the more free from the absolutely perverting “love of money” so required by those blindly floating along with society’s often torrential current. Even more so to give any extra to the Holy Church.
At the same time, it is a wonder in itself that we have been attending or invited to attend the seasonal clergy conferences and retreats from even when we were readers and subdeacons, with travel and lodging paid by the parish. And upon unworthy elevation to the sacred and advanced ranks of clergy we also have become ex-officio, voting members of the parish council.
I will admit I find the work to be quite romantic if not somewhat utopian, and overall perhaps overly ambitious yet wonderfully educating. Perhaps my sentiment owes its dissonance with the general spirit of the foregoing to the fact that I have not found my hierarchs and presbyters, not to mention my brother deacons, to be at all lacking of the awareness of the full nature of the office as it was executed throughout the history of the Church.
Those who have had a hand in my direction seem to have maintained a prevailing awareness of the organic nature of the ecclesial institution and its local traditions throughout history despite its unwavering commitment to the preservation of its precise and ancient Tradition, for which it is renowned (and indeed often lamented).
And while one can probably find the common issue of folks among the faithful in any parish who suffer from fandom of the priest over and against authentic faith in the heart, one would certainly expect to be quite hard-pressed to find a deacon or diaconal candidate in the Synod Abroad who would possess or give reign to the reflex that the drastically different nature of the diaconal office as practiced today renders it apropos to render the contemporary hierarchy blameworthy or ignorant, let alone lazy on any count. For all is the will of God, and we should only and foremost find only blame in ourselves.
It is an unfathomable honor to serve under the magisterial proxy of the bishop, the priest, and to do all one can to bring nothing but the utmost respect to the office, an office rendered by God as “higher than the angels,” in its unique powers to bind and loose, not to mention to prepare and consecrate the Holy Gifts.
Also, one might attend to the absolutely sufficient and soteriological nature of the Divine Services. Perhaps the Lord has willed His rational sheep through the ages, in countless saints known and unknown, to achieve a piety and thus a life of sanctity based in such mysteries alone, thereby alleviating the need for outward diaconal ministry, etc.
In the Russian Church, perhaps minus the American elements rampant and perhaps endemic to Fr. David’s milieu, there is absolutely sufficient ministry in the ceaseless focus of diakonia as I have been introduced and directed therein: beauty.
Thus, to me, a more worthy project would maybe be taking up the trajectory of the organic shift of God’s will for the Holy Diaconate to its unwavering preservation of the angelic and beyond in the consistent achievement of an unearthly beauty in the Divine Services, the mystery of which resides on Traditional execution of all things in good order such that hearts are softened and cannot resist the Truth of the unimaginable and kenotic (self-emptying) Love of God embracing all by the Heavenly King, Comforter, [Holy Spirit], everywhere present and filling all things bestowing Grace upon those in the Heavenly Sheepfold of the Holy Orthodox Church.
+Synaxis of the Twelve Glorious and All-Praised Apostles: Peter and Andrew, James and John, Phillip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James the son of Alpheus, Jude [Thaddeus], Simon Zealotes, and Matthias
New Martyr Michael of Athens
Venerable Peter, Crown Prince of the Horde
Murder of the Right-believing Prince Andrew of Bogoliubovo
Glorification of Saint Sophronius, Bishop of Irkutsk and All Siberia (1918)
Execution of New Martyr Alexander Schmorell of Munich (1943)