RELIGION : Confusing, Contradictory Roles of Deacons Explored
The word “deacon” conjures up a vast array of job descriptions within a rainbow of denominations in the United States, Canada, Australia and Switzerland today.
Whether such diversity will ever be synthesized into a common understanding of what deacons are and what they do remains to be seen, according to about 35 participants representing nine different traditions who met here this month under the auspices of the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches.
Even within individual churches, the role of the diaconate is often confusing and contradictory, participants said. In several traditions, for instance, the diaconate is both a stepping stone into the clergy, as well as something totally separate from it.
“The question is, ‘Do we clean up our houses first, then come together, or do we come together and clean up our houses afterward?’ ” said Josephine Borgeson, an Episcopal participant from Reno. “It’s real hard to come to the table (of unity) when none of us has cleaned up our houses (in this regard).”
“We met to continue to explore who we are, as well as how we can work together more effectively,” said Sister Ann Healey, director of the Permanent Deacon Formation Program for the Catholic Diocese of Ft. Worth.
The Rev. James Barnett, an Episcopal priest and author of “The Diaconate: A Full and Equal Order,” opened the conference with an overview of the diaconate in the various denominations, a theme that was woven deeply into the fabric of the entire conference.
The meeting was the second of its kind and was prompted by the landmark “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry” ecumenical document proposed by the World Council of Churches.
The document points out, “In many churches, there is today considerable uncertainty about the need, the rationale, the status and the functions of deacons.”
But it also says, “Today, there is a strong tendency in many churches to restore the diaconate as an ordained ministry, with its own dignity and means to be exercised for life.”
Various speakers illustrated the point that the diaconate is a biblical ministry being resurrected today by a variety of church bodies. In earlier centuries, the diaconate died out as a distinct level of ministry in many church groups, such as the Roman Catholic Church, as the role of priests and ministers expanded. Today, it is being revived as a response to the shortage of clergy and to the growing responsibilities of modern clergy, especially in urban areas, speakers said.
Participants also said the revival of the diaconate today is most noticeable in North America.
“Why is the diaconate so popular in North America but not in the Third World countries for which it was at first revived?” asked the Rev. Edwin Halenbeck, an Episcopal deacon from Rhode Island. He is also vice president of the North American Assn. for the Diaconate, an Episcopal-Anglican deacons’ organization in the United States and Canada.
Answering Halenbeck’s question, participants cited a number of cultural factors, such as educational levels and affluence, that make North Americans more receptive to the concept of the diaconate and make citizens of Third World countries less interested in the idea.