Deacons and the Servant Myth

A few of you may know that it my hope to one day be ordained as a Deacon in the Church of Melbourne. The limiting factor at the moment is that the Melbourne Archdiocese does not yet have permanent deacons, and there is a lot of ground work to be done before the order is properly restored.

One of the abiding disputes is in regard to the actual role of a deacon. While deacons were purely transitionary, not much attention was given to this. But when we look at having people who will spend their entire ministry in this order, we had better be certain what we are ordaining them into.

A paper by Anthony Gooley called “Deacons and the Servant Myth” (based largely on the work of Australian J.N. Collins) published in the Pastoral Review is very helpful in this regard. The task of Deacons will be much clearer and much more easily distinguished from that of the laity when it is realised that theirs is primarily a Ministry of the Word, and thus a liturgical, teaching and preaching ministry, rather than primarily a social justice or charitable ministry.

In essence he argues that a) the word “diakonia” is mistranslated in Acts 6 as “serving at tables”, b) Acts 6 has dubious connections with the sacramental order of the diaconate anyway. “The one essential reference point” for a proper understanding of the Office of Deacon, he says, “must be the recovery of the meaning of diakonia and diakonos fromthe Scriptures and the early documents of the Church.”

He concludes:

The creative possibilities for diaconal ministry are opened for the Church when we move away from restrictive notions of the deacon as being primarily defined by service as the minister of charity or social justice. Deacons are primarily those who proclaim the Gospel, in the name of their bishop, to the assembled community and those dispersed. Like the bishop, whom they serve, they have a diakonia to build up the community of faith and reach out to dispersed Christians and to those who have yet to hear the gospel. Restricting our understanding of deacons as principally servants of charity and justice not only reveals a disregard for the Scriptural witness but leads to sterile debates about the identity of deacons and closes our eyes to new possibilities for the new evangelisation to which deacons are called to contribute (Basic Norms and Directory, Joint Declaration). When we look to the Scriptures and the early tradition of the Church, we see those who are described as diakonos/deacons engaged in a vast array of activities. Only some of their activities would include what we call charity or justice. We need to let go of the servant myth in order to receive fruitfully the gift of the Spirit which is the ministry of deacons. (my emphasis)

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2 Responses to Deacons and the Servant Myth

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nice to hear that you have hopes of being a deacon in the fulness of time. I think that your being ordained to the Ministry of the Word, liturgical, teaching, and preaching, is something much to be desired, given your evident graced abilities. Curious how some parts of Vatican II (such as the restoration of the permanent diaconate) still haven’t been implemented in many parts of the Church – it’s always seemed odd to me that though the Church has 3 grades of the sacrament of orders, one of them has been more or less in abeyance for a long time in the West!

    In Christ,

    Josh Martin.

  2. Schütz says:

    There are good reasons why the Church in Melbourne has not yet taken this step–or at least, understandable reasons. For instance, when (now Cardinal) George was the Melbourne ordinary, his main concern was getting priestly vocations up again. Also, within a climate of some priests, laity and theologians pushing for married clergy, a permanent married diaconate might look like a bit of a compromise. And then again, waiting this long has given us the chance to take a good look at how the diaconate has been reinvented in other dioceses. I think it is a good thing that the issues raised in this article have come to light before we set the parameters for the permanent diaconate in Melbourne. You only get one go at a thing like this, and we have to get it right. We haven’t had permanent deacons for more than a thousand years, and so I guess 40 years is not too long to wait for this Vat II reform to be implements. (You can see I am trying to exercise the virtues of patience and forebearance!)

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