by Mike Chase
October 2, 2013
5 min read
As you may have seen on the website or on the Facebook, this coming Sunday Alastair and I will be ordained as transitional deacons in the church. The question you’re probably asking yourself (and let’s be honest, we’re asking too!), is “What’s a transitional deacon?” There are really two questions to be addressed within this one question. First, what’s a deacon? And second, what’s a transitional deacon? Although we could come at answering these questions from various angles, let’s start at the beginning.
In the early church some people began to complain that certain widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. The twelve apostles summoned all the disciples together and said, “‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve table. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.’ But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2-4). This is traditionally considered to be the first ordering of deacons in the church. The title deacon is derived from the Greek verb meaning “to serve.” The primary identity of a deacon, therefore, is as a servant in the church assisting those who responsible for the ministry of the word.
However, this is not an entirely full picture of the early church’s understanding of a deacon. Stephen is one of the seven men appointed to help with the daily distribution, but in the next section of Acts its states: “Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). This led to his being brought before the council, at which point Stephen makes his defense — an incredible speech not only summarizing the Old Testament story, but also subtly and skillfully proclaiming the gospel. We also see Philip, another of the original seven deacons, proclaiming the gospel in Samaria and even carrying the good news of life in Christ to the Ethiopian eunuch. Deacons, therefore, are not only concerned with works of service in the church, but also in carrying the apostolic message to those who have not yet heard it. One way of summarizing this might be to say that deacons are to be concerned with caring for the congregation as well as the wider community.
Thus one of the contributions of the diaconate is as a witness to the servanthood of the entire church. It is not only those ordained as deacons who are to be involved in works of service in the congregation and the wider community. All Christian, by means of their baptism and discipleship are called to radical service in the name of Christ. What makes the diaconate distinct, however, is that not only is it a public reminder of the servanthood all followers of Jesus are called to display, but deacons are called to lead all of us into that very service. The setting apart of deacons for works of service does not in any way confiscate ministry from the hands of the whole community and place it in the hands of more clergy. Rather, setting people apart as deacons should be a means of enabling the whole people of God to respond to the needs of those in our community for dignity, love and relationship.
Since we’ve now answered the question of what is a deacon, we must turn to the second of our questions: “What’s a transitional deacon?” A transitional deacon is different from a public deacon in that the former is on his way to being made a priest in the church, whereas the latter will remain a deacon permanently. What we need to be careful of is that we do not in any way demean the diaconate to merely a stepping stone on the way to becoming a priest. As we have already seen, the role of deacon is vital to the the church’s presence in the world as a reminder of the service we are all called to as disciples of Jesus. It is precisely for this reason that the diaconate constitutes the foundation of all ordained ministry. As someone said during our discernment process for ordination, “If you cut open a bishop you’ll find a priest, and if you cut open a priest you’ll find a deacon.” Bishops and priests can trace their own ministry to this humble servanthood, as can we all as Christians. Jesus himself said, “I am among you as one who serves,” and it is this attitude that ought to inform all our ministry and our being in the world.
Our ordination to the diaconate is in one sense a recognition of the role we already play within the community. However, it is also a time of further testing and discernment. It is a time to ensure that we understand the ground of all public ministry to be service. It is a time not only to care for those already within the St. Peter’s fold, but also a time to take the good news to those who have not yet heard it within our community. Most importantly however, it is a chance to be reminded of Jesus’ challenging words to James and John: “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:27-28).