Wednesday, 16 September 2015

"Inferior Office?" by Francis Young

The Church of England has no theology of the diaconate. It has never been agreed exactly what liturgical functions a deacon is entitled to perform, and it is even more unclear what he - or she - is supposed to get up to outside church. This book is an attempt to fill in this theological and pastoral gap. It was written by Francis Young, an historian and writer with an established interest in anomalous and marginal religious phenomena.

The received account of the diaconate in the Church of England is that it has been a kind of ecclesiological appendix, a relic or survival which the church somehow never got around to disposing of. Ordination to the diaconate was generally (it is said) a purely formal step taken by ordinands a few days before being ordained to the priesthood. Dr Young argues that this received narrative is a distortion. In fact, there have been repeated waves of interest and debate around the diaconate over the centuries, particularly in the 19th century. In some ways, the surprising thing is that efforts to revive it have so consistently failed to come to fruition.

The term diakonos means "servant" in ancient Greek. Diakonoi are mentioned in the New Testament, but it is unclear how far being a "servant" constituted a specific ministerial role in the early church. By the Middle Ages, the diaconate had evolved into a recognised but largely undistinguished branch of the clergy. Although nominally a "major order", like the orders of priest and bishop, it tended not to have much independent value or distinctiveness. It was a relatively low rung in the clerical hierarchy.

In the wake of the Reformation, there was an uptick of interest in the role of deacons in the new national church. Some suggested that deacons had a special ministry to the poor, and this idea duly found its way into Cranmer's new liturgy. Yet the church failed to grasp the opportunities that the new situation presented for refashioning the diaconal order. The doyen of Anglican ecclesiology, Richard Hooker, was not keen on the ministry-to-the-poor idea. Some of the more radical reformers thought that the whole notion of diaconal ministry sounded a bit too popish. This was the heyday of the stereotypical model of the diaconate, a mixture of formality and anomaly. The diaconate in early Anglicanism really was a nominal transitional phase on the way to the priesthood. Anglican candidates for the ministry were (and are) supposed to be ordained as deacons and to remain in that order for a year before advancing to the priesthood; but this period was often attenuated to a few days or even hours. The one year minimum was not fully enforced until as late as the 1630s. Between the Reformation and the Civil War, the number of lifelong deacons was a small fraction of the number of priests; and the men in question seem to have been concentrated in poor, remote areas.

By the 18th century, by contrast, it was not unusual for men to remain as deacons indefinitely. In some cases, this was because they could not or did not need to progress their clerical career to priestly ordination. In other cases, their diaconal vocation was combined with pursuing a separate, secular occupation, often in teaching. Little theological reflection accompanied any of this. Bishops simply seem to have seen the diaconate as a way to incorporate into the manpower of the church men who were not candidates for the priesthood. The number of lifelong deacons was still small - less than 10% of clergy - but it was not as tiny as scholars have tended to assume. Lifelong deacons were also supplemented by a significant number of men who were ordained deacons and then spent an extended period in that order before becoming priests.

The biggest revival of interest in the diaconate came in the Victorian period. This revival can be dated from the 1840s, and it had supporters across the disparate factions of the church, with the notable exception of the Evangelical party. Industrialisation and urbanisation created an increasing demand for clergy, and the legendary headmaster Thomas Arnold initiated a campaign to revive the diaconate as a part-time job alongside the full-time ministry of parish priests. It was argued that this reform would broaden the clergy beyond the ranks of the wealthy and conventionally educated; appeal to middle-class worshippers who would otherwise be attracted to Dissenting congregations; and bind the laity closer to the priesthood by promoting an order which stood between them. Others campaigned for a new cadre of deacon-schoolmasters, who had become a rare breed by this time; and others again tried to revive the idea of deacons as helpers of the poor.

When Convocation debated the future of the diaconate in 1862, the results were disappointing; the debates were infected by worldly concerns about pay and status. There were also formidable legal obstacles to the project of refashioning the order. Clerics were barred from secular employment by an Act of 1838, which made it difficult to institute part-time deacons; and deacon-schoolmasters were confined to élite public schools by the 1847 Education Act, which prohibited schools run by clerics from receiving public money. From 1862, women were permitted to be ordained as deaconesses - but the wave of interest in the diaconate began to subside. The ecclesiastical debates of the 1860s and 70s began to move in other directions, although Convocation continued to pass motions on the subject until as late as 1887. Attention came to focus instead on evolving forms of lay ministry and proposals to revive the mediaeval order of subdeacons, which stood between deacons and laypeople.

In the 20th century, there was some interest in the diaconate during the interwar period, and the ill-fated 1928 Prayer Book seemed to envisage a greater role for deacons. Again, however, the reform project was eclipsed - this time, by debates on new forms of priestly ministry. Part of the reason for this lay in the rise of Holy Communion as the default form of parish worship. This marginalised the figure of the deacon, since the one thing that everyone agreed on was that deacons couldn't celebrate the Eucharist.

After World War II came the by now customary flickers of interest in the wake of the 1958 Lambeth Conference and the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. These came to nothing. In 1974, a report for General Synod went so far as to recommend the abolition of the diaconate altogether.

The story took a rather odd turn in the 1980s, in the dying days of the all-male priesthood. The diaconate became a kind of holding cell for an increasing number of women whose true vocation was as priests. As we have seen, deaconesses had existed since Victorian times, but they had a rather fuzzy theological status. In 1985, General Synod formally voted to invite women (and, as something of an afterthought, men) to be ordained as full sacramental deacons. By 1991, there were apparently 1,200 "permanent" deacons in the Church of England, 97.5% of them female. The church scrambled to put together a retrofitted theology of the diaconate. This was not necessarily an easy task, given that the order had historical associations with humble service, yet most of the new deacons were planning to go on to positions of priestly leadership as soon as canon law could be amended to allow for women priests. Women eventually began to be ordained as priests in 1994, and by 1998 there were only 155 permanent deacons left (41 of them male).

Today, the diaconate is an unfashionable cause in the C of E. There are only around 100 permanent deacons in the country, and they are largely concentrated in a handful of southern dioceses. Most churchgoers have never met one. This contrasts with the situation in, say, the Episcopal Church in the USA, in which permanent deacons are commonplace. Anglican candidates for the priesthood tend to spend their transitional year as deacons functioning as trainee priests rather than pursuing any distinctive diaconal form of ministry. There is only one book about the diaconate by an Anglican theologian currently in print (other than official reports): Rosalind Brown's Being a Deacon Today (2004). General Synod has been lukewarm at best on the subject in recent years.

The history of the Anglican diaconate, then, is a history of missed opportunities. The diaconate is such a structural oddity that its very existence is bound to throw up proposals for revival every so often. The question is whether more will come of such proposals in the future than has been the case in the past. Intriguingly, Dr Young ends his book with outline cases both for and against reviving a distinctive form of diaconal ministry - a suitably ambivalent note on which to conclude his study.