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Lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons

The Prayer Book Catechism names these as “the ministers of the church.” You know about lay persons, bishops, and priests. But all of a sudden, a deacon has appeared at last Sunday’s 10 a.m. service. What is a deacon anyway?

First, I apologize for not announcing Deacon Pam Fairley earlier. To me, a parish always needs a deacon, for the role that he/she plays and the model that he/she represents in the Church. Deacons are appointed to a parish by the bishop, and the bishop had just approved her to serve at St. Barnabas, on a provisional basis until the new rector arrives.

Here is what the Catechism says about deacons (p. 856, BCP): “The ministry of a deacon is to represent Christ and his Church, particularly as a servant of those in need; and to assist bishops and priests in the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments.”

The diaconate is an ordained ministry. One can be a deacon on the way, so to speak, to the priesthood; that’s a provisional deacon. One must be a deacon before being ordained a priest. But there is, in a way, a diaconate more crucial to the church: one can be a permanent deacon, ordained with the express role to “represent Christ and his Church” to the world.

In other words, a deacon is a kind of bridge between the Church and the world, as the ministry is a kind of bridge between priests and lay persons. If priests have a tendency to live in an ivory tower, working exclusively within the church with the risk of being cut off from the needs of the world, deacons are precisely here to “interpret the Church to the world, and the world to the Church.” The deacon has a finger on the pulse of the community and thus keeps the church from veering too far away from responding to the needs of that community.

In church services, the liturgical duties reflect that definition. As interpreter of the world to the church and back, the deacon’s role in liturgy is to read the Gospel “in the midst of the congregation” as part of the people and Church hearing the Word of Christ; to oversee (and usually delegate) the Prayers of the People; to set the altar table and help administer the sacraments; and to dismiss the congregation at the end, sending members out into the world where they belong, to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,” as our Baptismal Covenant has us promise.

Because of the deacon’s role in “the world,” a deacon is expected to have a job outside the church and not within the church. Deacons may be your car salesman, your hairdresser, your hospital nurse, your teacher, your street sweeper. Beware! You never know when you might encounter an ordained person! Deacons work in the world. As a corollary, deacons are always non-stipendiary; that is, deacons are never a paid position in the church. To pay a deacon to work in the church would undercut the theology of the diaconate as one who knows the needs of the world by working within it.

Deacon Pam will be serving mostly at the 10 a.m. service most Sundays until the new rector comes. At that time, the new priest and the bishop will reconsider that role at St. Barnabas. Until then, I hope you get to know Pam and her spouse Forrest. They were members of St. Barnabas in the early days when the church met in a high school, until they moved to Texas. They have just moved back to Cincinnati and are looking forward to settling here. Forrest has joined the choir, providing a much appreciated new voice to the music program.

In the meantime, it’s fascinating to check out the Examination and Ordination of a Deacon in the Prayer Book (p. 543-545 BCP). When you read it, you might be amazed at what they promise to do, because it is the same as what we are asked to do in our baptismal ministry! Why are not all people deacons, who take their Baptismal Covenant seriously? Or to turn it around, why is anyone a deacon when they do what everybody should be doing?

Before I was ordained, I didn’t want to be a priest; I wanted to be a deacon and stay that way. I actually tried to postpone my ordination to the priesthood so that I could be a deacon for a longer time. What a joy it is to serve the Lord by serving “all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely!”


I would love to hear your reactions and thoughts! Please respond at and let’s have a conversation!

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