John Hunwicke on the ancient understanding of the diaconate

In 1990, John N. Collins published his Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources (OUP). You can probably fiddle around with Google and discover that its conclusions, more than two decades later, have not been disturbed.

Collins began by identifying a particular understanding of diakonia which became fashionable in Protestant circles in the middle of the twentieth century – and then infected the Latin Church, too. It saw diakonia as meaning self-giving service to the poor and needy. Based on a misreading of Acts 6, it appealed to Christians at a time when ecclesial structures were losing power and prestige. ‘OK,’ it cheerfully claimed, ‘if you’ve lost your power and status you can still surreptitiously claw it back by asserting the moral high ground of humble service.’ Collins demonstrated, from examination of profane and sacred Greek usage, that diakonia and its cognates have a quite different root sense: that of one person’s commissioned service to another person.

The essence of the concept is not the following of Christ who came ‘to serve rather than to be served.’ The deacon’s basic purpose is not to be washing the feet of the lowest of the low (just as the nature of the Church is not, as we have so frequently been told, to be the ‘Servant Church’). Such things may be worthy in themselves; and may, indeed, be the charism of particular holy people. But they are not what diakonia is fundamentally all about.

What is it about? In its essence it is about serving – and being commissioned to serve – the Bishop, the Eucharistic celebrant; about serving him in the administration of the Lord’s Body and Blood; and serving him in the proclamation of the Holy Gospel. It is not a philanthropic service but a cultic, liturgical service. In as far as deacons’ duties may extend in the direction of philanthropy, it is instructive to observe the role they have in Pseudo-Hippolytus: the deacons are to attend the Bishop and report to him anyone who is sick so that he, if it seem good to him, may visit them. Their ministry is to the Bishop, not to the needy. This role survives almost verbatim in the classical Anglican Ordinal: the deacons are ‘to search for the sick, poor, and impotent […] to intimate their estates, names […] unto the Curate.’

If you look at the ancient liturgical formulæ of the Western Church, you will find that there is very little – if anything – about Acts 6 and St Stephen, or ministering at tables, or making sure that poor widows had enough to eat. Instead, you find an emphasis on cult: on Christian worship. The Roman Prayer for the Ordination of Deacons (still in use but bowdlerised, as I shall explain, after the Council) says ‘You established a threefold ministry of worship and service for the glory of your name. As ministers of your tabernacle you chose [from the first] the sons of Levi [to abide in faithful watch at the mystical workings of your house] and gave them your blessing as their everlasting inheritance. Lord, look [also] with favour upon these servants of yours whom we now dedicate to the office of deacon to minister at your holy altar …’ (The current ICEL translation, with square brackets denoting phrases eliminated from the modern rites).

The deacons, in effect, are the Christian Levites. They have a commissioned ministry to serve the High Priest – the Bishop – just as Jewish levitical ministers served the Temple’s sacrificial priesthood. At this point, sadly, I have to remind you that the ancient Roman Prayer for the Consecration of Bishops was completely abolished in the post-conciliar reforms. Before it was written out of the Pontifical by well meaning but dangerous men, it associated the bishop with the Aaronic high priest adorned with his sacerdotal vestments.

It is not difficult to see why the ‘reformers’ of the 1960s were uneasy with a concept of ministry which saw it in terms of the cult – of the hierarchy – of the Jewish Temple. These were not the fashions of the 1960s; such was not then the dominant mode of discourse about Christian ministry. Unfortunately for such an attitude, however, the evidence strongly suggests that the language of the (unreformed) Pontifical – far from being formed by later structures of ministerial status and an unhealthy preoccupation with an increasingly clericalised cultus – represents the very earliest thinking of the Roman Church.

The model of ministry which, aided by Collins, I have drawn from the Gregorian Sacramentary – and which survived unspoiled until Vatican II – is uncannily similar to what we find in one of the earliest writings associated with the Magisterium of the Roman Church: the First Epistle of Clement. ‘To the High Priest his proper liturgiai are given, and to the priests (hiereusin) their own place is given in due order, and on the Levites their own diakoniai have been imposed.’ As Collins points out, the language in this passage ‘continues to refer exclusively to cult […] so that “the office of bishop” (episkope) which is under dispute is referring to the central function within Christian cult.’

1 Clement, and the Gregorian Sacramentary, see the Christian ministry in terms of the Old Testament Hebrew priesthood. The Bishop is the High Priest; the Deacons are the Levites. I know no trace in these early writings of the notion that diakonia is to be read in terms of ideas drawn from Acts 6 about service to poor widows; no references, even, to St Stephen. Such allusions, such illustrations of the meaning of the diaconate drawn from the text of Acts, are historically secondary, or even tertiary. I here recall two observations of Dom Gregory Dix. The first is his insight that it was only in the third century that one starts to find Scripture, recently ‘canonised,’ being used to support theological assertions; that previously the Tradition could be – and was – asserted without scriptural proof-texts (thus Trinitarian teaching did not draw support from Matt 28.19, nor did Roman bishops trumpet Matt 16.18-19 whenever they exercised authority). He writes: ‘Unless we recognise the important change produced in Christian theological method by the definite canonisation of the New Testament Scriptures, which only begins to have its full effect after c. AD 180, we shall not understand the second-century Church […] hitherto the authoritative basis of Christian teaching had been simply “Tradition”, the living expression of the Christian revelation by the magisterium of the bishops, whose norm and standard of reference was the Tradition of Rome.’

The second is Dix’s awed confession of the antiquity of the Roman Rite: ‘The evidence of the scientific study of liturgy inclines more and more to show that the old Roman Sacramentaries have preserved into modern use an incomparably larger body of genuinely primitive – and by this I mean not merely pre-Nicene but second and even first century – Christian liturgical material (if only we know how to look for it) than any other extant liturgical documents.’

It is one of the ironies of history that it was an Anglican scholar who perceived these things a single generation before the sacramental formulæ of the Roman Rite fell into the hands of disrespectful innovators. Other classical Anglican liturgists who, unlike Dix, survived to witness the conciliar period – Geoffrey Willis and Edward Ratcliff, for example – left on record opinions about what was done in that decade in which uncomprehending disgust is the most noticeable feature.

What I am saying is this: the understanding of Christian ministry, including the diaconate, as fundamentally and essentially cultic – embodied in the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice – which we find in the ancient Ordination prayers of the Roman Church, goes back to before the New Testament Scriptures were universally known and appropriated as normative. It is as early as that. The Reformation has left most Westerners – Catholic as well as Protestant –with a sub-conscious assumption that ‘going back to the New Testament’ somehow implies going back to the earliest sources. Au contraire. There was a time when the incorporation into worship, teaching, and doctrine of elements or ideas borrowed from the New Testament was novel, revolutionary, and innovatory. (We might usefully remember that the authority of Acts was – judging from the surviving evidence – not successful in generating the invention of the feast of the Ascension forty days after Easter until the second half of the fourth century.) The old Roman Ordination prayers are so archaic (if not in their actual texts, then in their conceptual matrix) as to go back to that period in the first and second centuries. Later writers (Irenaeus, Cyprian, Eusebius) do speculate upon a link between the Seven in Acts 6 and the diaconate; but the Roman texts obviously antecede this Scripture-generated speculation.

The pre-Conciliar Roman Pontifical preserved the ‘Levitical’ and cultic understanding of the diaconate, and knew nothing of the ‘service-to-the-poor’ diakonia which the twentieth century was to find so appealing. It showed no interest in the philanthropic concept of diakonia. There are mentions of St Stephen in the historically secondary parts of the rite; but it should not be thought that even the entrance of St Stephen into the Tradition, when it eventually occurs, automatically brought ‘philanthropy’ with it. The long medieval address Provehendi has, towards its end, a brief mention of St Stephen; but it is for his chastity, not his philanthropy, that his example is commended to the ordinands. While the ancient Gregorian Consecratory Prayer mentions him not at all, the final prayer Domine sancta (an addition of Gallican origin) does allude to St Stephen and the Seven in passing; but it is still principally concerned with the deacon as a man who serves at the sacred altars. This is hardly surprising. The text of Acts itself, after the debatable material in Chapter 6, gives no evidence whatsoever for a reading of Ss Stephen and Philip as having a ‘concern’ for the needy.

It may be a satisfaction to readers of New Directions to recall that the Prayer Book Ordinal here, as in many areas, is in the pre-conciliar and ancient tradition of the Roman Rite: it expands the old Sarum Oportet formula as follows: ‘It appertaineth to the office of a deacon, in the church where he shall be appointed to serve, to assist the Priest in Divine Service, and specially when he ministereth the Holy Communion.’

To be continued next month.

Fr John Hunwicke was formerly Senior Research Fellow of Pusey House, and is now a member of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. This is an edited version of material that originally appeared on his blog, Fr Hunwicke’s Mutual Enrichment. We are grateful for his permission to reproduce it here.