Ben Bradshaw considers the diaconate


For nearly 2000 years theologians have been defining the ministry of deacons, specifically trying to describe the unique differences between the role of a deacon and that of a priest. This has been a great gift to the church as it has enabled the ministry of deacons to be developed and to flourish into a number of different areas: deacon as humble servant, deacon as missionary to the poor and marginalised, deacon proclaiming the Gospel, deacon as bridge-builder, deacon as bishop’s assistant. Yet despite being blessed with a variety of traditions and studies on the diaconate, large parts of the Church of England continue to struggle to fully understand or embrace the ministry of deacons.

In his ground-breaking book Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources (2009), John Collins suggests that in the early church a deacon was not simply seen as a humble servant, but rather as a ‘commissioned agent’ ready to perform a duty on behalf of the bishop. To begin with the church commissioned deacons to serve as the bishop’s assistants and administrators. Deacons made up his staff team, as opposed to priests who would represent the bishop in churches with delegated episcopal authority; deacons worked for the bishop, priests represented him.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch, writing to the Magnesians less than 70 years after Christ’s death, provides evidence and a helpful insight into the different relationships: ‘take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ.’

The bishop, as the head of a diocese, takes the central role in the leadership and mission of the church. To support the bishop in this vast ministry he ordains priests to represent him to congregations and to share in the cure of souls. Deacons have a different relationship to the bishop as they do not represent him and they do not share in the cure of souls. Rather, a deacon works for the bishop and this important difference can be evidenced most clearly in two ways. The first indication is found at a diaconal ordination, specifically in the fact that the bishop ordains deacons alone, unlike at the ordination of priests when clergy colleagues assist. This important difference symbolises the personal relationship that a deacon shares with a bishop. The second indication is in the title of the senior clergymen that the bishop appoints to support him in his mission and oversight of the diocese; these senior clergy are of course called archdeacons.

From the earliest days of the church it was the deacons who supported bishops in the work and administration of the church. Priests would be with their congregations and it was left to the deacons to serve and assist the bishop. Indeed, it was only in 1662 that canon law was changed to stipulate that all archdeacons must be priests.

It is regrettable that many in the Church of England have forgotten the historical relationship between a deacon and a bishop. I am grateful that I am able to serve my diaconal ministry in my work as the chaplain to the Bishop of Sodor and Man. It is, however, a great shame that I am currently the only deacon serving as chaplain to a diocesan bishop. How wonderful and appropriate it would be if more bishops were to appoint deacons to serve as their chaplains. Such a move would breathe new life into the diaconate and would bring the church back into line with the traditional understanding and deployment of deacons. The only way that more deacons would be able to serve as bishop’s chaplains is if there was a change in the selection process. Unfortunately the majority of bishops continue to stipulate that candidates applying for a post of bishop’s chaplain must be priests, but why?

My ministry as chaplain to a bishop is one of service and support. As chaplain, I support and assist the bishop to carry out his important ministry throughout the diocese. Deacons, like bishop’s chaplains, need to be content to work behind the scenes, facilitating the public ministry of the bishop in a quiet and unobtrusive way. A bishop’s chaplain does not just offer administrative support, although that is of course an important part of the job; chaplains also offer spiritual support by praying the Daily Office with their bishop. Chaplains also provide liturgical support for bishops, not just at major occasions but also on a week-by-week basis when the bishop visits different churches to celebrate the Mass. As a deacon and a bishop’s chaplain, I quite appropriately assist the bishop every Sunday by fulfilling my liturgical diaconal duties.

Every aspect of my work as a bishop’s chaplain is diaconal in its nature, which makes it all the more surprising and a little disappointing that the majority of bishops fail to consider appointing a deacon to serve as their chaplain. Of course, those who are ordained as priests forever remain deacons and can without question fulfil the role of a bishop’s chaplain. I would, however, suggest that it is challenging to live out and fulfil a priestly ministry when serving as a bishop’s chaplain. The distinctly priestly responsibilities are not required; there is no cure of souls, no flock of which to be shepherd, and no congregation to administer the sacraments.

So far I have focussed on just one specific area of diaconal ministry, that of the deacon serving the bishop. There are of course many other distinctly diaconal ministries that have developed and evolved throughout the life of the church. These can be summarized as the diaconal commission to work as missionaries in the world, to proclaim the Gospel to those outside the life of the church, reaching out to the poor and marginalized, and bridging the gap between the church and the world. The deacon can provide such a ministry as their very orders free them from many of the responsibilities that are required of priests.

It would be brilliant if the church could offer a renewed vision that included supporting and discerning more vocations to the diaconate. I suggest that for this to happen a number of changes are required. For a start, bishops, dioceses and parishes need to be much more open to the idea of appointing deacons to appropriate stipendiary positions.

It is not just in the appointment of bishops’ chaplains that deacons are normally overlooked, but also in numerous other stipendiary roles. For example, advertisements for diocesan director of ordinands often stipulate that any potential candidate must be a priest, yet a deacon could equally serve in that role. The work of seeking out, developing and supporting candidates for various forms of ministry falls within the boundaries of diaconal ministry. Such an appointment would also fit well with the tradition of deacons serving on bishop’s staff teams.

A recent edition of the Church Times listed three vacancies for residentiary canons, but sadly none were open to deacons. This is despite the fact that Canon C21 clearly states that deacons can be appointed as residentiary canons once they have been ordained for six years. One could argue that every cathedral should have a resident deacon to enable the important and distinctively diaconal ministry to flourish in the life, work and mission of a cathedral. Perhaps the strict requirement for a priest is about easing the pressures on the Mass rota? However, by automatically excluding deacons we risk failing to seriously acknowledge and appreciate the threefold order of ministry that we have been entrusted with.

The most regrettable exclusion of deacons in the recent history of the church has been in the modern-day development of new pioneer ministries. The majority of stipendiary positions are only open to priests, yet the job description nearly always describes the work that the church has historically commissioned deacons to do. Deacons are the original pioneer ministers! Deacons from the earliest times have been tasked with reaching out to those members of society with whom the church has struggled to connect, becoming a bridge between the church and community. Deacons have the freedom to engage with those on the margins of the world as they are released from the demanding requirements of leading a parish; they are set loose to proclaim the Gospel in new places to new people.

If we are to attract younger candidates into a renewed distinctive diaconate then the church needs to welcome them into its life and mission. It is an unfortunate reality that the vast majority of deacons are forced to find a fulfilment of their ministry through secular employment as chaplains in schools, prisons or hospitals. How have we reached a position where the NHS is more supportive of diaconal ministry than the Church of Christ? A lack of opportunities to minister and serve the church undoubtedly steers candidates towards ordination to the priesthood when perhaps their gifts and talents would be better served as deacons; such a consideration is rarely explored.

One way in which all Christians can help to encourage and establish a new and younger generation of distinctive deacons is for us to concentrate our conversations around the ministry that a deacon can do, rather than defining diaconal ministry by what they cannot do. We must also make sure that we do not copy the mistake that Thomas Cranmer made, by labelling the diaconate as an ‘inferior office.’ Priests do not hold a superior vocation to deacons; all vocations, whilst different, are always equal, whether lay or ordained. The church, however, must not use any renewed diaconate as a way to save money by reducing the level of training a deacon needs compared to a priest; deacons, just like priests, are ordained into holy orders and should be formed and training accordingly. We can also help to shape the future of the diaconate by refining the language that we use. It is unfortunate that there is pressure to put a word in front of ‘deacon’ to define the ministry. There is and can only ever be one diaconate; it makes absolutely no difference if a deacon hopes to be ordained into the priesthood or not.

Whilst there remains a demand to differentiate between those deacons who hope to be ordained priest and those who do not, I would suggest that the best phrase to use is ‘distinctive deacon’. Previously the church has used ‘permanent deacon’ which is unhelpful, not simply because only God can know what is permanent, but also because every priest remains a permanent deacon! The worst phrase that we can use for a potential priest ordained into diaconal orders is ‘transitional deacon’ which by its very implication reduces the diaconate to little more than a priestly apprenticeship.

In conclusion, for the church to foster an environment that would enable a renewed diaconate it first needs to open up more stipendiary positions to deacons. To do so would be to follow the structures and teaching of the early church. As Christians we can also play our part by speaking positively of diaconal ministry and focusing on the many distinctive gifts that deacons can offer. Most importantly we can pray for an increase in vocations to the diaconate, and pray also that the Church of Christ will fully embrace the three-fold historic ministry that has been passed on from the apostles: deacons, priests and bishops.


The Reverend Ben Bradshaw is a deacon

and chaplain to the Bishop of Sodor and Man