The Deacon is the third and lowest degree of the major orders of clergy in the Orthodox Church, following the bishop and the presbyter. The word deacon (in Greek διάκονος) means server and originally it referred to a person who waited on tables.
In the Orthodox Church, the diaconate is not just a step to priesthood, many deacons have no intention of ever becoming priests. The diaconate itself is a permanent office, as a position for full or part time service to the work of the Church.
Originally deacons of the Church assisted the bishops in good deeds and works of charity. But at some time in recent centuries the diaconate became an almost exclusive liturgical function where the deacons only assist at the celebration of the Church services, helping in other areas like any other knowledgeable member of the laity.
Sacramentally, all deacons are equal. However, they are ranked and serve by seniority according to the date of their ordination. Just as with bishops and presbyters, there are distinctions of administrative rank among deacons. A senior deacon of a cathedral or principal church may be awarded the title protodeacon and claim precedence when serving with other deacons. The chief deacon who is attached to the person of a bishop is called an archdeacon. A deacon who is also a monastic is called a hierodeacon.
All higher clergy, priests and bishops, must first be ordained and serve as deacons. Because Christ came not to be served, but to serve, so, too, all those who receive the grace of the Holy Spirit to Holy Orders must, likewise, pass through their service as deacons.
A deacon’s ordination takes place after the consecration of the Holy Gifts during a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy, by virtue of the fact that he does not participate in the consecration himself. After being led around the altar thrice, he kneels on one knee at the altar to await the laying on of hands. His first liturgical act is the final Litany of Thanksgiving before the dismissal of this Liturgy.
The vestments of the deacon are the sticharion, the orarion, and the epimanikia.
All degrees of clergy wear the sticharion. The sticharion is a long-sleeved tunic that reaches all the way to the ground. It reminds the wearer that the grace of the Holy Spirit covers him as with a garment of salvation and joy. For deacons, the sticharion has wide sleeves and is made of a heavier fabric than that of the priest and bishop, who wear their sticharia under other vestments.
The distinctive vestment of the deacon is the orarion. The orarion is a narrow band of material that the deacon wears wrapped around his body and draped over his left shoulder. It represents the grace of the Holy Spirit that in ordination anoints the deacon like oil. It is the principal vestment of the deacon and without it he cannot serve.
When the deacon leads the people in prayers or invites them to attention he holds one end of his orarion in his right hand and raises it.
Subdeacons also wear the orarion, but wrapped around them and across their back, not over their shoulder. The priest’s epitrachelion and the bishop’s omophorion are specialized types of the orarion.
The final parts of a deacon’s vestments are the epimanika. The epimanikia are cuffs that are worn around the wrists, tied by a long cord. These are also worn by the bishop and priest. They serve the practical purpose of keeping the inner garments out of the way during the services. They also remind the wearer that he serves not by his own strength but with the help of God. Only those in major orders wear the epimanika.
The deacon ministers to the priest and bishop in the divine services. This includes:
- Preaching the Gospel of Christ (with the blessing of the presiding priest or bishop)
- Assisting in the celebration of the all of the Holy Mysteries of the Church
- Leading the people in the collective prayers (with the blessing of the presiding priest or bishop)
- Reading from the Scriptures during the divine services (with the blessing of the presiding priest or bishop)
- Keeping the decorum of the public worship, including calling people to attention at appropriate times
- Any tasks of the subdeacon or reader
- Administrating the charitable and/or educational work of the Diocese, Deanery/Vicariate or Parish
- Other tasks related to Church life, with the blessing and direction of his priest or bishop.
In some jurisdictions, a deacon may be blessed by his bishop and parish priest to distribute the Eucharist to the faithful, either from a second chalice at a regular liturgy where a priest is serving or in connection with a typika service that is celebrated when the priest is absent.
What a deacon does may depend on jurisdiction – some consider the diaconate as a short interval before the priesthood – but, where permanency or longevity in the diaconate is prized, deacons will often head educational programs and youth groups, perform hospital visitation, missionary work, and conduct social welfare projects.
Deacons wear a cassock; this is done as a sign of his suppression of his own will and desires, and his canonical obedience to God, his bishop and the liturgical and canonical norms of the Church. Deacons are also permitted to wear the exoraso (or riassa). In jurisdictions that utilize clergy shirts, deacons generally wear a clergy shirt with collar.
During services, the deacon is usually vested in a sticharion with an orarion that hangs over the left shoulder; with the exception of around the consecration of Communion, when the deacon will, for practicality, arrange his sticharion like a subdeacon.
In addition, to complete his duties, the deacon is permitted to touch the Table of Oblation, the Altar, and to move through the Royal Doors.
The place of a deacon is to serve the community and to lead prayers. He must have the blessing of the presiding priest or bishop to put on his vestments and serve. A deacon may not celebrate the sacraments by himself; he may not give blessings; he may not consecrate the Holy Gifts.