From a talk by Fr. Deacon Photios Touloumes
During the liturgy, the deacon stands in the midst of the faithful as master of ceremonies, directing them in the proper posture and movements of the service. Let us bow our head unto the Lord and (Lock) the doors, the doors are examples of this. It was part of the deacon’s service to see that each of the assembled faithful—penitents, kneelers, children, chanters, hearers, servers, widows, virgins and catechumens – performed their proper function and participated in the Liturgy according to that function. The deacons also led the people in prayer, standing in their midst, asking for the peace of the world, for the union of all and for whatever other petitions or needs the faithful requested. In our liturgy today, the litanies (ektenias) have become standardized but are still called the deacon’s litany/ektenia.
Originally, in addition to the standard petitions, the deacon also “composed” other petitions to express what the immediate, changing needs of the people were thereby bringing these needs to the Church for their help and prayers. Because he worked so closely with the faithful and dispensed the chairty of the church, he knew who was sick, who had died, who was travelling, who was out of work or whose crops had failed, and included these needs in his litany. In this way, by announcing the “daily news and needs” of the faithful during the litanies, the deacon informed the faithful who needed help and for whom prayers were needed.
One author describes the ministry of the deacon with these words:
The deacon leads the people in their responses to God which is as the precious oil which causes the lamps of the sanctuary to burn brightly in the House of the Lord. The deacon is as the hand of the people stretched out to receive the blessing, as their ear attentive to hear what God the Lord will say, and as ther mouth to answer with them, Amen.
The deacon is entirely responsible during the liturgy for the people’s actions and his function is to lead them by word and gesture, by prayer and petition to the altar in oneness of mind. His usual place, therefore, is in the midst of the faithful, to lead out those who are not to receive Holy Communion and then bar the doors so none else could enter who was not eligible to receive Holy Communion. The deacon also reads the Holy Gospel and, being responsible for instructing the catechumens in their perparation for baptism, he conducts them in and out of the church at the proper time.
Because of the deacon’s eucharistic service, his work among the people and his close realationship with the bishop (or priest)–from whom he derives his authority to act–he stands as a vital link between the clergy and laity. In the diaconate, the charismatic and institutional ministry of the Church is integrally allied to manifest the fullness of the Church.
Through this ministry, the idea of function is clearly expreseed as is the principle of hierarchy and the unity of clergy and laity as the royal priesthood of the Kingdom of God. It is the diaconate, moveover, which as ministry for the people of God expresses the incarnate charity and love of the Church; and by this charity reminds the Church of her eschatological dimension. The deacon’s function also brings together the social and economic activities of man in the Church so as to transform them and offer them to the glory of God.
Finally, the diaconate expresses both the spontaneity and fluidity of the Church’s forms as She reaches into the world, drawing from the never-ending riches of Her storehouse of tradition, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit provides the constantly renewing and personal forms necessary to fulfill Her ministry as the Body of Christ.
The entire scope of the deacon’s ministry, however, exists only because of his relationship to the bishop and as a servant to the community of believers. He is not a free agent. Rather his authority comes from the bishop and he may act only in the name of the head of the community, i.e. the bishop (or the priest). It is for this reason that the ordination of the deacon follows the Consecration of the Bread and Wine: to show that he does not have the full power of the priesthood and cannot therefore consecrate, bless, or act as an independent authority.
Since the time of the Apostles, it has been the tradition of the Church to have seven deacons in each church. It later became the practice to ordain as many deacons as were necessary to meet the needs of the people. At one time 120 deacons and 80 deaconesses were needed in the Church of the Holy Wisdom (St. Sophia) in Constantinople to fulfill the philanthropy, social work, teaching, and administratiive needs of that community. The function of the deaconesses included most of the philanthropic and educational responsibilities of the deacon, but none of the liturgical functions.
History provides many examples that illustrate the full scope of diaconal service. In the Byzantine Empire deacons held some of the highest and most powerful positions. The magnificent mosaic of Justinian in St. Vitale’s Church in Ravenna shows two deacons in the imperial entourage. In the patriarchal court, deacons were invested with the authority of exarch, protosyngellos, emissaries, ambassadors, and administrators of the episcopal household. Deacons often held important chairs and were professors at the patriarchal academy; they administered church-run and privately funded homes for the poor and widows, orphanages, hospitals, and what is equivalent to the half-way houses of today. Deacons attended the great councils of Church as in the case of St. Athanasios who as a deacon participated in the First Ecumenical Council, and represented the patriarch at councils as their exarchs. In the case of Archdeacon Nicephoros, a martyr saint, the Council of Constantinople in 1592 bestowed on him the chairmanship for all consecutive councils with responsibility to make all decisions regarding the faith. He directed the affairs of the Patriarchate for many years, and it was in his ministry as a deacon that he went to the Ukraine in 1595 as the patriarchal exarch to defend the rights of the Orthodox against the ruling Polish authorities, and was imprisoned, tortured, and martyred by the uniates when he spoke out in defense of the faith.
In the West, the function of the deacon went into decline by the 5th century and eventually disintegated almost totally; consequently when Vatican II called for the reinstitution of the diaconate, there was no continuous memory or practice of that function as there is in the East; and even though there has been a substantial increase in the number of “permanent” deacons, they function as mini-priests. Their ministry does not reflect what the diaconate was created for. Although the title of archdeacon was retained in the West, the function was distorted to the point that there continued to be cardinal deacons who were, in fact, not deacons. Similarly, in the Anglican Communion the archdeacon wields enormous power, even though that function is not held by a deacon.
Today, in many Orthodox lands the diaconate has been decimated by the Atheist governments which enslaved those lands while elsewhere most deacons are quickly ordained to the priesthood because of the shortage of priests. Nonetheless, the diaconate is still a vibrant, highly-visible ministry in the Church with deacons leading the faithful as the master of ceremonies and serving the celebrant at every stage of the Eucharist. The ministry of the deacon is a vital sign of the well-being of the Church.
Indeed because of the lack of deacons in each parish, there is a growing lack of understanding of what the diaconate is as a specific function. This lack can be directly tied to many problems which have arisen in the communities. The lack of unity among clergy and laity, the loss of spontaneity in liturgical worship, and the breakdown of the hierarchical structure are but a few of the problems which can be traced directly or indirectly to the disappearance of the deacon’s ministry. But perhaps the most serious consequence of the decay of the diaconate as a vital function of the Church is that the priest cannot fulfill his most important function of praying to our Saviour at the Holy Altar in behalf of his flock. Most often the priests have to rush through or omit their prayers so that they can say the deacon’s parts of the holy services.
In very practical terms, the restoration of the diaconate should be a vital concern and objective of all the faithful. Given the heavy demands on our priests, the ordination to the diaconate of four to seven pious laity in each parish would vivify not only our parishes and the faithful but would fill a vital missionary need. These deacons would have specific responsibilities within the broad spectrum of services that are integral to the diaconate so as to fulfill—on behalf of all the members of the Body of Christ – the Saviour’s command that we continue His diaconia on earth until the Second Coming.
In addition to the liturgical function which is basic to their ministry, these deacons could, so to speak, specialize in education, music, philanthropic ministry to the sick and poor, and in the myriad other duties which devolve to the deacon, the absence of which diaconal responsibilities no single pastor can possibly fulfill. Since the administrative responsibility of the community has always been an essential part of the diaconal ministry–under the direction of the head of the community–those deacons with particular talent and experience in this area would be of immeasurable benefit to the heavey burden of the priest. With the assistance of several deacons in our parishes—who are also employed in the secular world for their income but want to offer more of their time to the Lord in specific obligations—the need of these men is served simultaneously with that of the community and of the priest.
Finally, that seven deacons were originally chosen by the Apostles is significant: in the Old Testament the number seven often represents the limited perfection of created reality, that reality which exists in a beauty and completness so profound that it reflects the divine order, despite the limitatons. While eight signifies completeness, perfection, seven has come to signify the highest level possible in this life, but is not in and of itself, the ultimate reality, the eighth day, the perfection of life eternal in the bosom of the Godhead. The diaconal function, therefore, is also limited, and in that sense it is distinct from and not synonymous with the holy priesthood, even if there may be some deacons eventually deemed worthy of that awesome and exalted office. Although all priests and bishops must be ordained to the diaconate first, the function of diaconia is a complete and vital function in and of itself; and even though it is integrally dependent upon the function of the priesthood, it is not a temporary resting stop to the priesthood. Functions in the Church are hierarchical, clearly set forth, and all are necessary for the well being of the Body of Christ. This is seen most clearly in the diaconate.
The diaconate is, to be sure, ideally suited to those pious laity who are sustained and elevated by the beauty of the services, who love the
“order of the Lord’s house;”
to those who want to give selflessly of themselves in philanthropy on behalf of the entire community. It is suited to those who, because of these things, understand how profoundly this service is necessary to their well-being; and which service, culminating at the Lord’s Table, makes the Saviour present in their lives as a means wherein one continuously transforms his life and raises it above the ignoble pursuits of this temporal existence.
This is the reality of diaconal service, even if one has to attend to the other mundane, albeit necessary duties of life in the world. And in continuing Christ’s diaconia in the world through their service at the Holy Altar, to the members of the Body of Christ, and to the world, they have the Seraphic Orders who serve at their side, aiding, guiding and interceding for them.
1 Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, Dacre Press, London, 1960 (excerpted)
2 2 Eph. i. 6.
The preceding is from a lecture on the diaconate delivered during the Toronto Orthodox Conference .