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The purpose of this document is to assist with developing an understanding of the vocational, also known as “life” or “permanent,” diaconate from early history, the Middle Ages, Reformation, and revival of the diaconate; and to propose how vocational deacons may contribute and provide a profound positive impact on the Taiwan Episcopalian Diocese’s mission to all of Taiwan through the Gospel of Jesus Christ guided by focused ministry and outreach programs.
The diaconate has always been closely linked with Bishops and Priests since the earliest days of the Church. As observed in the Scriptures, the deacon is described as a minister in the liturgical assembly, preacher of the Word and servant of and for the people in need. The historical records reveal the deacon was charged with preparing catechumens for entrance into the Church, was a distributor of food and aid to the poor and needy, and assisted Bishops and Priest with all functions of ministries. The term “Diakonia” reveals the essential characteristic of this order of the ministry; the “deacon” is called to service. The origins of the permanent diaconate as a ministry in the Church can be traced back to the New Testament in the Acts of the Apostles 6:1-6. Here we see the emphasis on the vocation to service, where the apostolic community selects seven disciples “filled with the Spirit and wisdom” (later to be called deacons), to serve the community’s needs. Saint Paul refers to deacons in his counsel in Philippians (1:1) and Saint Timothy lists the qualities and virtues which all deacons are expected to possess and exercise in their ministry. In the writings of Saint Paul, deacons are specifically addressed in his letter to the Philippians and Timothy, and in the First Epistle to Timothy, he lists their qualities and virtues: “Deacons must be dignified, not deceitful, not addicted to drink, not greedy for sordid gain, holding fast to the mystery of faith with a clear conscience. Thus those who serve well as deacons gain good standing and much confidence in their faith in Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 3:8-13).”
From the early era of the Church to the 5th century, the order of the diaconate prospered and advanced to serve the needs of the Church, which developed from its original apostolic form found in many readings of the New Testament. The diaconate focused on professing the Word, and also had strong emphasis on providing care to those in need. As Christianity spread during these first few centuries, the diaconate grew and developed its foundation with distinct functions within the Christian community. Bishops directly ordained deacons and assigned diverse roles to serve their communities. During this beginning era of the Church, the diaconate role included the following: participation in the ruling council of churches; servant ministry such as collecting and distributing money to the poor; liturgical functions at the Eucharist; administering sacraments to those present and to those absent from the assembly; baptizing alongside presbyters; and leading prayers of the people at the Eucharist. In the absence of the bishop or presbyter, the deacon would, on rare occasion, preside at the Eucharist. However this practice was eventually eliminated at Arles by 314 A.D.
During the Patristic era, deacons worked in close relationship with their local bishop. The deacons were direct agents of the bishop and deacons served as the vital link between the bishop and laity. Deacons addressed the everyday needs of the community. Deacons communicated the needs of the people to the bishop. They were given delegated authority by the bishop to serve the community. In Rome, for example, seven administrative deacons were assigned to serve specific jurisdictions. They also communicated the instructions of the bishop to the church as a whole. This required the deacons to understand and faithfully share the bishop’s communications and priorities. As well, deacons were vitally important ministers of the Church. The progression from deacon to presbyter was not yet normative during these early years; however, during the 4th century, as the role of the presbyter became more prominent, the role of deacon declined. The presbyter took on a greater role in sacramental authority and pastoral oversight. The Church adapted the hierarchical structure of Roman society with a graded progression of orders of clerics in training developed: doorkeeper, exorcist, lector, and sub-deacon leading to deacon then finally to presbyter. With a more systematic progression, the order of the diaconate became less important, and deacons were restricted from serving the Eucharist. The progression of orders below the level of deacon disappeared. Hence, the diaconate gradually became a transitional order to the priesthood. As a result the threefold-ministry of bishop-presbyter-deacon gradually became more like a twofold-ministry and the diaconate as a separate order gradually faded.
The diaconate lost parts of its early foundations, its sense of diakonia “service” and was gradually replaced by a greater sense of “clericalism” starting during the 5th century and continued into the future centuries. Conversely, the threefold-ministry continued to exist as recorded in 8th century Ireland, the deacon was compared to Christ washing his disciples’ feet, the priest to Christ consecrating the bread and wine at the Last Supper, and the bishop to Christ solemnly blessing the apostles. Deacons began to serve presbyters as well as bishops. In the 12th century, Lombard repeated traditional teaching: deacons were Levites of the new exemption, helpers to priests; their role was primarily liturgical, with other roles in the ministry of the word and charity. As found within Saint Thomas, he saw the deacon’s role as almost exclusively liturgical to assist bishops and priest in the liturgy. Deacons read the Gospel and preached the word in catechesis.
After the Church was separated East-West Schism in 1054, deacons continued to serve in the East in mainly liturgical roles. The diaconate declined but did not completely disappear in the West. Saint Francis of Assisi is an example. With urbanization in the late Middle Ages, the urban class of merchants and citizens took over works of charity performed by deacons. Saint Francis of Assisi was one of the few known deacons in the 13th century. He was well known for his homilies and for his outreach to the poor and lepers. He served as a powerful witness of discipleship and diaconal service. In these subsequent centuries the diaconate experienced a slow decline in the Church for complex reasons and the original use of deacons had all but disappeared despite the fact that the Council of Trent suggested that it should be reinstated to its original function in the Church. When the bishop was raised above the presbyter (elder) and the presbyter became priest, the deacon was regarded as Levite, and his primary function of care for the poor was lost in the function of assisting the priest in the subordinate parts of public worship and the administration of the sacraments. The diaconate became the first of the three orders of the ministry and a stepping-stone to the priesthood.
As the Church moved into the Reformation era, the diaconate slowly resurfaced and began to see its reinstatement to some of the original roles and duties as seen in the early years of the Church. This emergence was slow within the first years of the Church of England; however, the Reformation provided the groundwork for bringing back the Order of the Diaconate. During the English Reformation, the major orders of bishop, priest and deacon were retained while the minor orders were eliminated. Unlike the Eastern Churches, which preserved the Order of Deacon, the diaconate continued in the West as a transitional order in preparation for the priesthood. While Anglicanism claimed to continue the historic threefold orders of the Church Catholic, it was not until the 20th Century that it gave serious consideration to the redevelopment of the diaconate as a permanent and distinct Order of ministry. After the Reformation, the view of the diaconate in both the Roman Catholic and the Anglican Churches continued with similar approaches as viewed during the Middle Ages. First, the deacons were considered to be superior to the laity but inferior to the priests and bishops. The diaconate was a still a stepping-stone to the priesthood with both Catholic and Anglican “transitional” deacons spending approximately one year in the diaconate. Second, the work assigned to them was liturgical assisting at the sacraments; bringing the Eucharist to the sick; and, in the place of an absent priest, officiating at baptisms, weddings, funerals, and other prayer services. They are also given pastoral and educational duties teaching catechism, giving instruction to new members and those preparing for marriage, working with the youth, counseling those with problems, and working in the community to promote social and moral changes. Their works of charity include caring for the sick, poor, lonely, and homebound. However, the vocational diaconate order was still non-existent, but the Roman Catholic and the Anglican Churches made a notable changes in their view of the diaconate. At the Vatican II, the Catholic council approved in principle the restoration of the “permanent” diaconate. The council gave authority to local dioceses to make the decision whether or not they wanted permanent deacons. Similarly, the 1958 Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church recommended that the local dioceses consider whether the Office of Deacon shall be restored to its primitive place as a distinct order of the Church, instead of being regarded as a transitional period for the priesthood.
As the Anglican Church entered into the 1960’s, the diaconate within the Anglican/Episcopal Church underwent a revival and the Order of the Diaconate continued its resurgence throughout the following two decades, and into the 1990’s, the vocational deacon population had grown rapidly. Vocational deacons perform a wide variety of functions depending on the needs and requirements of their respective dioceses. The vocational deacon can be categorized in three ways: as parish deacons, they lead, model, and encourage the diaconal ministry for the community and parish; as institutional deacons, they work as chaplains in prisons, for law enforcement and firefighter organization, hospitals, old-person homes, and campus ministries; and as diocesan deacons, they work with and for bishops in a variety of staff and leadership roles. The current day diaconate has been restored to its original Order of ministry, based on the call to emulate Christ in service to the poor and needy. The vocational deacon positions himself/herself at the threshold of the community as a bridge to the world to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the people and to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are in-turn serving Christ himself.
Since 1954, the vocational diaconate order has not existed within the Taiwan Episcopalian Diocese. Different from the nature of a “transitional” deacon, the vocational diaconate is a permanent order of selected persons who follow this “calling” to serve and wish to remain within the functions of outright “servitude” to the people of Christ. Starting from the Book of Common Prayer, the beginning of the ordination ceremony for a deacon during the examination:
God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood directly under your bishop. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely. As a deacon in the Church, you are to study the Holy Scriptures, to seek nourishment from them, and to model your life upon them. You are to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship. You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. You are to assist the bishop and priests in public worship and in the ministration of God’s Word and Sacraments, and you are to carry out other duties assigned to you from time to time. At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.
The Anglican/Episcopal Church within their respective resolutions from annual conferences/conventions each diocese is given authority to best implement their respective programs for vocational deacons; however, not all dioceses through discretion of the bishop (or archbishop) may not have full functioning vocational diaconate programs. In the case for the Taiwan Diocese, reemergence of the vocational diaconate order can (and will) have profound positive effect and impact on all the people of Taiwan.
Perhaps most important, the current renaissance of the diaconate is part of the church’s recovering its own sense of diakonia, of being called and sent into the world to serve.

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