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Thoughts About the Diaconate

Thoughts About the Diaconate

by William Doubleday


Several years ago I wrote a short essay on Forced Clergy Terminations that has been highlighted again on Facebook.  Several have asked me how this might relate to the vocational diaconate as it is lived out in the Episcopal Church. I am not aware of much research or literature on this topic. Further, whereas there are almost 1,000 priests and pastors whom I taught in M.Div. programs at The General Theological Seminary, Bexley Hall Episcopal Seminary, and Trinity Lutheran Seminary, my personal contact with vocational deacons and their training and on-going ministries is much more limited.


The program I know best is in the Diocese of New Jersey, where I have taught pastoral care, and sometimes church history, for almost a decade and a half in the New Jersey Diocesan Deacons’ School. I have also taught people preparing for the vocational diaconate in local training programs in the Dioceses of Connecticut, Central New York, Rochester, Western New York, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Ohio, and Southern Ohio.


I do have some observations which may relate to conflict and problems for vocational deacons:


There are virtually no Episcopal Church-wide norms, patterns, or practices for the vocational diaconate. Usually they are non-stipendiary, but not always. Some are encouraged to wear clerical clothing, others are forbidden to do so. Some are active in the councils of the Church, some have been deprived of their vote as clergy members of diocesan convention. Prison chaplaincies are frequently staffed by vocational deacons in some dioceses, yet in other dioceses that is never allowed. Some have their liturgical roles emphasized, some are told that outreach is the only thing that matters. In some dioceses they have frequent access to the pulpit, in other dioceses this is very rare indeed. Even when a particular diocese has some fairly clear norms, any change in diocesan bishop may very well throw everything up in the air.


The most dangerous thing about being a vocational deacon is probably the fact that one is perpetually thrown into emotional triangles involving priests and laity This tends to also be true for curates and assisting clergy, but I think it is worse for deacons because they probably have had and have less access to effective training, supervision, and coaching.


Out of a somewhat irrational fear of vocational deacons becoming De Facto Pseudo-Rectors, there are all manner of rules and regulations in various places about where, if, and when one can serve as a Deacon in a particular parish, or even in a particular diocese, if one should by chance move to another state. Some can and do serve in sponsoring parishes, most usually cannot. Some are very helpful to parishes in transition, yet in many places a departing priest requires a departing deacon. In many places there are inflexible and mandatory age caps and years of service caps.


Though I am aware of some proactive Archdeacons in a few Dioceses who really do advocate for the vocational deacons, many dioceses tend to treat vocational deacons as second class after thoughts. In some places deacons routinely and fruitfully participate in deanery or clericus clergy gatherings. In other places they are shunned or excluded.


The depth, length, and quality of diaconal training programs varies greatly. I believe that more effective recruitment, discernment, screening, training, and on-going support and supervision make for the most effective vocational deacons.


My old friend and mentor, the Rt. Rev. Walter D. Dennis, often lamented the Balkanization of many things in the Episcopal Church. One of the most Balkanized phenomena is the Vocational Diaconate. In this rapidly changing era in the life of our church, our society, and our culture, I am convinced that we desperately need a dynamic Order of Vocational Deacons. I have heard some deacons are for the present realities of local adaption, but I fear that we in fact end up with a chaotic picture of the diaconate which builds up neither the Church, nor the Order of Vocational Deacons.


I do not know how many actual cases of alleged clergy misconduct over the last twenty years have involved Vocational Deacons.


I do know, anecdotally, about a fairly large number of Vocational Deacons who have found themselves shunted aside, shelved, simply under- or un-deployed, or who arbitrarily or canonically find themselves told their active ministries have come to an end.


I realize all of this is pretty sketchy, but perhaps it will engender some conversation. Let me be very clear as I close, that I believe we are entering an era when the Episcopal Church will desperately need a large influx of well-trained, effective, spiritually grounded vocational deacons, as more and more parishes and community ministries find they can no longer afford or find the sort of priestly staffing to which they have been accustomed. Further, I believe that many true vocational deacons have the eyes, ears, nose, and sensibility to recognize where God is calling us and them in this challenging part of the 21st century! Further, I suspect that if we are to remain a church centered in the Eucharist, many of the diocesan bans on so-called Deacon’s Masses may be short-lived.

The Rev William Doubleday is Rector, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Mt. Kisco, NY.  Previously he served as interim dean of Bexley Hall and professor of Pastoral Theology at Bexley Hall seminary and General Theological Seminary.


image: from the diocese of California


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Paul Woodrum

The good works we do are centered in liturgy, the ornaments of which witness to our love of God and the ministry to which the ordained are called. Please don’t sell the diaconal ministry short by saying your stole doesn’t matter or that it has no impact. It is a powerful symbol for both those who wear it and for those who see it of the good work our deacons do.

Deacon Geri Swanson

I am saddened that a discussion of such an important topic for the future of our Church is being reduced to a “fashion show”. As an ordained deacon serving in a large diocese, I see that there is much work to be done on all fronts. What type of stole I wear or choose not to wear has little or no impact on the work that I am called to do in my parish, my Diocese, my community and my city.

Deacon Sudie Blanchard

Thank you for this comment, Geri. My thoughts exactly. (and I am a stitcher of stoles…) The stoles don’t matter. The ministry does.

Paul Woodrum

Philip: If our deacons are going to borrow from the Orthodox tradition, then they should be wearing the sticharion under a gold, silver or white stole.

What we’ve got here is a mash-up of traditions: Orthodox cut stole, Roman Catholic canonical color, and skimpy, late 20th entury “cassock-alb.” Truly, this is an outward and visible symbol of our total confusion and lack of discipline and boundaries when it comes to the diaconate. Whoever chose the picture perfectly captured Episcopal theological and liturgical disarray. No wonder we get no respect.

Paul Woodrum

Why are all the deacons in the picture wearing Eastern Orthodox stoles? These are not part of Western Catholic nor Anglican tradition.

Alan Christensen

We’ve had two deacons at my Episcopal parish who wore stoles like that. And I’ve seen them worn by other Episcopal deacons.

Philip Snyder

Can you specify which tradition these are not a part of. They ARE part of the iconography of the Church prior to any splits, thus they are part of the Western and Anglican traditions – you simply have to go back in time longer than a few centuries.

David Allen

Lots of folks like to shake things up a bit.

I bet that you could stitch us up some beautiful Ortho stoles! Those are a bit plain from behind.

Paul Woodrum

Baptism is our common initiation into the church, the body of Christ. It is not ordination, but the body from which the ordained are called, be it bishop, deacon or priest. It just muddles things even more to confuse initiation with ordination.

Anyway, the question Doubleday raises is one of a common understanding of the diaconate.

Alicia Hager

I respect your point of view but disagree. Priests and deacons are all called to the same ministry as any baptized person, laity can not be let off the hook of their own baptisms.
I am aware of what Doubleday is writing about. I was responding to Poppy’s comment.

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