Running about in the Dust

Yesterday in St Mary’s we marked an anniversary – it is 25 years since the Scottish Episcopal Church first ordained people as deacons who happened to be female. One of the first of those deacons was with us yesterday – The Rev Jeanette Jenkins was present at the 11 am service and preached for an expanded congregation of the normal Thursday morning bunch and others from around the diocese.

One thing particularly intrigued me about something that Jeanette said during her homily. She said that she remembered someone telling her that a deacon was someone running about in the dust. I’ve only ever heard that the word deacon meant something to do with being a servant, so I looked it up. Sure enough, the word deacon derives from two greek roots: dia – through and konos – dust. Presumably the servant was someone who dashed about in dusty places raising a cloud of dust behind her.

I rather like that derivation.

Bishop Gregor celebrated at yesterday’s service. (Indeed, I think that it was the first service for a very long time in which the bottoms of the bishop, the dean and the provost were all seated on their correct respective stalls in the Cathedral at the same time). He made mention of the fact that the church is, once again, reflecting on the nature of the diaconate.

This is certainly true. The more we encounter the church in different parts of the world, the more we see the different ways in which the order of deacons has been established. The diaconate is important for me – it seems to me to be quite properly regarded as the foundation of ordained life, something which doesn’t end, no matter what other orders one might be ordained to. There’s far more of my life that is lived out running about in the dust of diaconal life than is spent on exclusively priestly mininistry.

But that isn’t the only way of seeing things. I’ve long admired the social service of the deacons of Scandinavia. There people take on a distinctive ministry which does not ever lead to priesthood and are effectively a way in which churches with a very different relationship with the state to any that pertain in the UK, exercise care in their societies.

Then there was the diaconate that I discovered in Egypt. There, in the Coptic Church, the diaconate has five different orders within it and it is common for children (well, boys, actually) to be admitted to the first of the orders of deacons, which is similar to the way in which we would admit a chorister to the choir, but is in fact regarded as an ordination for life.

Generally speaking we’ve been resistant to different rankings of priests and I guess that the idea of different orders of deacons would not appeal to some people. However, it does appear that there are very different ways of understanding the diaconate in the world church and that the consequence of those different ways of offering loving service is an awful lot of good in the world.

The discussions about the diaconate in the UK sometimes worry me. They can sometimes seem to be yet another form of clericalism. (Some of the things said about the diaconate at our Synod this year seemed to me to be greatly undermining of Lay Readership, for example). I think we need to look more widely afield than our own experience and I suspect that it would be helpful to think about the diaconate without starting from the assumption that there are either 1. Permanent Deacons or 2. Transitional Deacons.

The diaconate seems to me to be much more interesting than that.


  1. I reflected on the lack of Deacons at Pentecost: – My evangelistic and prophetic Deacons echo you ‘dust-kickers’ I think.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that the Diaconal ministry is alive and well. Every time I meet a Priest who has a completely non-sacramental ministry or struggles with the sacraments or even denies them I tend to think ‘should have been a permanent Deacon’.

  2. I think the deacons within the Church of Scotland deployed to work pastorally within deprived communities in a similar way to the Swedish example.

  3. fr dougal says

    The SEC made all sorts of reflective noises in the 1980’s about Distinctive Diaconate and much of the thought got lost in the absorbing of all of the long term deacons into the priesthood post 1994. Perhaps it’s tome to revisit the area?

  4. If especially able candiddates were allowed to call themselves Distinquished Deacons that would surely popularise the Diaconate 🙂

  5. Hermano David | Brother Dah•veed says

    I think that somehow we have gotten way off kilter regarding ordained office, period. I think that we need to recapture a theology of ordained office as an extension of the pastoral office of the bishop. Deacons and priests are representatives of the bishop, the chief pastor of the whole flock, with their respective area of representing the bishop. The callings and responsibilities of deacons and priests are equal, and different. We need to get away from the idea that deacons are less than priests and that the diaconate is a stepping stone to being a priest.

  6. Martin Ritchie says

    I think Stew is right about the CofS role of Deacons. I recently heard more about the way they way they seem to work in the community in a very non-clerical way. It was interesting to hear comments to the effect that they experience different kinds of interactions amongst the people they work with in the broader community, in their opinion because they are not “the Minister.”

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