Deacon is a role in the Christian Church that is generally associated with service of some kind, but which varies among theological and denominational traditions. In many traditions, the diaconate is a clerical office; in others, it is for laity.
The word deacon (and deaconess) is probably derived from the Greek word diakonos (διάκονος), which is a standard ancient Greek word meaning "servant", "waiting-man," "minister" or "messenger. One commonly promulgated speculation as to its etymology is that it literally means 'through the dust', referring to the dust raised by the busy servant or messenger.
It is generally believed that the office of deacon originated in the selection of seven men, among them Stephen, to assist with the charitable work of the early church as recorded in . Deaconesses are mentioned by Pliny the Younger in a letter to Trajan dated c. 112. The exact relationship between Deacons and Deaconesses varies. In some traditions a deaconess is simply a female deacon; in others, deaconesses constitute a separate order; in others, the title "deaconess" is given to the wife of a deacon.
A biblical description of the qualities required of a deacon, and of his household, can be found in .
Among the more prominent deacons in history are Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr; Philip the Evangelist, whose baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch is recounted in ; Saint Lawrence, an early Roman martyr; and Saint Romanos the Melodist, a prominent early hymnographer.
While the permanent diaconate was maintained from earliest Apostolic times to the present in the Eastern churches (Orthodox and Catholic), it gradually disappeared in the Western church (with a few notable exceptions) during the first millennium. The diaconate continued in a vestigial form as a temporary, final step along the course to ordination to the priesthood. In the 20th Century, the permanent diaconate was restored in many Western churches, most notably in Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.
In Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, deacons assist priests in their pastoral and administrative duties, but report directly to the bishop. They have a distinctive role in the liturgy, their main tasks being to proclaim the Gospel, preach, and assist in the administration of the Eucharist.
In the years just prior to the Second Vatican Council, the only men ordained as deacons were seminarians who were completing the last year or so of graduate theological training, who received the order several months before priestly ordination.
Following the recommendations of the council (in Lumen Gentium 29), in 1967 Pope Paul VI issued the motu proprio Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, restoring the ancient practice of ordaining to the diaconate men who were not candidates for priestly ordination. These men are known as permanent deacons in contrast to those ordained to the diaconate who intend to proceed to, or are in the process of seminary studies leading to, priestly ordination are called transitional deacons. There is no difference between the two, however, as there is only one diaconate.
The permanent diaconate in the Catholic Church entails a four or five year training period before ordination. Although they are assigned to work in a parish, deacons are directly responsible to the local Bishop who appoints them and not to the parish priest. They are not eligible for a salary from the Bishop and must support themselves and their families (if any) by having an outside (non-Church) job of some sort. Details about the permanent diaconate in the USA are outlined in a 2005 document of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States."
The ministry of the deacon in the Roman Catholic Church is described as one of service in three areas: the Word, the Liturgy and Charity. The deacon's ministry of the Word includes proclaiming the Gospel at the Eucharist, preaching and teaching. His ministry at the Altar includes various parts of the Mass proper to the deacon, including being the proper minister of the cup. The ministry of charity involves service to the poor and marginalized and working with parishioners to help them become more involved in such ministry. As clerics, they are required to recite the Liturgy of the Hours. Deacons can administer the sacrament of Baptism and serve as the church's witness at the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, which the bride and groom administer to each other. Deacons may preside at funerals, various services such as Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and they may give blessings. They cannot hear confession and give absolution, anoint the sick, or say Mass.
At Mass, the deacon is the ordinary minister of the proclamation of the Gospel (in fact, a priest, bishop, or even the Pope should not proclaim the Gospel if a deacon is present) and of Holy Communion (primarily, of the Precious Blood). Deacons have the faculty to preach the homily by right of their ordination unless the priest presider retains that ministry to himself at any particular Mass.
The vestments most particularly associated with the Roman Catholic deacon are the alb, stole and dalmatic. Deacons, like priests and bishops, must wear their albs and stoles; deacons place the stole over their left shoulder and it hangs across to their right side, while priests and bishops wear it around their necks.
Permanent deacons often serve in parish or other ministry as their time permits, since they typically have other full time employment. They may also act as parish administrators. With the passage of time, more and more deacons are serving in full-time ministries in parishes, hospitals, prisons, and in diocesan positions. Deacons often work directly in ministry to the marginalized inside and outside the church: the poor, the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned.
Married men aged thirty-five or older may be ordained as permanent deacons; however, marriage after ordination is not permitted unless approved by the Apostolic See. Under some very rare circumstances, however, permanent deacons who have been widowed can receive permission to remarry (See also clerical celibacy.) The wife of a permanent deacon may be sometimes considered a partner in his ordained ministry. In many dioceses, the wife of the deacon candidate undertakes the same education and training her husband does.
A permanent deacon is not styled "Father" as a priest would be, but as "Deacon," abbreviated variously as "Dn." or "Dcn." This preferred method of address is stated in the 2005 document of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States. The proper address for written correspondence to a Deacon in the Latin (Roman Rite) Catholic Church is "Rev. Mr." (or "Rev. Dr." in the case of Physicians or Ph.D.s) for all deacons. The decision as to whether deacons wear the Roman collar as street attire is left to the discretion of each diocesan bishop for his own diocese. Where clerical garb is approved by the bishop, the deacon can choose to wear or not wear the "collar." Where it is not permitted, the Deacon must wear secular clothing.
The title "deaconess" appears in documents from the early Church period, particularly in the East. Their duties were different from that of male deacons; deaconesses prepared adult women for baptism and they had a general Apostolate to female Christians and catecumens. Deaconesses existed in the West until about the 6th century and in the East until about the 11th century.
Although liturgies for the installation of Deaconesses had some similarities to those for male Deacons, it is not clear that the deaconesses of history were sacramentally "ordained" in the same sense used in the present day in Canons 1008 and 1009 of the Code of Canon Law .
Roger Gryson argues that some historical Deaconesses received sacramental ordination,. Aimé Georges Martimort argues that historical deaconesses did not receive a sacramental ordination. Phyllis Zagano presents a contemporary, original, argument for the female Diaconate that does not reference the historical debate.
Currently, the Catholic Church does not ordain women to the diaconate. The Russian Orthodox Church had a female diaconate into the 20th century. The Greek Orthodox Synod restored a female diaconate in 2004. .
In addition to reading the Gospel and assisting in the administration of Holy Communion, the deacon censes the icons and people, calls the people to prayer, leads the litanies, and has a role in the dialogue of the Anaphora. In keeping with Eastern tradition he is not permitted to perform any Sacred Mysteries (sacraments) on his own, except for Baptism in extremis (in danger of death), conditions under which anyone, including the laity, may baptize. When assisting at a normal baptism, it is often the deacon who goes down into the water with the one being baptized ().
Prior to his ordination, a deacon must be either married or a tonsured monk. Deacons may not marry after being ordained, though some bishops do allow dispensation from this rule as economia. According to the canons of the Orthodox Church, a married deacon must be in his first marriage and his wife must be Orthodox.
Diaconal vestments are the sticharion (dalmatic), the orarion (deacon's stole), and the epimanikia (cuffs). The last are worn under his sticharion, not over it as does a priest or bishop. In the Greek practice, a deacon from the time of his ordination wears the "doubled-orarion", meaning it is passed over the left shoulder, under the right arm, and then crossed over the left shoulder (see photograph, right). In the Slavic practice, the deacon wears a simple orarion which is only draped over the left shoulder. In the Greek practice, he wears the clerical kamilavka (cylindrical head covering) with a rim at the top. In Slavic practice, a hierodeacon (monastic deacon) wears the simple black kamilavka of a monk (without the rim), but he removes the monastic veil (see klobuk) when he is vested; a married deacon would not wear a kamilavka unless it is given to him by the bishop as an honorary award; the honorary kamilavka is purple in color, and may be awarded to either married or monastic clergy.
As far as street clothing is concerned, immediately following his ordination the deacon receives a blessing to wear the Exorasson (Arabic: Jib'be, Slavonic: Riassa), an outer cassock with wide sleeves, in addition to the Anterion (Slavonic: Podraznik), the inner cassock worn by all orders of clergy. In the Slavic practice, married clergy will often wear grey, while monastic clergy wear black. In North America and Western Europe, a Roman collar is often worn, although more traditional churches tend to shun it.
A protodeacon (Greek: πρωτοδιάκονος: protodiakonos, "first deacon") is a distinction of honor awarded to senior deacons, usually serving on the staff of the diocesan bishop. An archdeacon is similar, but is among the monastic clergy. Protodeacons and archdeacons use a double-length orarion even if it is not the local tradition for all deacons to use it. In the Slavic tradition a deacon may be awarded the doubled-orarion even if he is not a protodeacon or archdeacon.
According to the practice of the Greek Orthodox Church of America, in keeping with the tradition of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Great and Holy Mother Church of Constantinople, the proper way to address a deacon is "Father" (Source: Companion to the Greek Orthodox Church, published by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America: www.goarch.org/en/special/usvisit2002/clergy/clergy_greetings.asp )Depending on local tradition, deacons are addressed as either "Father", "Father Deacon," "Deacon Father," or simply as "Deacon", if addressed by a Bishop or other member of the Episcopacy.
The tradition of kissing the hands of ordained clergymen extends to the diaconate as well. This practice is rooted in the Holy Eucharist and is in acknowledgement and respect of the Eucharistic role members of the clergy play in preparing, handling and disbursing the divine and lifegiving body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ during the Divine Liturgy, and in building and serving the Body of Christ, His Church.
Anciently, the Eastern Churches ordained deaconesses. This practice fell into desuetude in the second millennium, but has been revived (not without controversy) in some churches. Saint Nectarios of Pentapolis was reputed to have ordained a number of nuns as deaconesses in convents. It should be noted that historically, deaconesses were never considered to hold the same position in the hierarchy as deacons. Deaconesses would assist in anointing and baptising women, and in ministering to the spiritual needs of the women of the community, but would not serve within the Holy Altar. After the church ceased ordaining deaconesses, these duties largely fell to the nuns and to the priests' wives.
(See also clerical celibacy.)
Only a full deacon or Masamsono can take the censer during the Holy Mass to assist the priest. However in the Malankara Church, because of the lack of deacons, altar assistants who do not have any rank of deaconhood assist the priest.
In Anglican churches, deacons often work directly in ministry to the marginalized inside and outside the church: the poor, the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned. Unlike Orthodox and Roman Catholic deacons who may be married only before ordination, Anglican deacons are permitted to marry freely both before and after ordination, as are Anglican priests. Most deacons are preparing for priesthood, and usually are ordained thereto about a year after diaconal ordination. However, there are some deacons who do not to go on to receive priestly ordination. Many provinces of the Anglican Communion ordain both women and men as deacons. Many of those provinces that ordain women to the priesthood previously allowed them to be ordained only to the diaconate. The effect of this was the creation of a large and overwhelmingly female diaconate for a time, as most men proceeded to be ordained priest after a short time as a deacon.
Anglican deacons may baptize and in some dioceses are granted licences to solemnize matrimony, usually under the instruction of their parish priest and bishop. They commonly officiate at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Deacons are not able to preside at the eucharist (but can lead worship with the distribution of already-consecrated Communion where this is permitted), nor can they absolve sins or pronounce a blessing in the name of the Church , (however, these last two are often permitted in an indirect form). It is the prohibition against deacons pronouncing a blessing in the Church's name that leads some in the church to believe that a deacon cannot properly solemnize matrimony. In most cases, deacons minister alongside other clergy.
An Anglican deacon wears an identical choir dress to an Anglican priest: cassock, surplice, tippet and academic hood. However, liturgically, deacons wear a stole over their left shoulder and fastened on the right side of their waist. This is worn both over the surplice and the alb. A deacon might also wear a dalmatic.
The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LC-MS) has special training and certification programs for deacons and deaconesses. Most LC-MS deaconesses are trained at Concordia University - Chicago or one of their two seminaries (St. Louis, MO or Fort Wayne, IN). Internet based classes are also available through the Mission Training Center (MTC).
Deaconesses assist pastors in human care ministry and other roles with the goals of caring for those in need, reaching women who prefer female leadership and freeing pastors to focus on word and sacrament ministry. Acts chapter 6, verse 2 describes the function of deacons (servants) then and now, "So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables."
Deaconesses are installed, not ordained, and remain lay women. The word "ordain" is to be reserved for the pastoral office. ("The Ministry: Offices, Procedures, and Nomenclature" A Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, September 1981, p.22)
Under most circumstances, deaconesses and deacons do not preach or administer the sacraments. Special exceptions may be made for deacons (vicars) who are training to become pastors but must be given by the District President in writing.
(A vicar in the LC-MS is a third year seminarian who is doing an internship under a pastor. It should not be confused with the same term in the Anglican communion.)
Like the Anglican communion, Lutheran Diaconal Ministers are allowed to wear a stole draped sideways from one shoulder, and tied off at the waist, usually with some material left hanging below. Diaconal Ministers (the term "Deacon" is used occasionally, but not officially) are involved in preaching, assisting in worship, leading worship in leiu of an ordained pastor, and other congregational duties; they are, however, primarily called to service outside the church, in fields such as campus ministry, chaplaincy, congregational ministry, counseling, social service agency work, spiritual direction, parish and community nursing, and a range of other avenues. A Diaconal Minister is 'consecrated,' rather than 'ordained.' This ceremony is usually presided over by a Bishop.
Also of note are the Associates in Ministry, a rostered position within the ELCA consisting of laypersons commissioned into positions of service within the church, most often as educators, musicians, and worship leaders. While there is a trend towards combining the Diaconal and Associate ministries, the 'AIM' program continues in its own right, and Associates are spread across the entirety of the churchwide body. AIMs are "commissioned" for service.
Formerly, deaconesses were addressed as Sister, but in recent times (especially since the admission of men to the order) it has become more usual for deacons and deaconesses to be addressed as Deacon or Deaconess respectively.
In United Methodism, the office of deacon is one of two ordained clergy offices, the other being that of the Elder. Deacons are ordained to Word and Service and assist Elders (who are ordained to Word, Service, Sacrament, and Order) in equipping the saints for ministry. Prior to the 1996 United Methodist Book of Discipline, deacon was a term used exclusively for probationary Elders, similar to transitional deacons in other traditions. The current office of deacon has essentially taken the place of the former lay office of diaconal minister. There is also an office of Deaconess for certain commissioned female missionaries affiliated with the General Board of Global Ministries. According to a glossary from the United Methodist Church, a deacon is
An ordained clergyperson who is called to serve all people, particularly the poor, the sick, and the oppressed, and to equip and lead the laity in ministries of compassion, justice and service in the world. In this capacity, he or she leads the church in relating the gathered community to their ministries in the world, thus connecting the church’s worship with its service in the world. A deacon has the authority to teach and proclaim God's Word, to lead in worship, to assist elders in the administration of the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, to perform the marriage ceremony where the laws of the state permit, and to bury the dead.
United Methodist Deacons will vest much the same as Anglican Deacons, wearing a stole over their left shoulder and fastened on the right side of their waist. This is usually worn over the alb or black pulpit robe. A United Methodist deacon might also wear a dalmatic, although this vestment is a more rare among Methodists.
There are Baptist churches where the deacons decide many of the church affairs. There are churches where deacons serve in a family ministry only. There are Baptist churches (especially in the United Kingdom, but also in the U.S. and elsewhere) where women are allowed to be deacons; while many Baptist churches would never consider allowing a woman to serve as a deacon.
One example would be the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, where deacons can be any adult male member of the congregation that is in good standing. Many African American Missionary or National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. affiliated churches have male and female deacons serving as one board and others have two separate boards of deacons and deaconesses. Most often the deacon or deacon candidate is a long-standing member of the church, being middle aged, but younger deacons are often members of a family that has had several generations in the same church. They are elected by quorum vote annually. Their roles are semi-pastoral in that they fill in for the pastor on occasion, or lead a prayer service. Their main roles are to accompany the pastor during Communion to hand out the remembrances of bread and wine (or grape juice) and to set a good example for others to follow. Administrative duties sometimes include oversight of the treasury, Sunday school curriculum, transportation, and various outreach ministries.
The most famous holder of this title was Deacon Brodie who was a cabinet-maker and president of the Incorporation of Wrights and Masons as well as being a Burgh councillor of Edinburgh, but at night led a double life as a burglar. He is thought to have inspired the story of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.