October 8, 2008

The Deacon and His Bishop

Convent of St Helena Vails Gate • October 3 2008
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
First Meditation for the Diocese of New York Deacons’ Retreat

A Bedtime Story before Compline

Once upon a time, and a very long time ago it was — something over 1400 years ago — there was a good deacon named Honoratus. Actually he was an archdeacon, but in those days only deacons could be archdeacons. He served the diocese of Salona in Dalmatia well and faithfully, but he ran into a bit of trouble with his bishop, whose name was Natalis. The bishop was a convivial man who enjoyed being bishop — in fact, he enjoyed it too much. He was fond of giving lavish parties and entertaining his relatives. He was even said to have given away some of the church’s sacred vessels and vestments to a few of his favorite relatives. As these goods were the concern of the dutiful archdeacon, he raised more than his eyebrows and complained to the bishop that such behavior might bring embarrassment and scandal to the church.

The bishop was not amused. But being a very clever bishop he thought of a way of addressing the problem that would silence the deacon without in any way giving him cause to complain. The bishop ordained him to the priesthood.

Now, as I said, this was a very long time ago, and in those days deacons were free to travel about on the business of the church. Indeed, this formed a very important part of their ministry. But priests of those days were forbidden to travel outside their own parish jurisdictions without the bishop’s permission. And so, the clever Bishop Natalis sought to curtail the deacon who had given him so much trouble by making him a priest. This may be one of the first instances of what the business world calls kicking someone upstairs. It has been a common fate of whistle-blowers ever since.

Unfortunately, Deacon Honoratus didn’t want to be a priest. He was perfectly happy in his ministry as archdeacon, with the exception of his disagreements with the bishop. The bishop, for his part, apparently didn’t know the old saying — old to us, for in the bishop’s day it hadn’t yet been said and wouldn’t be for another 1200 years — that the pen is mightier than the sword. And taking pen in hand the now-priest Honoratus wrote to the pope. He laid the situation out in black and white and the pope responded. He wrote to Natalis and said how strange it was to charge a person with poor performance and then promote him. The pope also instructed the bishop to restore Honoratus to the diaconate.

You see, the church was still young, and the fussy notion of indelible orders hadn’t yet fully developed. That’s the kind of thing that later ecclesiastics and systematic theologians with an interest in Aristotle would get worked up about in another six hundred years or so. But in those simpler days of the sixth century the three ministries of deacon, priest, and bishop were still understood rather differently than people came to think of them later. For one thing, the emphasis was on the ministry rather than the minister. More importantly, the pope was wise enough to see the game that Natalis was playing, not only replacing the deacon with someone more to his liking as archdeacon, but removing his capacity to travel about to check up on the diocesan property without permission.

Still, the pope was aging and unwell, and had more important things to think about than a fairly minor dispute between a bishop and one of his deacons, and the situation remained unresolved at his death. He was succeeded as pope by one of the seven deacons of Rome, whose name was Gregory — the first of that name. Gregory was of an abstemious bent and a spiritual heart — he had become a monk after retiring from the civil service — and never expected to be a deacon, much less pope. But he also had a practical side, and was a shrewd judge of character. He had served as his predecessor’s ambassador and had traveled quite a bit, more than most people of that era — remember, that was part of a deacon’s job back then, and Gregory was a very serious deacon indeed. As such, Gregory had been around the block a few times and had also heard reports concerning bishop Natalis. So Gregory wrote to the bishop, asking him to explain his actions, and why he hadn’t yet responded to his papal predecessor’s demand to restore Honoratus to the diaconate.

Natalis responded with some shock — real or pretended I cannot say, though I imagine it was rather like the shock that Captain Renault expressed on finding gambling at Rick’s. The bishop admitted that he was fond of playing the host and entertaining his guests well, but defended himself on biblical grounds that he, like Abraham, might be entertaining angels unawares. Gregory wrote back to him in an equally convivial style and said, “We would not blame your Blessedness for feasting, if we knew that you were entertaining angels.”

Meanwhile Honoratus the deacon was still in limbo — or the presbyterate, take your pick. And Gregory reminded him that if any vessels or vestments should go missing he would be in part accountable — as I said, one of the archdeacon’s tasks was caring for the fabric of diocesan property — or in the case of vestments, the property of diocesan fabrics. And as I also noted, in the meantime Natalis had appointed someone else more congenial to his way of seeing things as archdeacon. Dare I say this made it somewhat easier for chalices, vestments and the odd tapestry to go walking.

So Gregory, finding that Natalis had not changed his ways nor provided an accounting for the missing vessels and vestments, wrote a very stern letter to him and all the bishops of his province. In it, he not only threatened to remove the pallium — that fancy version of the stole that popes gave to certain bishops as a sign of their authority — but also to remove him from office and finally to excommunicate him if he didn’t mend his ways.

Well, unlike certain other bishops of more recent vintage threatened with deposition, Natalis took the hint, and said he would straighten things out — although he died before he could actually restore Honoratus to his position. In the ensuing episcopal election, Honoratus — favored by Gregory — contended with Maximus. Maximus had the backing of the soldiers and most of the laity, and in spite of papal support, Maximus became the bishop.

The moral of this story is, You can take the deacon out of the presbyterate, you can try to put the deacon into the episcopate; but in the long run the laity will have the last word.

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I tell this story because it highlights some of the concerns that you have as deacons, and that I have as a long-time supporter of this distinctive ministry. I say “long-time” with the full awareness that the contemporary revival of the diaconate has not been going on for a long time. We are still very much in the process of working out not only the details but even the broad sweep of things. And I know how that feels. As we see from the current political campaigns, the word “change” can have lots of different meanings, and realities. The problem in the case of the diaconate is that there are at least five historical eras or models for diaconal ministry — and each of them has its own peculiar take on what it means to be a deacon.

The deacons of the first two eras — the apostolic church and the church of the first few centuries — seem to have a good bit in common, if we are to judge from Gregory’s evidence. Deacons were a distinctive order of ministry, responsible for the nuts and bolts of the church, the physical property and the day-to-day operation of the institution, in particular the property, relief and outreach programs. Even as late as Thomas Becket, who was Archdeacon of Canterbury before he became Archbishop of Canterbury, deacons functioned as the main workforce of the diocese, with the archdeacon almost like a chief administrative officer.

In the third phase — that scholastical era when the hot topic of sacramental theology came to a boil — the diaconate seems to get lost in the shuffle, seen primarily as a stepping-stone towards the priesthood. This was when Aristotle came in, with the shift in focus to the “character” of the minister rather than the activities of the ministry, and the priestly office came to take up more and more responsibility — it developed a kind of Middle Ages spread. It was all about priests then: the diaconate came to be seen as preparation for priesthood, and the episcopate not as a separate order at all, but as a kind of senior class of priesthood. This was back when they all had subdeacons to kick around — and the three orders of ministry were subdeacon, deacon and priest (which included the bishop as a kind of “high priest”).

Then we come to the Anglican era, when things were restored a bit to the older model by teasing apart the order of priest and bishop, and the subdeacon faded into memory. To give a distinctive flavor to the diaconate, there emerged the perpetual deacon — a very Episcopalian office which in many places came to be a kind of permanent senior warden, unlike the ancient deacons very much attached to the parish, and in many cases the bane of any new rector. I can recall the rector of my own parish, Father Basil Law of blessed memory, saying to me in the mid-70s, when the diaconate began to be revived in this diocese: “Oh, Tobias, they’re bringing back the deacons. We had one once — you can’t get rid of them!” It is sad that a once noble ministry had come to be seen like some kind of recalcitrant mildew.

This was the early phase of our own time’s effort to revive a diaconal order and ministry that recovers some of the freedom and responsibility that the office entails — that graceful capacity for change to meet emerging needs that gives a title to this retreat. It has not always been an easy ride — I mean, we all know that most Episcopalians think the motto of the church is “Change is Bad.” So it has been a bumpy course in rather unchartered waters, from the early resistance of those who, like Father Basil, remembered the immovable perpetual deacons of yesteryear — to the practical difficulties we still see when parish priests don’t know enough about the diaconate to be of help in discernment or deployment.

Another part of our present difficulty lies in coming once again to see the diaconate as relating chiefly to the diocese rather than to the parish. This introduces tension, as with a call to the priesthood, when a person is discerned by a community of faith to be a valuable minister, only to be told, for all practical terms, to take their ministry elsewhere. This is, of course, a significant change from the nineteenth century model of perpetual deacons that is still soaked into the woodwork of many of our parishes, for, as I noted before, deacons were meant to be more mobile from the beginning. However, it is no good pretending that we still live in the nineteenth century any more than the second or the sixth — or even the twentieth! Even presbyters don’t stay put for as long as they used to, on average. The world has changed and very few people are born, live their whole lives, and die in the same village — or the same parish. Like it or not, we live in a time and a world in which transition and change are very much a part of all of our lives. Those who will minister for 30 or 40 years in the same place will be rare indeed — whether deacon, priest, or bishop.

+ + +

This presents us — all of us, whatever our order or ministry — with challenges and opportunities. Times of transition — liminal times, boundary times — can be painful and disorienting, but they can also open us up to new possibilities that we didn’t perceive before. And I would say that this is something for which the diaconate is particularly well suited. For the deacon stands at the pivot point, the fulcrum point, the point at which a small pressure here or wise word there can shape what follows.

As you know, in the eastern liturgy the deacon stands in the door to the inner sanctuary and communicates with the laity gathered outside the iconostasis as well as addressing prayers and exhortations to the inside — to the presbyters and bishop. The deacon communicates. As our own liturgy for the ordination of deacons says,“You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.” In this the deacon is sensational — the deacon is the sense organ for the church, the one who perceives the needs of the world; and is also the voice of the church to the church — communicating those needs to the church: the whole church assembled. This is also one of the reasons that the rubrics assign first choice for leading the prayers of the people to the deacon, explicitly so in four out of the seven forms provided (including the form in Rite I).

This is why the deacon needs to be free to roam while at the same time being connected to the congregation that the deacon serves; and a major part of that service consists in bringing to that congregation’s attention not only its own needs but the needs of those outside. The deacon is like the fisherman who casts the net out into the sea beyond and draws it back — full of needs, concerns and hopes, into the vessel of the church. And this can, of course, leave you feeling like a stretched out rubber band, ready to snap.

The only enduring solution to this tension lies in a simple motto: It’s not about you. This is, ultimately, the motto of any really good servant, of any good minister — and let’s remember that both minister and servant are translations of the Greek word diakonos. A good servant or minister — a good deacon — by focusing on the task at hand and the needs of others can become forgetful of self — the prideful self, the judging self, the hungry and needy self sometimes (for we all have needs). This motto applies to all kinds ministries, of course — not just to deacons. So while I’m talking to you deacons I’m also listening to myself: and the advice applies to a busy priest and a busy bishop as well as to a busy deacon or busy layperson. Service means a posture geared towards others — to their needs. And it contains in itself the precious seed of self-forgetfulness, which, if we will allow it, will, by dying, bring forth fruit in abundance.

There is a story told of psychiatrist Karl Menninger, who was asked what people should do in a case of nervous anxiety. Menninger offered this prescription: “Go home, dress for work, leave your house and lock the door behind you; go to the poor part of town across the tracks, find someone who really needs help, and then help them!” Part of the wisdom of Saint Benedict was the awareness that work can be a wonderful way to take your focus off yourself. Service isn’t about you, but about those you serve — and the more focused you are on them, the ones you serve, the less you will find yourself an obstacle to your own ministry.

+ + +

The good news, when I say it’s not all about you, lies in another function of the deacon. I reminded you that the deacon is responsible for that sensational function — bringing the church’s attention to the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. The deacon also gets to have the last word in our liturgy — go do it! The deacon gets to tell everybody else, “It’s not about you” — we are all in this together, and it isn’t that you the deacon has to solve all the problems of the world — what you do is tell the church about them and then say, Church: let’s get to work, in the power of the Spirit. For you are part of that church as much as the people whom you dismiss, as much as the priest of the parish, as much as the bishop of the diocese. The whole body of the church, equipped with all these various organs doing their own functions, working together, but not obsessed with themselves or each other, can get about the work of God, to help serve a suffering world. By setting our selves aside, losing ourselves, we not only gain the world, but serve it.

I’ll speak a bit more tomorrow about this ministry of service, and how by keeping our focus on those we serve we can help reduce the tension in our own lives, a tension misdirected to our own wants and needs. Such service is paradoxically liberating — but then, you know that too, for we all serve the one who came to serve us, and whose service is perfect freedom.

And they lived happily ever after.


G said...

A prominent deacon in this diocese (deeply involved in Associated Parishes, with all that entails) once lamented that I subscribed to a "Russian doll theory of orders." Damn straight, skippy, as we used to say in my group home.

Anonymous said...

Breathlessly beautiful Tobias! Truly awesome.

I have always contended that the only truly biblically-based and APOSTOLIC orders are bishop and deacon; we priests are johnny-come-latelies!

And I know in my last parish (where I was only half-time) it was the fantastic self-less deacon who made things work -- far better than if I had been full-time rector!!!!

I have also always maintained that our problem with bishops is that there are too few of them: one per parish (with deacons) would be about right.

Thanks so much for your thoughtful reflections.

Ren said...

An interesting reflection!

Indeed, John-Julian is right about bishops and deacons--though I prefer having one bishop for every five parishes, or for every "deanery" we have these days.

I think deacons fulfill a unique role in the Church that is often taken for granted, but in the deacons' case, their role is to make sure that they are taken for granted!

Jane R said...

Thank you, Tobias. I'm going to post a link to this on the blog I've set up for the people in the deacon formation program and whom I serve as theology prof. The blog is a closed blog, accessible only to people in the program. But you know me and my blog. (And I assume it's okay to post links --with attribution, naturally-- since your blog is a public place.)

I love your remarks on the communicative and sensational aspects of diaconal ministry. Thank you again!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Jane. Feel free to link!