What is a Deacon?

by | Sep 17, 2020

What do St. Stephen, St. Phoebe, and St. Francis of Assisi have in common? From the title of this article, yes, you’d be right to guess they were all deacons! 

Stephen was among the seven original deacons mentioned in Acts 6:1-6. Stephen was the first Christian martyr; he was stoned to death in about 36 AD (Acts 6:8-7:60). Phoebe delivered Paul’s letter to the Romans in Rome. And St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) epitomized servant ministry — to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns and hopes of the world, and inspire and help coordinate the service the Church is to do. Francis served the poor and recruited lay people to help the poor (in his case he recruited them to his monastic order). An image for deacons is the servanthood of Christ who washed the feet of the apostles. The word diakonos appears in Romans 16:1-2 meaning “through the dust,” which indicates the deacon’s role of messenger out in the world. The first deacons served widows, orphans, and the sick in Jerusalem. 

Originally, deacons helped the bishop, while presbyters (priests) served outside the city where the bishop could not travel. The idea was that the deacons, as servants, “waited on tables”– that is, took care of the food parts of the worship service, the Eucharist and the agape meal (a communal meal shared among Christians. In fact, the diagonal stole of a deacon’s vestments represents a towel thrown over the shoulder in readiness for food service). 

The first seven deacons were “ordained” — the apostles laid their hands on them. Today, as with potential priests, potential deacons go through several stages of preparation and formation, including discernment, postulancy, candidacy, taking courses in scripture, theology, and history, attending a diocesan deacons’ school and appearing before the Standing Committee and Committee on Ministry, who attest to their formation and readiness for ordination (The Ordination of a Deacon, The Book of Common Prayer p. 537).  

The Episcopal Church reintroduced permanent deacons in 1970. Becoming a deacon no longer meant that a person would go on to the priesthood. Whereas priests absolve, bless, and consecrate the bread and wine, the  deacon’s role in liturgy symbolizes their work in the world. We proclaim the gospel (share the good news to the world), bid the confession (invite the church to repent of our wrong-doings), set the table (serve the community gathered), and dismiss the people (send the community out to serve). Deacons also preach from time to time. Rules for deacons appear in the Church Constitution under Title 3: Canons 6 and 7, with the goal of building up the Church “wherever the Church is in transaction with the world.” For more information, see the Association for Episcopal Deacons website.  

In the Diocese of Washington, the emphasis for the diaconate is to serve as a bridge between the Church and the world, particularly on issues of justice. 

Deacons are deployed by the Bishop to develop collaborative ministries. We are led by Archdeacon Sue von Rautenkranz. Deacons generally sign a three-year letter of agreement. We discern with the parish those broken places in the neighborhood, county and world where we can respond with love in our work together, as we all grow “to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

The Rev. Dr. Janice M. Hicks
Deacon, St. John’s, Olney