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Hallo again to all.

The Acts of the Apostles tell of seven men, appointed by the apostles, to serve the needs of widows being neglected amidst the Hebrews. Among these was St Stephen, described as 'a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit' who is considered both the first martyr of the church, as well as its first deacon. Deacons are addressed specifically in the letter to the Philippians ('all the holy ones at Philippi, with their bishops and deacons in Christ Jesus') and characteristics desired in them are described in 1 Timothy. Both men and women served as deacons. In a letter from Pliny the Younger to Trajan, Pliny writes 'Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses.'

The appearance of women deacons was clearly not isolated. Paul wrote of women deacons, and some 200 years later Olympias the Younger served as an adviser to St John Chrysostom in Constantinople. Deacons held quite significant roles, serving the poor and also the bishop. The position of archdeacon (now sometimes referred to as Canon to the Ordinary, with archdeacon used for the lead deacon of a diocese) was held by a deacon. As the the order of presbyter developed out of the episcopacy, many lamented this level of authority. It was not atypical for an archdeacon to become a bishop—even as late as Gregory the Great in 590.* The diaconate also served as a holding place for men who were ordained before reaching the age necessary to become a presbyter (30). Rather than servant-ministry, it was instead the relationship to the bishop and the role in liturgy for which deacons became closely associated, and the vocational diaconate saw a stark decline. Though Archbishop Thomas Cranmer wrote of a need for a diaconate as its own order and William Laud ordained Nicholas Ferrar to the permanent diaconate, but though these ordinations did occur, they remained uncommon. By the second half of the 1800s deaconesses had regained their position, and were specifically mentioned in the 1920 Lambeth Conference.

Resolution 32 of the 1968 Lambeth Conference recommended:

(a) That the diaconate, combining service of others with liturgical functions, be open to

    (i) men and women remaining in secular occupations,
    (ii) full-time church workers,
    (iii) those selected for priesthood.

(b) That Ordinals should, where necessary, be revised:
    (i) to take account of the new role envisaged for the diaconate;
    (ii) by the removal of reference to the diaconate as "an inferior office";
    (iii) by emphasis upon the continuing element of "diakonia" in the ministry of bishops and priests.

(c) That those made deaconesses by laying-on of hands with appropriate prayers be declared to be within the diaconate.
(d) That appropriate canonical legislation be enacted by provinces and regional Churches to provide for those already ordained deaconesses.‡

While deacons were ordained throughout this period, it was not until the late 20th century that vocational deacons (of both sexes) began to reappear in great numbers.

We recently overheard a conversation about the place of deacons in the councils of the church. To simplify the argument, since ordination vows for the diaconate do not mandate partaking in the councils of the church and as deacons operate at the whim of the bishop, their votes may be influenced by that of the bishop.† We must admit that a favourite and iconic representation of the modern deacon is the chanting of the Exsultet in the dark, incense-filled church during the Easter Vigil. We also know that the liturgical functions are neither the primary nor most important responsibilities of this under appreciated (and typically unpaid) order. διάκονος (diákonos) from which 'deacon' is derived, can mean 'servant', 'minister', or 'messenger.'

Many dioceses require deacons in formation to be involved with 'servant-ministry' before they are ordained—whether this be in their professional career or in their spare time. We've seen deacons work in hospice, as social workers, running schools, coffee shops, and food pantries, among many other service ministries. While the discussion we overheard doesn't particularly concern us, as the Anglican Communion continues to discuss and debate the role of deacons in the church, we are grateful for the reinstatement of this ministry both in the church and in the world.

We'll see you next week as we remember to go in peace to love and serve the Lord.


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14 September 2014

*The Council of Chalcedon specifically noted women's orders when lowering the age requirement of a deaconess.

†The issue of voting and election of deacons in church councils seems to differ not only from province to province, but from diocese to diocese.

‡Resolutions 1968-32

For more information see a chronology of the history of the diaconate in Anglicanism and a brief history of the diaconate in Anglicanism.

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