As diakonia is the content of our faith and the sum of all our actions, so it is close to the heart of the liturgy, the source of God's self-giving, God's service, in the rites of the church. Diakonia centers the life of the church, including its eschatological dimension, its hope for the future, in the gathering and sending forth of Christians to be ministers of God's word in the world. The lifting up of this service in the sacraments is an absolute requirement for the church that is holy and apostolic. As the liturgical movement of recent years has taught us to say, we are hearers of the word and doers. Prayer and ministry are correlative terms; we are by baptism committed to both.
In a general sense everyone knows about this connection between ministry and prayer. What is not very clear is the extent to which the restoration of the liturgy to full participation by the assembly was already a decision about ministry and church order. Abstractly considered, decisions about ministry are made on the basis of theological principle, as when we say that the shape of ministry--the threefold order of bishop, priest, and deacon--developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Or they are practical decisions conditioned by changing circumstances in the church and world--such as the contemporary phenomena of ordained ministers without a call and emerging communities without an ordained leader. But fundamentally, such decisions must be both theological and practical, and always intimately related to the church's prayer.
Liturgy: Diakonia focuses this issue. It also assumes a basic and helpful distinction. The restoration of the diaconate is a liturgical priority, but it is not a liturgical necessity. Thus, Liturgy: Diakonia offers an admonition and a challenge to all church bodies to rethink the concept of ministry, perhaps especially priesthood, before allowing further imitation and institutionalization to occur; and it invites and encourages all lay Christians to commit themselves to ministry and leadership in the church. Above all, Liturgy: Diakonia affirms the deacons and deaconesses in every communion who, by long tradition or recent formation, stand ready to offer the church's every kind of help to people with every kind of need. But affirmation, encouragement and challenge, if they are not accompanied by careful judgment and forthright honesty, are specious gifts. We must recognize the confusion and error, the "obtuse spirit" that always threatens to take up residence in any discussion of the church's ministry. The status of leaders and the functions of leadership are not easily distinguished, nor are role changes made without difficulty, despite the old saying that "he or she wears many hats." Deacons, no less than priests and lay ministers, are easy prey to exploitation from above and below. The many voices raised in praise of deacons and for the restoration of the diaconate should be heard. They are here in Liturgy: Diakonia. But in the church there other voices sounding in contrapuntal harmony to these, voices that assert that we should let the order atrophy. Ears attuned to one side only will never know whether or not there are really compelling reasons to ordain deacons.
The observations that follow will not decide the issue. They will, however, lead Christians, singly or in groups, to begin their own careful listening.
The ordained ministry is a public and symbolic recognition of the leadership and service to which all Christians are called. It should perfectly image, therefore, all aspects of real leadership. If the traditional orders of bishop, priest, and deacon are valued, it will be as separate but complementary signs of this leadership. The fundamental problem here is not the question of office-bearing as such. It is, rather, the question of the church's openness to new forms of ministry and leadership, the present gifts of the Spirit. The mirror (the ordained ministry) may fall apart into three or a thousand pieces, if nothing exists for it to reflect.
Recently some headway has been gained by those who oppose a functional view of the diaconate to favor one that is representational and symbolic. The deacon in this view represents (and, therefore, empowers the community to act upon) its own commitment to service. It is not that deacons can do more or different services than lay ministers, but that they can remind us of more. The confusion that individual deacons experience between their liturgical and pastoral responsibilities, the prior existence of non-ordained deacon and deaconess communities and their role vis-a-vis the "restored diaconate," and the under-utilization of deacons' professional abilities--these are a few of the cautionary lights along this road. Moreover, reason expects a certain economy of symbol that non-functionalists ignore to their peril. What function does not distinguish, status will; and very soon deacons are likely to be "special sorts of people."
The clericalization of the diaconate so ominously foreseen in the preceding paragraph becomes painfully inhibiting in communities that ordain deacons to solve the financial needs of the churches and the alienation or shortage of professional ministers. Deacons are adamant in sayirrg this is not so. Many suggest that deacons are a prophetic order side by side and equal to the institutional advocates, the priest, who are supported, and therefore also restricted, by the public cult. But deacons, although they do not share in the collegiality and the institutional responsibilities of priesthood, are public servants of the church. Not to recognize the dangers here can only belittle the ministry of all orders.
The restoration of the diaconate can be a spur to the development of ministry. It can call forth ministers of the gospel who are intelligent and talented, who undertake discipleship in ordinary life circumstances, and who love the world enough to be appointed to its service. But two thoughts guide all our discussion of diakonia: first, the imperative to service weighs equally upon all Christians; and, second, the ordained in the early church were truly the leaders of their communities, tapped for service whether they presented themselves for it or not. "Everything is lawful," Paul said, "but not everything is helpful." We need the perspective of open hands and listening hearts. If we draw the boundaries of our discussion wide enough, it is unthinkable that our vision will fail to be as deep.
Table of Contents