Today is a feast day, in the Christian calendar, that is especially meaningful to me. On this date in 1978, six of us were ordained Deacon at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Luke in Orlando, Florida. We were ordained by Bishop William H. Folwell at a liturgy that began at 7:00pm. It was the completion of one journey and the opening of a new and very different journey...one that marks the difference between vocation and occupation.
First, Holy Orders in the Episcopal Church follow the Apostolic Succession established by the infant Church toward the end of the First Century CE. The generation of apostolic leaders raised up by the Apostles themselves were called Epscopoi (overseers, or Bishops). The term apostle means "witness," and the new generation bearing responsibility for carrying the Gospel of Jesus, were not direct witnesses -- thus the shift in title. This order is established in the New Testament.
The other biblically established Order is that of Deacon. Diakonoi means "Service." It is a committed vocation to realize the work of the Church through service to those in need. The first recorded Deacon was Stephen, and his story appears in Acts of the Apostles (Acts 7). Because the Apostolic work carried certain responsibilities, this Order was raised up to embrace the always present needs for "hands on" care. Deacons also proclaim the Gospel and extend the sacramental ministry of the Church beyond its gathered Body.
It was not until shortly after what we call the Apostolic Era (which is where the New Testament itself ends) that the rapidly expanding Ecclesia (assembly of citizens in ancient Greek...borrowed by the early Christian community to signify its assembly for worship) began structuring itself to meet greater needs and more presence. It was at this time that the Apostolic structure was itself expanded to create a third Order -- that of Presbyteroi, meaning "elder." The laying on of hands (Ordination) by Apostles, and then Bishops, invoked specific Gifts of the Holy Spirit to permanently shift the inner character of a person to bear specific functions within the Body. The creation the Order of Presbyters (Priests) allowed the extension of the Episcopal functions into the expanded community.
In the earliest gathering of Christians, the community gathered around an Apostle in a local area...to hear the teaching and receive the promised gifts of Jesus to the community: Baptism and Eucharist. These were the Dominical Sacraments -- specifically mandated by Jesus. Christianity spread so rapidly that, by the beginning of the second century, the new generation of apostolic leadership could not be in all the places the community gathered. Thus the Order of Priests emerged to extend the Apostolic Ministry into parts of the community farther away from the place of the Bishop. The Deacons continued to be raised up (ordained) and sent to organize infant communities and see to the regular needs of those groups.
That summarizes what we now call the "Three-fold Orders" of the Church. In Post-Reformation ecclesiology, the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican (Episcopal) traditions still function within Apostolic Succession and Order. Other traditions bear marks of that succession as well. In Anglicanism, we lost the Diaconal Order for some centuries, but it has been reinstated and now flourishes in almost all provinces of the Anglican Communion.
While the separate Order of Deacons was lost for a time in Western Christianity, it continued to be a part of the ordering process of those being raised up for sacramental ministry. There is wide variance in how this looks now. Keeping it "in house" with the Anglican Tradition, one moves through a preparatory process from being an Aspirant to a Postulant to a Candidate and then ordination -- first to the Diaconate and then to the Priesthood. Bishops are raised up from the Presbyteral College (Priests). The Aspirant to Candidate sequence covers that period of time of discernment, preparation and education. In the current Anglican process, one must have a Bachelor's Degree from an accredited college/university to enter the process for being ordained a Priest. Three years of seminary are required -- which is an accredited graduate school granting a professional Master's Degree (M.Div) showing competency in the seven disciplines required by the Canons of the Church. The education process is similar in track to medical, law, or other professional graduate schools -- seminary is a theological graduate school.
From the time I was in seminary, I concerned myself with what appeared to me to be a misuse of the Diaconate in the ordination process toward Priesthood. If one is being raised up ("called") to be a Priest in the Church, why not simply ordain that person when he/she has completed the required process? This argument was not new with me. It has been around for some centuries. Direct ordination to the Order to which one is being called is known as Per Saltum Ordination (literally: Ordination by a Leap). With the Order of Deacon now restored to its rightful and historic place in Apostolic Ministry, it confuses those who see a person ordained to the Diaconate and remaining in that Order for only six months to a year (most persons ordained to the Priesthood are so ordered after six months in the Diaconate...there are still some requirements in dioceses for a year of Diaconal work).
The Episcopal Church has tried to overcome this conundrum by providing names. Vocational Deacon is one who is called to that permanent Order. Transitional Deacon is one who is in a process for ordination to the Priesthood. I stopped beating a drum for this a few years back. Here is why.
During the six months I was a Transitional Deacon, my function was that of any Deacon. My focus, for those first six months on a parish staff, was very organic. I was in hospitals, nursing homes, mental facilities and other places where our parishioners were in need and receiving care. I was introduced to hands-on pastoral care for the sick, suffering, dying and those whose lives were in a crisis moment of brokenness. I would bring all of that back into the organized structure of the parish church as a way of connecting the gathering Body with those places of being broken or in pain. I did a lot of equipping of folks for ministry in the wider areas of need beyond the walls of worship and organization. I learned how to truly proclaim the Gospel (not just read it) and honed my skills in the art and craft of homiletics....giving understandable theological expression to the current needs and concerns of the gathered Body (yes, we call this "preaching," but I submit that the word indicates more of "talking down" to folks than sharing the Faith and providing insight and encouragement. I don't like the word "preach," but that is another story).
When I was ordained a Priest on 29 December 1978, I celebrated my first Eucharist with the parish community that Sunday (12/29/1978 was a Friday, so my first Eucharist was on 12/31/1978). At the moment I was in the midst of the Eucharistic Prayer itself, I suddenly realized that I was bearing all of those persons and moments of crisis and pain and offering them, through the Eucharistic Sacrament, to Christ and the assembled Body. It was a transforming moment for me and one that would shape and define every Eucharist I would celebrate thereafter....and every one I still celebrate in retirement.
I still bear a Diaconal function. In fact, tomorrow (Sunday, 6/30/2013), I will represent St. Boniface parish (where Denise and I now worship) by taking the Sacrament to a person in a rehab center located near our home. Though done by Priests all the time, this is a truly Diaconal function within the New Testament expression. I have never lost that deep sense of awe and wonder in connecting with folks in need...who cannot be part of the larger commuity...who are struggling or broken in various ways. Being a Deacon for six months gifted me with a life long compassion...."solidarity with" the larger community.
That's my story. The Apostle Peter represents the rock of faith...his diaconal journey can be seen in his struggle to enter the house of a Gentile family. Paul represents the deepening of experience and expression...his diaconal journey can be seen in his transformation from a persecutor of The Way...to becoming part of the Apostolic Community....the "Thirteenth Apostle."
I am humbled by and thankful for this day 35 years ago.
Love and Blessings,
Special Note: Of course I left out a lot of teaching and theology here. It would be way too much for a blog post. For those interested, the Outline of the Faith: Commonly Called the Catechism on pages 845ff. of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer provides a question/answer summary of teaching in my Tradition. The area entitled "Ministry" on pp. 855-57 are specific to my reflections above. I did not further "unpack" the differences between vocation and occupation cited in my first paragraph. That would add more length to the blog and deserves separate treatment. As a "bite" on it, vocation is work that defines and expresses one's character, or center of being. Vocation is ontological. Occupation is a work we do and may express an interest or an avocation but not an ontological extension. Work with that.
Secondary Note: This blog is more in keeping with the journey I have made. Yes, there have been radical abuses of the Apostolic Ministry by ordained individuals who have distorted and misrepresented the authority and "power" inherent in ordination. This is tragic. Tragic also that it continues in the modern era and in all traditions. My heart breaks to see it. None of us escape the temptations placed before us. The true disciplines of prayer and balance between ego and deeper Self are a part of vocation that keep us on track, but they are sometimes forgotten by those who abuse it. I make no excuse for any abuse on any level.