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On the Revival of the Diaconate

By C. H. Sale

From Mission Life, Vol. III (1872), pages 729-732.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia



BY THE REV. C. H. SALE, Vicar of Kirby-on-the-Moor, Yorkshire.

MANY of our wiser men say that Church reform is the best Church defense. Might they not add, that the very measures best calculated to preserve the Church from disestablishment and disendowment, would best prepare her for them, if, in spite of all, they should come?

Greater elasticity in externals, especially if combined with greater internal unity; synodal action--diocesan, provincial, national; a more equal distribution of her revenues; a reconstruction of cathedral chapters such as would render them the soul and centre of diocesan work; rectification of the parochial boundaries; consolidation of small benefices; some check on the exercise of patronage, perhaps the absolute prohibition of the sale of livings,--these things, and whatever else would relieve the Church of offences, economise her forces, and enable her to adapt herself to the ever new requirements of the day, improve the intellectual culture and elevate the spiritual tone of her clergy, and combine their action, must tend to strengthen her against external assaults, while they would be but anticipations of what must come after disestablishment and disendowment.

And perhaps few measures would so directly and effectually increase the strength of the Church, both to do her Divine Master's work and to resist her enemies, as the Revival of the Diaconate, while it has the special recommendation that it is entirely within her present powers.

The phrase Revival of the Diaconate is used advisedly, for it is contended that at present the Diaconate is non-existent as a constituent order of the Christian ministry, having its assigned province and distinct office. It exists only as a rudimentary organ, which is historically interesting, but whose function is in abeyance, and its occupation gone. It is but a step, and a very short one, to the priesthood. The deacon is simply the priest in embryo; his duties are not proper and peculiar to his office, but merely those of the not yet wholly developed priest.

Whereas Bingham tells us, on the authority of Epiphanius, that in the primitive days no Church was without a deacon, and on that of Ignatius, that without deacons no Church was called a Church, in our days the deacons of a diocese may be numbered by the ordinations of the year.

Now it might be argued, à priori, that the virtual abolition of one of the orders of the Christian ministry, of apostolical if not of Divine institution, must of necessity greatly cripple the Church--that maimed service must be the result of a mutilated ministry.

[730] Either there is no deacon's work to be done in these times, or it is undone, or ill done; or, if done at all, done by priests, of whom the Church has too few, and so done to her grievous injury in her highest and dearest interests.

But whatever causes may have conspired to bring about this abeyance of the Diaconate, amongst them is certainly not to be found any want of the work proper to the deacon. If the deacon was necessary in the first days of the Church, in order to undertake the secular or semi-secular work of the ministry, how much more in these, when the disciples are no longer few, but the Church is in theory commensurate with the nation, and established by law; and when all kinds of employments are accumulated in the hands of the clergy, some by law, many by custom, others by the well-earned confidence of the laity in times when physical suffering and temporal needs attract even more attention than the moral degradation and spiritual destitution with which they are so often connected.

There is the deacon's work, and more and more of it every day! And we may thank God that so far it has not been either undone or ill done; but it has been done by the priest.

There are two evils in this--waste of power, and damage to the instrument itself.

The priest has his proper province--the pastoral charge of a parish, the feeding the flock of Christ, the seeking out the lost sheep. He is diverted from his special spiritual function by the secular employments which occupy his time, and absorb and distract his mind. And what is worse, he is often disabled as a spiritual man by the coarse contact which such employments frequently involve. They take off the fine edge, and lower the temper of the sword of the sanctuary.

It is indeed true that a certain amount of practical duties is a salutary antidote to some dangerous tendencies,--that the intercourse with parishioners which is incidental to secular work conciliates their confidence, and affords that knowledge of men and things without which the most cultivated intellect and the highest spiritual attainments are not always available. But it may be urged that diligent pastoral visitation will supply such knowledge, which, after all, is not the invariable result of keeping parochial accounts, collecting subscriptions, organising and working clothing clubs and soup kitchens, distributing coal tickets, looking up truant children, and conducting night schools and singing-classes--doing, in fact, work not unbecoming a deacon, but more proper to an accountant, or relieving officer, or policeman, or schoolmaster, than to a priest.

Public opinion may and does require much of this secular kind of work at the hands of the clergy, but public opinion also asks refined and well-studied sermons, abreast of the intelligence and criticism and science of the day. And the condition of souls, for which Christ died, both within and without the fold of the Church, demands that deep spiritual insight [730/731] and that loving sympathy which can only come of close communion with God, and assiduous cultivation of the spiritual life. How can there be the kind of preaching which men desiderate and the time needs, or that administration of the Word and sacraments, that feeding of the flock, that seeking out the lost sheep which Christ imposes as the special work of His priests, when they are so largely occupied by deacons' work?

But one of the most disastrous consequences of this practical extinction of the order of deacons, and the one which impresses itself most on general observation, is that a sufficient number of qualified candidates for the priesthood can no longer be found. Many causes combine to bring about this dearth of candidates for Holy Orders, but amongst them must be reckoned the disinclination of men of culture to undertake the drudgery of the present work of a priest in town parishes. Possibly a sufficient number might be found to fill the office of priest proper, but men can no longer be had to do the work of priest and deacon too. And of the candidates for the ministry, many are lamentably deficient in tone and learning. The church is in serious danger of what would be fatal to her as an establishment, an illiterate and uncultured clergy. Though the Rev. E. Jackson maintained, in a paper read before the Leeds Congress, that already there are more curates than there is present or prospective provision for, the supply of curates is notoriously unequal to the demand.

The situation is becoming critical, for meantime the field widens at home and abroad; the work grows on every side. God's good Spirit is quickening the zeal and energies of His Church. She is daily rousing herself to new efforts, which call for more labourers, and which, if she is to fulfil her high and holy mission, demand readaption of her resources, and reorganisation of her forces.

These crying needs of the Church find expression in all kinds of appeals, and a remedy for them is sought in all kinds of ways, some irregular, others more or less objectionable and not unaccompanied by risk, and all ineffectual.

What are Additional Curates', Pastoral Aid, and Scripture Readers' Societies, Curates' Augmentation Fund, the manifold appeals for lay help, and the rising demand for lay preachers, but loud, though perhaps unconscious, expressions of wants and difficulties which are the natural and necessary result of the abeyance of the Diaconate, and which might, under God's blessing, be obviated by its revival? And might not God's blessing be confidently expected to attend such a reconstruction of the Christian ministry on the foundations of its original and apostolical, if not Divine, institution?

A numerous order of deacons, "men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom," "grave," "first proved" and "found blameless," not of necessity altogether divorced from secular employments, not drawn from one rank, but some of them from the higher, and more from the [731/732] lower stratum of the middle class, men of some general and of much Christian knowledge, acting by apostolic commission, and under the superintendence of the parish priest, must add very largely to the disposable forces of the Church without drawing too largely on her resources. It would enable the priesthood to add to the number and frequency of services, to occupy more ground, and hold it more firmly, and at the same time devote itself more duly to the spiritual work of the office.

It would utilise a vast amount of zeal and talent at present lost to the Church, and sometimes turned against her. It would provide, what some desiderate, a new link of sympathy between the ministry and the higher, but more especially, the lower, strata of society. It would obviate the present necessity of entrusting with the office of the priesthood men by no means qualified by learning, tone, or proved stability. It might tend to secure to the Church a large and influential body of schoolmasters, by furnishing them with congenial employment, especially in her Sunday services.

Any priest, assisted by a schoolmaster-deacon, might hold three services on the Sunday as easily as two at present, and Cottage Lectures and Mission Services might be largely multiplied, at little extra pecuniary cost.

Would it be too much to say that at least one-third of our 6,400 curates might be dispensed with, and our Great Master's work more thoroughly done by a ministry thus reconstituted on the primitive and apostolical lines?

There would be no insuperable difficulty, it is to be presumed, in adjusting the relations of this order of deacons to the present state of things and persons ecclesiastical. And while, as a rule, it might be expedient to exact guarantees that such deacons would not themselves aspire to the priesthood, there would be no reason why, on the invitation of the Bishop, a certain number of the most approved and best qualified might not be advanced to that order.

The practical difficulty would be found in discriminating between the persons admitted to the more permanent Diaconate, and those passing through the order on their way to the priesthood--between the deacon proper, and the inchoate priest. And there might arise delicate questions as to the discipline of the order, and the voluntary retirement of some of its members. But surely all such difficulties and questions might be safely left in the hand of the able and godly bishops whom the providence of God has placed over the Church.

It may for the present suffice, amongst the various proposed measures of Church defence and Church extension, to point attention to the revival of the Diaconate as the one not least calculated, under God's blessing, to promote the object of all--the security of the Church and the honour of her Lord.


London: Printed by Jas. Truscott and Son, Suffolk Lane, City.

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