For what it's worth, a paper I gave at the 2008 British Orthodox Church Conference that seems possibly to have some relevance here...
A WIDER DIACONATE
Fr Simon Smyth
One of the classic accounts of the experience of Orthodox worship is that of Prince Valdimir's envoys attempting to describe the Liturgy in Hagia Sophia, Constantinople: "We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty." Orthodox theological belief is that in the celebration of the Liturgy our worship is united with the worship of heaven - the Liturgy is quite literally heaven on earth. So worship should reflect the worship of heaven. This is expressed in many facets but the one I want to stress here is the diaconate. The bishop is the icon of Christ and the priest the icon of the bishop (making the priest, in turn, derivatively the icon of Christ) and the deacons are icons of angels. At one time the heavenly worship in Hagia Sophia included some five hundred deacons: one hundred and fifty deacons, seventy subdeacons, one hundred and sixty readers, one hundred doorkeepers, twenty five cantors and also forty deaconesses. How Biblical: "The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of angels: the Lord is among them...in the holy place", "a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him". Around the one God, in the holy place, are millions of angels - even angels beyond numbering? God is the Lord of hosts - hosts of angels, not a solitary one here or there! Then round the one bishop or his one presbyter in the holy place, in the Church this should be reflected in a multiplicity of deacons. Though not expecting the average BOC congregation to have the five hundred deacons of Hagia Sophia(!) it must nonetheless be the case that worship with only one deacon (let alone with no deacon!) can hardly be said in this respect to reflect the worship of heaven.
And this is something that extends beyond the diaconate into all the congregation for around the One God are multitudes of saints as well as angels. ?But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels. To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect. And to Jesus??
But why labour this point? Am I not preaching to the converted who faithfully support their bishop and priests by being present in Church? I speak from my own experience? I forget how many times I have turned up at a BOC mission, spent a solid hour, or more, setting up everything ready for Orthodox worship, icons, bread basket, fans, candles, ark, etc., then prayed the entirety (or else very nearly the entirety) of Morning Incense before anyone else arrives. To declare ?the Lord be with you? to a physically empty Church and, of course, to hear no response, or to pray the Absolution to a physically empty Church can be very discouraging. Then to sit there waiting and wondering if any man is going to turn up to deacon or at least to be a congregation (?where two or three are gathered together?) so we can start the Liturgy? Yes, we are low in numbers I concede but to my mind that?s all the more need for us to be there supporting the priest unless we really do believe that he is the only one who should be running himself into the ground. Not that I am saying the priest shouldn?t work hard on behalf of the people ? if I did say that I?d be contradicting our patriarch Pope Shenouda who was once again (as recently as during the consecration of the Stevenage cathedral) reminding us priests of the need to be hard working for the people.
So I?m not complaining about running myself into the ground for the Church ? the point I?m making is that if deacons and people did more I would be so much the more released to devote myself, even to run myself into the ground in what I should be doing. "The Diaconal Order was the first charism put forth by the holy Apostles in the Church" with the intention that these men should release the apostles to devote themselves more "to prayer and to the ministry of the Word" .
Could this Anglican quote be relevant for us Orthodox? ?The reality of our modern situation is not that we have no place for deacons, for manifestly the diaconal tasks still need to be done. This is why priests become over-busy compensating for the absence of deacons by doing tasks which are more appropriate for the diaconate than the priesthood? Priests overburdened? have precious little time to exercise that specifically priestly ministry which is properly theirs? The evidence of the effect of the present position on priests speaks for itself: increasing numbers of breakdowns?and ?burn out?. We are discovering in the Church a lesson learnt by industry some time ago: that team work and support from others is essential to maintain quality of service and to keep the workforce content. If too many tasks are left to an individual to handle the result is a bottleneck, impaired performance and eventual collapse in the system or the individual concerned.
?Laypeople also suffer because of this state of affairs; ministry is seen? as the priest?s ?preserve and they only become involved to help out their hard-pressed priest? as an emergency measure. Frequently too the laity are in the position of being in childlike dependence upon the priest? with ?their own? ministries?at best undervalued and at worst undiscovered, leaving the ministry of the whole Church impoverished.?
As doorkeepers deacons (and others) welcome those who arrive. This is a reflection of the role, outside of the church building, as doorkeeper and evangelist, to "bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame", to hold open the door, to encourage, even to "compel people to come in, that my house may be filled" . Evangelism is not restricted to priests. It is very much a diaconal ministry, illustrated not only by the ancient role of doorkeeper but also by the ancient role of the full Deacon reading the Gospel in the Liturgy. But this doesn?t mean the liturgical Gospel proclamation alone but also proclaiming the Gospel out there? This is something to which all of us are called ? to be evangelists, ambassadors for Christ, witnesses. If the BOC is to grow and flourish we?ve all got to work at this. It?s simply no good leaving it to bishop and priests.
Something simple we started in Bournemouth is a little range of Pascha cards (a first draft this year) by way of promoting the Church, publicising the Church, evangelism? James-Antony, one of our readers, has done most of the donkey work on this, the hard work, and then run it past me for my comments and approval and I in turn sent copies to the bishop who also, in turn, has consulted other Church members. And with feedback next year?s will, we hope, be that much better. Now that?s good ? priest and bishop are kept in the loop (not excluded) but others are actually getting the job done.
What about when someone?s missing from Church on Sunday- is it the priest?s responsibility to enquire after them, to see what has become of them? For sure it is the priest?s responsibility. But it is also everyone?s responsibility.
As the servant of bishop and priest the deacon's ministry in the eucharist includes ensuring the charcoal is kept lit and holding the censer ready for the celebrant to place the incense therein. It includes pouring the water on the celebrants' hands and having the towel ready? And it should be that the deacon is stood there ready with water and towel and that he is stood there ready with censer - the deacon should be waiting on the bishop, not the bishop waiting for the deacon. There is an aspect of anticipation in the deacon's waiting on his bishop - as illustrated by an extract from the private prayers of the deacon on his arrival at Church: "the eyes of servants are directed to the hands of their masters, and...the eyes of a maidservant to the hands of her mistress"
This applies outside the Liturgy too ? deacons and people don?t have to wait to be told to do things by bishop or priest? they are allowed to use their own initiative and get on with things. By all means keep bishop and priest in the loop (like with those Pascha cards I mentioned) but you don?t have to wait until we send something down from on high? if you want to do something, be it evangelism, publicity or whatever then by all means come and seek a blessing upon your work from priest or bishop but just like the deacon in the Liturgy don?t wait for a blessing ? go and get one!
Now this is not only about deacons and people releasing the bishop and priests ? but it works the other way too. Priests should not monopolise things but should release the deacons and people to do them. I, for one, whilst hoping I am not a ?control freak? have developed a bit of a control mentality, having a tendency to do things to ensure (1) that they are done and (2) that they are done properly, done well? The results? Some things don?t get done at all or are delayed over long and no doubt some of those things that are done aren?t done as well as they might otherwise have been. So someone else?s attempt has faults ? so does mine (different faults maybe but faults nonetheless). For example I have become the person who prepares and prints the list of names of the living and departed for prayer each Sunday. This is clearly something diaconal I should relinquish ? given the deacon's ministry among both immediate congregation and out in the wider community it is eminently appropriate that he present the petitions during the Great Entrance. So I have sent this to the deacons and active Church members and I don?t expect to be doing this any more. For sure I can always add another name myself (as can anyone else for that matter) or explain that this or that person?s need is now met and perhaps we might remove that particular name. That?s input ? not control.
Another area is that of finances. I had this dropped in my lap when my predecessor left and I ended up having to do it all ? but thankfully it is now done by other members and with a greater efficiency than I achieved.
(I recall Peter Farrington?s advocacy at our conference the other year of Natural Church Development - Church growth through better distribution of jobs according to Church members? natural talents and abilities).
And as well as the finances banked with greater efficiency so too is the bread baked with better efficiency than I ever achieve (as those of you who have suffered my baking will know: the British Orthodox Church accepts no liability for dental bills!) Baking the bread for the Liturgy is surely a fulfilment of that original diaconal calling to release the apostles from serving at table so they might devote themselves to prayer (both for the Liturgy and people as well as in the Liturgy) and the ministry of the Word (preparing that sermon better).
Whether it be baking or banking, Pascha cards or other publicity or whatever it be take it on and do it and release your bishop and priests to those things that they are especially called to do.
If the people aren?t releasing the priest to do what he should then he must challenge them to do more ? and if the priest is being a control freak and not releasing and letting go of things to deacons and people? then they must challenge him. I tell people to remind me, to nag, me to pester me, even to make a nuisance of themselves but they tell me they can?t because I?m a priest and they must be respectful. So I say to them to remind me respectfully, to nag respectfully, to pester respectfully - but no matter how respectfully, to still make a nuisance of themselves? we have, between us, a Church to get built here.