The British Orthodox Church
Metropolis of Glastonbury

The Ministry of the Deacon in the Liturgy of Saint James [i]


The liturgical rôle of the Deacon should never be thought of as a sort of add-on to his real ministry of caring (outside the worship of the Church).  This Protestant misconception of the deacon’s ministry as social and not liturgical should not influence the Orthodox deacon, especially as it now has less influence even amongst evangelicals.  Thus the superbly Orthodox sentiment (from which this article derives its title) of the Evangelical-Lutheran Risto Ahonen[ii] that the deacon’s ministry “proceeds from the altar and always returns there.” Perhaps the presumption of irrelevance for the liturgical ministry of the deacon comes now as much from the secular world as from Protestantism, for the world (thinks it) understands the social ministry.  The world can, as they say in the world today, ‘get a handle on’ social work, good works of this kind – but all this liturgical ministry and mystery is utterly beyond it.  It is the same attitude that can accept (or, perhaps more accurately, can tolerate) the ‘open’ monastic who devotes himself to the physical and social welfare of others but utterly rejects the desert monk, the ascetic, the hermit.  These are concepts the world comprehendeth not, even as it comprehendeth not the liturgical ministry of the deacon. Yet the liturgical ministry symbolises and is the source of blessing for the external ministry of the Deacon, which “should always be closely connected with divine worship and Holy Communion.”[iii] These (apparently) two ministries, in fact, are not two but one ministry – manifested sacramentally and pastorally.

As doorkeeper the Deacon welcomes those who arrive.  This is a reflection of his rôle, outside the church building, as doorkeeper and evangelist, to “bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind”, to hold open the door, to encourage, even to “compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.”[iv] This rôle of doorkeeper and evangelist is continued right through the Liturgy as the deacon repeatedly calls on the people to pray, to “commend themselves and one another and their whole life to Christ”, to bow their heads to the Lord (to receive grace, mercy and blessing) and to attend, to hear, to stand up – to be aware and  alive to what is happening.  These should not be thought of as mere requests – rather are they spoken with the authority with which the deacon is invested.  This diaconal authority continues throughout the Liturgy, it being the deacon who dismisses the people at the conclusion.[v]

The Deacon calls attention by action as well as word – by reorientaion (see below), by, as acolyte, holding a candle to ‘focus’ or ‘spotlight’ attention on the altar through the Institution Narrative and by fanning the bread and wine during the Second Epiklesis to announce and welcome the King of Kings present in His Body and His Blood. (The Eastern Christian Emperor was welcomed with fans, a tradition continued in Western Christendom until very recently in the fanning, with ostrich feathers, of the new Roman Catholic pope on his first arrival).  This is the Deacon as doorkeeper, welcoming and announcing the arrival of so great a Personage (like the announcements at an official function:  ‘His Royal Highness the Prince of…’).

He continually seeks to draw the people ever deeper into the liturgy. He encourages all to come forward to receive Holy Communion – showing the chalice to the people he invites and calls them: “With fear of God and with Faith and love draw nigh.”  He encourages all to come forward for the blessed bread, the Antidoran, and to venerate the cross, kissing the hand cross and the hand of the bishop as they receive the bread.  The deacon is to lead the flock of Christ to the Bishop even as Christ leads us to the Father.

A particular facet of this drawing  the people deeper into the Liturgy is reorientation. The Deacon repeatedly reorientates the congregation, that is, (re)turns them to the East, to the Orient, throughout the Liturgy.  Four times in the litanies he faces West to call the people to prayer, then turns to face east to lead them in prayer. Again he faces West to call the people to “attend to the ….Anaphora” then turns east and enters into the sanctuary, the people’s eyes following his movement, their attention drawn into the sanctuary…

What is the significance of this repeated emphasis on the East?  The East is paradise or Eden[vi] (with connotations of innocence and also of heaven).  It is wisdom (‘wise men from the east’).[vii] It is the coming and eternal kingdom, already having dawned and yet still dawning.  “The other East is becoming visible.  Emmanuel inhabits it and illumines it with his rays”[viii] – “theologians say that the Second Coming will be from the East.”[ix] This reorientation is to return the people, to bring them back again and again to this coming kingdom and to the values of this kingdom.  And, of course, in and through all of these, the significance of the east is Christ: “His Name shall be called Orient.”[x] To re-orientate the people is above all to (re)turn them to Christ.

All these physical movements and actions of the deacon are akin to the incense (and other symbols or sacramentals), “operating subtly, even subconsciously – as the smoke rises upwards so our eyes have a tendency to follow its upward movement, to rise with it.  And our hearts have a tendency to follow our eyes… And with our hearts rise our prayers.”[xi] Similarly the congregation should follow the deacon with their eyes as he steps forward into the sanctuary, their attention (their hearts) should go with him.  Of course they could just admire the deacon in his gorgeous vestments and fail to follow where he seeks to lead them.  One could merely gaze at a signpost and fail to follow where it points, but that would be, quite literally, to miss the point.  The deacon is a signpost clearly indicating, to all who will see, the kingdom and the King, salvation and the Saviour.  Should any deacon be tempted to become too aware of himself in his gorgeous vestments, too self-conscious, as well as recalling our Lord’s strictures against those who set too much by themselves in their robes (words of warning, of course, toall clergy) let that tempted deacon recall also the signpost.  Signposts point away from themselves.  They point towards somewhere else or, in the case of the deacon, somewhere and Someone else.  Signposts are notoriously bad at pointing towards themselves.  It simply isn’t what they do.

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.”[xii] As the servant of the bishop and his presbyter the deacon’s ministry in the eucharist includes the fulfilling of that original diaconal calling.  This includes baking the bread for Holy Communion the evening before, releasing the bishop from serving at table,[xiii] freeing him for prayer.  It includes holding the candle so the celebrant can see the bread while he chooses the best one and again in the ablutions so he can see that no crumbs remain. It includes ensuring that 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 both for washing his hands and for the showers of blessing at the conclusion of the Liturgy.  And it should be that the deacon  is stood there ready with water and towel and that he is stood there ready with the 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.” [xiv]

These should never be seen as menial or inferior aspects of the deacon’s ministry, as lesser distractions from greater service, but rather as true facets of  the deacon’s ancient glory.  “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much.”[xv]

The procession of the Little Entrance symbolises the coming forth from heaven and entrance into the world of God the Word, also symbolises His presence in the midst of His assembled people (where two or three are gathered together). The Book of the Gospels (the verbal icon of Christ) is carried forth from the sanctuary (symbol of heaven) into the midst of the people. That the deacon should be a part of the Little Entrance is most appropriate for when God the Word came forth into this world it was “to deacon.”[xvi] He also came to preach.[xvii] The deacon’s rôle as evangelist is thus also linked to his presence in the Little Entrance.  This rôle is continued in the deacon reading the Gospel and in preaching the sermon (when appointed).

Truly the deacon’s ministry both proceeds from and returns to the altar.  He brings the sacred out into the world in carrying the peace to the people and in carrying the chalice out (from the altar, the sacred, the heavenly) to the people.  In passing it should be noted that the deacon handles the altar vessels with his own hands – whereas subdeacons and readers must only hold the vessels through a veil or cloth so as not to touch them directly.  In this, the deacon’s authority is declared.  The deacon further carries the sacred out into the world (from the Church) in visiting the sick, the poor, the lost – the Liturgy after the Liturgy, as these social dimensions of ministry have come to be called.[xviii] “The deacons’ wonderful mission is…to serve the poor and also to serve at the eucharistic table: to distribute both earthly nourishment and heavenly bread.”[xix] He also brings the world into the sacred through the intercessions of the litanies.  Given the deacon’s ministry among the immediate congregation and out in the wider community it is eminently appropriate that he lead these litanies and that he present the petitions during the Great Entrance, truly a returning to the altar.

Another sign of the deacon’s authority is in his calling to defend the sacred from the world even whilst bringing the world into the sacred.  He is to defend the altar vessels, the sanctuary, the bishop.  Indeed he is to defend the very sacredness, even the holy atmosphere, of the Liturgy – hence his exclusion of “the uninitiated” and “those who are not able to join with us in prayer.”

The deacon as an icon of an angel finds repeated expression throughout the Liturgy. As the angels both worship God in heaven and come down to earth as messengers and helpers, ascending and descending,[xx] so the deacon comes out from the sanctuary (the symbol of  heaven) and from standing before the altar (the throne of God) to the people to teach, to proclaim the Gospel, to lead them in prayer – angelic ministries all.[xxi] Throughout the Commemoration of the Living and of the Departed, the deacon leads the singing of the people and offers up incense “the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.”[xxii] The use of the liturgical fan at the Second Epiklesis emphasises the deacon as an angel – the fanning (being reminiscent of the sound of wings) indicating the presence of angels around the throne of God, surrounding the altar.  The association of the deacon with this angelic symbol, the liturgical fan, is a powerful one: icons depict angels vested as deacons and holding a fan, and in some ancient depictions even as the bishop can be seen with his pastoral staff, so is the deacon with his fan. It is a sign of his office, a sign of what he is. When there are sufficient deacons, liturgical fans are carried in the Great Entrance, which again links visually deacons and angels.  As the deacons surround the priest and the altar so “angels surround the priest.  The whole sanctuary and the space around the altar are filled with the heavenly powers to honour Him Who is present on the altar.”[xxiii] By means of the deacons who do the serving for that which is performed, we can follow in our understanding the invisible powers in their service of officiating at this ineffable liturgy.

In the Great Entrance the paten and chalice are carried around the Church by the priest and deacon, pausing before the sanctuary entrance to remember before God by name those for whom prayer is specifically requested (some of whom will have been added to the prayer list by the deacon given his knowledge of them through his work both amongst the congregation and beyond).   The priest and deacon then step forward  into the sanctuary and the paten and chalice are placed upon the altar.  This symbolises Christ’s journey up to Jerusalem, his triumphal entrance as King into His capital city, and then His ascent of His throne: His enthronement on His cross, His altar.  But this is not merely “a symbolic re-enactment of a past event, but rather we perceive the eschatological fulfillment of the Kingdom – the Lord of Hosts entering upon His glorious throne in the actualised and eternal kingdom.”[xxiv] Time contracts or is abolished, and past, present and future are liturgically coalesced, fused together in this profound moment, the Great Entrance and there, at the heart of this hallowed moment, is the deacon.  Earth and heaven are truly united in this moment, the liturgy on earth united with the Eternal Liturgy in heaven and there is the deacon bringing all these concerns and all these people, bringing all his work, before God, before His Throne (the altar, the cross, the heavenly throne united as one).

Deacons carrying liturgical fans, are symbolic reminders of the presence of angels in this procession, also their watching with our Lord in that past historical event, and ever present with Him in the eternal and timeless Liturgy of heaven.  Thus in the Great Entrance the deacon is present as angel.  He is also present to unite all his work outside (as it is generally perceived to be) the Church with His worship within the Church.  In reality they are not separate and need no uniting.  To serve the destitute and to save the damned is an offering and a worship inseparably linked and in no way separate from liturgical worship.  The one is true worship and offering even as the other.  But deacons being, even as others, both finite and fallen, can sometimes fail to perceive or appreciate this. Thus they are gloriously reminded of this reality in the Great Entrance.  Again, the deacon is present to assist the bishop or priest in the practicalities of the Great Entrance.   In the uniting of past, present and future the deacon is there as sign of the coming (and yet already present) kingdom.  He is also present as signpost and as doorkeeper or evangelist – drawing the people into the very heart of the Liturgy, even to Christ enthroned in the glory of love upon His altar.  This Enthronement Psalm of the Great Entrance[xxv] is the heart of everything for the deacon: this is proceeding from the altar and returning there par excellence.  The Great Entrance “is the epitome of all diaconal service, symbolizing in spirit and truth all that the deacon is and does.”[xxvi]



[i] The liturgical references in this article are to The Divine Liturgy for the Celebration of the Holy Eucharist of the Holy Glorious Apostle James, Brother of  the Lord and First Bishop of Jerusalem (Authorised for use in the British Orthodox Church 1995).  This is for the simple reason that the article is written primarily for deacons (together with other members) of the British Orthodox Church.  Equivalent references could easily be made from, say, the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom.

[ii]Ahonen, Risto, The Development of the Diaconate in the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland (Lecture) see – (editors) Gunnel Borgegard & Christine Hall, The Ministry of the Deacon (Nordic Ecumenical Council 1999), p.169

[iii] Ibid., p. 169.

[iv] Luke XIV: 21 & 23.

[v] Ibid., p. 52

[vi] Genesis II:8.

[vii] Matthew II:1.

[viii] Mahmoud Zibawi, Eastern Christian Worlds (The Liturgical Press, 1995), p. 267.

[ix] Pope Shenouda III, Comparative Theology (Coptic Orthodox Publishers’ Association, 1988), p. 154 (see pp. 152-155). See also Matthew IV:16, Malachi IV:2, Revelation XXI:23 & XXII:5.

[x] Zechariah VI:12, Septuagint translation quoted in Bibawi, op.cit.

[xi] Simon Smyth, ‘The Physical Side of Spirituality’, The Glastonbury Review, No. 101 (December 1999), p. 129

[xii] Acts VI:4.

[xiii] Acts VI:2.

[xiv] Psalm CXXII: 2, Septuagint.

[xv] Luke XVII: 10.

[xvi] Mark X: 45, The Son of man … came … to ‘deacon.’

[xvii] Mark I: 38.

[xviii] “The church’s liturgical and diaconal functions are connected, for liturgy reshapes the social life of Christians with a new emphasis on .. sharing … healing … reconciliation and … justice.” Ion Bria, The Liturgy after the Liturgy (WCC Publications, 1996), p. 21

[xix] Olga Dunlop (trans.), The Living God: A Catechism for the Christian Faith (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989), Vol. 2. p. 311

[xx] Genesis XXVIIII: 12, compare Revelation VII: 2 & X: 1, also Tobit XII: 15.

[xxi] Daniel IX: 21-22; Luke I: 19; Revelation XIV: 6 and Tobit XII: 6.

[xxii] Revelation VIII: 3-4.

[xxiii] St. John Chrysostom, quoted in Jean Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy (1956), p. 131.

[xxiv] Benjamin Williams & Harold Anstall, Orthodox Worship (1990), p. 160.

[xxv] In the Enthronement Psalms (e.g. XLVII & XCIX) the Ark was carried forth from the Temple, taken around Jerusalem and returned in triumph to the sanctuary. In the Liturgy the paten and chalice are similarly carried forth, processed around the church and returned triumphantly to the sanctuary.

[xxvi] Fr. Shenork, The Diaconate – Recovering An Historical and Biblical Definition(