Tuesday, September 13, 2016
On Deacons and Deaconesses
For Rome this is complicated. The International Theological Commission (ITC), an advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, spent ten years studying the topic and published its report in Le Diaconat: Evolution et Perspectives, (only an unofficial English translation is available on the Vatican website or from Hillenbrand Books.) The new commission has a less wide topic but perhaps greater pressure and expectations upon it to open things up to women. On the one hand, the question has to deal with the issue of whether or not deaconesses in the early Church, both from the evidence of the rites of institution and their functions, were exactly the same or the equivalent of the male deacons. The ITC has pretty much concluded that they “were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons.”
Second, this new commission has to deal with the diaconal office as it has now become -- one part of the whole office of the Bishop, just as the priestly office contains one part of the episcopal office of the whole. So, within their concern is also “the unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders, in the clear distinction between the ministries of Bishops and Priests on the one hand and the Diaconal ministry on the other” (as the ITC idenfified). Tradition. We have post-early church distinguished the deacon from his service and placed the office within the larger veil of the episcopal unity from which the priestly office itself derives. So if the deaconess is the same as the deacon, that, by default, affects the office from which the deacon derives and Rome has a real conundrum on its hands.
Lutherans have a different problem. Lutherans have insisted that there are not three offices but one -- the office of Word and Sacrament which we call the pastoral office. We have acted like Rome in chunking off some of the functions of this office and assigning these functions to other offices (teacher, DCE, DCO, etc...) but in theology we have insisted that there are not three offices but one. So in effect Lutheran Pastors retain the full office like Roman Catholic Bishops to whom they are more the equivalent than simply the Priest. And we have insisted that Bishops or those who are invested with oversight (District Presidents) do not possess an office distinct from the pastoral office but merely have certain functions assigned to them that have not been assigned to others.
We claim the office is not simply the accumulation of all the functions (unless perhaps you are Wisconsin Lutheran), but we have rather acted as if this were the case. Though we claim this is a new problem (lay deacons, who they are and what they do), we have in our past routinely divvied up the office as if it were some kind of pie that could be cut into piece and placed on different plates for different people. In Wichita we insisted that the regular preaching of the Word and administration of the Sacraments could not be simply stripped from the pastoral office and assigned to others without ordination but we still have not decided what deacons are and how they are to function.
We also have deaconesses which are a recognized commissioned office in the church but not simply female deacons and we have not yet figured out how these relate together or if they relate at all. Rome has its problems and we have ours -- lay deacons (male and female) and deaconesses. We need to sort out all of this as well but for us it is not quite so simple. For we have commissioned ministers of religion (an IRS inspired term and not a confessional one) that pretty much permanently have been carved out of the pastoral office and assigned certain roles.
The ELCA wants to look like the classical three fold structure (bishop, priest, and deacon) and seems to be working toward fitting Lutheranism into that model -- with some success since churches that have claimed apostolic succession have entered full altar and pulpit fellowship with the ELCA which is tantamount to giving their orders their full stamp of approval. What that means and what it is worth are debatable. Missouri wants to speak about the uniform character of the office of pastor but then make exceptions to our theology in practice. For my part I believe it will be easier for the ELCA to clean up its mess than for Missouri to come clean and think and act as one. And I fear that Rome will suffer the most since expectations have been built up that most certainly cannot be met by those who want to see a priest in a chasuble in the Vatican.