Sunday, May 22, 2011

deacons in Atlantic District

I notice on Facebook that the Atlantic District of the LCMS will have a graduation for a group of deacons this coming June 4th at Village Church in Bronxville, NY.  I do not know anything about Village, or about the goings on in the Atlantic District in general, but digging a bit further, it becomes evident that Village parish, and therefore at least to some degree also the Atlantic District, has women "deacons."  See, for example, Village's listing of staff members, which among others includes the following:
  • Joan Condon, Deacon Intern
  • Faith Forliano, Deacon
  • Rosemarie Gustafson, Deacon Intern
  • Wendy Haddad, Deacon
  • Carol Pfizenmaier, Deacon
  • Betty Roberts, Deacon
  • Ann Terenzio,Deacon
Is this just another, albeit misguided, way of referring to deaconesses?  No, not considering the fact that these "deacons" are willing to vest in the deacon's stole, as in this photo.

There appears to be a number of fundamentally different concepts of what a deacon is, and all within the same Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  On one extreme there is the idea that the deacon is a layman whose role is merely to help and assist the pastor.  There is an admirable argument for such a role, and a real need for it, yet it would be a mistake to refer to such a person as a "deacon." 

Another view has the deacon as a lay person, of either sex, who has a "ministry" of some sort.  This seems to be the model used in the Atlantic District.  The deaconess program would seem at first glance to be an improvement, but many view the deaconess in the same faulty way, as a layperson who is called to some sort of ministry; even the seminaries themselves are thus guilty by their use of terms like "call" and "minister of religion."  Noteworthy in this regard, too, is the oddly heavy amount of theology in the deaconess program at the seminary.  It is not sufficient to ask the rhetorical question, Is there such thing as too much theology? For if that is our thinking, then why not require congregational elders to go to seminary as well?  It would be better to compare the current model of deaconess training with that employed by Wilhelm Loehe, a true missionary, churchman, and doctor of the Church.

On another extreme there is the idea that the deacon holds the same essential office as the pastor, but is serving in another capacity, as, say, an associate pastor-type role.  This would fit a certain superficial reading of the Lutheran concept that there is only one ministerial Office in the Church. 

A grotesque crossbreed of these ideas is the "lay deacon" that districts of the LCMS have actually "licensed" to perform Word and Sacrament Ministry.  This is especially popular in the Mid-South District.  I call it a grotesque crossbreed because, on the one hand, they are not even real deacons (at least I have not seen evidence of it), and on the other hand, they are not only daring to perform the work of a deacon, but are in many cases even doing what only a presbyter should be doing, like running parishes, and supposing to celebrate the Holy Eucharist.

Apart from all of these is the traditional concept of the deacon.  It is a view of the deacon which can be traced back centuries upon centuries, and was preserved in some Lutheran lands (and still is today).  This view, which I argue is the healthiest and most balanced, sees the deacon as neither a layman nor identical to the presbyter.  He is a man, to be sure.  He has been trained theologically and been found fit to be a deacon.  He has been made a deacon according to the rite of the Church.  Some deacons go on to complete formation for the priesthood, and will later also receive priestly ordination.  Some will serve the Church as a deacon.  It is the lowest order of ordered (ordained) clergy, and so the deacon wears the stole, but only over one shoulder.  (He usually, therefore, wears one that is especially made for this purpose, which has come to be known as the deacon's stole.)  For he does not and cannot perform all of the functions of the Ministry of the Word, like celebrating Mass, or hearing confessions.  He does, however, take part in the administration of the Sacrament, for he handles the chalice, and thus administers the Precious Blood of Christ. 

What about the other part of the Ministry, the teaching of the gospel?  Is it right for the deacon ever to preach?  First, let me again emphasize that only a man can be a deacon.  Second, the "lay deacon" isn't a deacon either.  I am only addressing the situation of actual deacons.  The deacon does indeed have, shall we say, the faculty to preach.  Yet he can only exercise it if, and when, his bishop has specifically asked him to preach.  Some never or rarely preach, since they serve under a pastor who is capable, available, and willing to preach for himself.  Some will not be asked to preach because they were not very well trained for preaching, but are needed in other types of diaconal ministry.  Once in a while a deacon with training in preaching may be asked by his bishop to go someplace where the bishop cannot be that day, and preach there.  That might include what is sometimes called a "preaching station;" it might include some sort of missionary outpost; it may include what in some countries is seen as the work of an "Evangelist;" and it might even include a special retreat or conference, etc.  The deacon who is training for the priesthood (a "vicar" who has been made a deacon) will naturally get a great deal of preaching in his transitional diaconate.  That such a vicar preaches at all is not proper because he is training for the pastoral office, but is proper because he already is a deacon.  (It is simply especially fitting as it will serve well his formation.) 

I assure the reader, however, that I do not enumerate these diaconal preaching scenarios in an effort to elevate the diaconal office, nor for my own sake.  If my road doesn't have any more preaching, I completely accept it.  I am simply insisting on being intellectually honest about what is and is not included in the traditional purview of the deacon. 

The short answer to the question of diaconal preaching, to be very clear, is that it is proper for a deacon to preach only if and when he is specifically asked by his bishop to do so.  No bishop should lightly make this request of a deacon.  Preaching should generally be reserved for good preachers, like St. Stephen, and St. Francis.

The pastor may also ask his deacon to take part in the teaching of the gospel by means of teaching Bible studies, or catecheses, or specialized groups within the parish, or certain types of retreats, etc.

There are other aspects of diaconal ministry that are equally thorny with other segments of the Church.  For example, can the deacon ever celebrate the Holy Eucharist?  What if he is serving people who really need it?  They have no pastor.  The District President has given him the okay.  How can the spiritual needs of the people be ignored?  With respect and sympathy for these concerns, the answer is that the deacon who is not also an ordained presbyter can in no way say Mass.  Absolutely not.  Never.  Not in any circumstance.  Forget it.  Same goes for hearing confessions. 

There are Lutheran churches in other parts of the world where people have had to go for years without the Sacrament, because of the lack of available priests.  They did not invent their own solution, but had faith that their calling was to wait upon the Lord. 

This is not meant to be a comprehensive treatment of the diaconate, though I did want to touch on some of the more relevant distinctions that need to be drawn in today's LCMS, a venerable Church that is all too mired amidst the confusion of conflicting views of ministry, combined with the admirable desire to serve the needs of the people.  We must serve God's people in God's way, not ours.  And so I pray on behalf of the Church in our day:

Save me, O God; for the waters are come in, even unto my soul. 
I stick fast in the deep mire, where no ground is.  (Ps. 69)
The right hand of the Lord bringeth mighty things to pass.
I shall not die, but live,
and declare the works of the Lord.  (Ps. 118)


Michael Carter said...

This is not the first time that I've seen this. I saw a picture of a woman from the Southern District wearing the Deacon's stole, and I know that St. Paul's Epis. downtown has a woman deacon. The next step is woman's ordaination.

Dcn Latif Haki Gaba SSP said...

You're right, Mike. In fact, I would argue that in some ways, they already have women's ordination, if they are "ordaining" these women to the diaconate. Moreover, developments like these, even though they are short of ordination to the pastoral office, are evidence enough that the Church is already all too feminized.

Dcn Latif Haki Gaba SSP said...

I learned, via my Gmail spam file, that a Mr. Daniel Gorman submitted a comment for this discussion. Why it landed there, instead of here, I don't know. I will highlight key portions of his comment, and respond to them.

Mr. Gorman asked: Do Deacons have a regular call?

The answer: The men who are validly ordered to the diaconate have a call, yes, and according to their own station fulfill the Office of the Ministry of the Church (ministerio ecclesiastico), and are rite vocatus.

Seminarians, by contrast, do not have a divine call, except those rare cases where one is made a deacon at the start of his vicarage year. Therefore, the public preaching of such seminarians cannot be defended by those claiming to be Confessional Lutheran.

Mr. Gorman writes: If yes, why are Deacons not allowed to publicly teach in the Church (without permission) or administer all the Sacraments?

My answer: They are not ordained to do those things. There is order in the Church. Actually in a sense a similar preaching restriction applies to presbyters as well. That is, a pastor cannot simply walk into another man's pulpit, without permission. There is an order in the Church.

Mr. Gorman writes: "In 1 Cor. 3:6, Paul makes ministers equal" (Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope). "The Gospel assigns to those who preside over churches the command to teach the Gospel to remit sins, to administer the Sacraments and besides jurisdiction, namely, the command to excommunicate those whose crimes are known, and again to absolve those who repent. And by the confession of all, even of the adversaries, it is clear that this power by divine right is common to all who preside over churches, whether they are called pastors, or elders, or bishop. . . Jerome, therefore, teaches that it is by human authority that the grades of bishop and elder or pastor are distinct (Of the Power and Jurisdiction of Bishops).

My answer: Please notice that your quotation has to do with those who preside over churches, and whether there is any distinction between pastors and bishops. Deacons are not part of that particular controversy, and are not there discussed.

Mr. Gorman writes: You have created a subordinate Office of the Holy Ministry. But, according to scripture and the Book of Concord, there is only one office of preaching and administering the sacraments. Aren't you making the same error as the Mid-South District (i.e., dividing the divinely established OHM and making it subject to human authority)?

My answer: You are mistaken on my position. One of the problems in discussing the traditional office of deacon is that many good Confessional Lutherans will have a hard time getting their arms around it because 1. there is no real precedent for it in the Missouri Synod. It is beyond their experience. (I don't mean there haven't been any deacons here or there in the LCMS; I have known a few; I am one.) And 2. The singularity of the office of the ministry is interpreted according to that experience; therefore, they have a hard time grasping that two things can be true at the same time, that there is one Ministry of the Church, and that we can also speak of the office of the deacon as fulfilling that Office in its own way, or within its own parameters.

I willingly draw this traditional stand, knowing that I risk attack on several sides, because it is worth being introduced, and discussing, and hammering out among brethren.

Father Hollywood said...

Would it violate the LCMS Handbook and Bylaws and/or Matthew 18 and/or the 8th Commandment to say that this gravely disturbs me?

In such cases, I have been told: "always look for the Adam's apple."


Dcn Latif Haki Gaba SSP said...

This is indeed gravely disturbing. I like the way you put it, Father. A woman who dons the stole is, despite her intentions, engaging in an inherently transvestite enterprise.

I wonder if there are still churches where Confirmands are made to wear a stole-like garb. Our children, and our women, should not be the pawns and victims of experimentation in the Church.