Today I am launching my new book Inferior Office? A History of Deacons in the Church of England, which is the first ever book devoted to the history of the most junior of the three orders of bishop, priest and deacon in England since the Reformation. The book begins with the revision of the Ordinal under Edward VI in 1549, exploring the theological changes it embodied and asking why deacons survived the Reformation in England as a junior grade of the clergy, rather than undergoing the same transformation as they did in other reformed countries. The book then explores the development of lifelong and long-term deacons (clergy who remained in deacon’s orders for years before being ordained priest) in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, asking why this happened, who these deacons were and what they did. My research suggests that lifelong deacons made up a little under 10% of the entire clergy during this period.
The book also covers the heated debate about the future of deacons that divided the Church of England in the nineteenth century, beginning in 1839 with Thomas Arnold’s call for middle class men without a university education to be ordained to the diaconate. The debate rumbled on until 1888 and even after, until it became clear that the Convocations of Canterbury and York had lost interest in changing the law so that working men could be ordained. The book’s final two chapters deal with the twentieth century and deacons in the contemporary Church of England. In the twentieth century, the argument shifted from ordaining working men as deacons to the question of whether women should be ordained to the diaconate (and, indeed, whether women already ordained as ‘deaconesses’ were deacons already). This culminated in the admission of women to the diaconate in 1987, and for a brief period until 1994, the number of ‘permanent deacons’ in the Church of England swelled because it was the only option for women seeking ordination. The admission of women to priest’s orders in 1994 significantly reduced the number of clergy who chose to remain deacons only, and they were to be found mostly in the dioceses of Chichester, London and Portsmouth. However, in 2001 a working party of the House of Bishops presented a document to General Synod, For Such a Time as This, calling for a renewal of the ‘distinctive diaconate’ in the Church of England. The report was rejected and, in spite of the fact that distinctive deacons were recognised as a form of ministry in The Mission and Ministry of the Whole Church (2007), debate on the future of the diaconate in the Church of England has stalled.
Although individual bishops remain receptive to the distinctive diaconate, hostility to the idea of more deacons tends to come from priests and Lay Readers who object to the ‘clericalisation’ of a diaconal ministry that they are already engaged in; indeed, pressure from the Central Readers’ Council was one factor that led General Synod to reject For Such a Time as This. Some bishops are wary of deacons because they believe that they are mostly women who oppose the ordination of women as priests and bishops, and that the idea of a distinctive diaconate is only supported by Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic conservatives. Others reject deacons on the grounds that there is no such thing as an Anglican theology of the diaconate, believing that distinctive deacons are just a borrowing from other traditions. In addition, the fact that deacons are unable to celebrate the eucharist leads many bishops to believe that training them is not financially worthwhile, since they are unable to supply one of the key pastoral demands of congregations.
My hope is that Inferior Office? will rekindle the debate about the future of deacons in the Church of England, whether ‘distinctive’ or ‘transitional’, by revealing an almost entirely unknown history of the Anglican diaconate. Lifelong deacons are not a recent invention, but were a regular feature of the church’s life in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Furthermore, there is an Anglican theology of the diaconate which can be found in the Ordinals and the writings of Richard Hooker and other theologians. If the Church of England is to continue ordaining all of its clergy to the diaconate, it must have a coherent reason for doing so, and that reason is to be found in looking back at its history. The disappearance of deacons from the Church of England is a recent, indeed a twentieth-century phenomenon, and the church needs to ask itself whether it is seriously impoverished by the virtual absence of deacons (of whom there are only about 100 in the church, represented by the Diaconal Association of the Church of England). In some other churches in the Anglican Communion, deacons are a flourishing part of the church, for example in the Episcopal Church in the USA, where the number of deacons runs into thousands for a church whose membership is about the same size as the Church of England. Furthermore, permanent deacons are an immeasurably important part of the life of the Catholic Church in England, and a growing movement in the Methodist Church. By uncovering the hidden history of the diaconate in the Church of England, I hope that Inferior Office? will stimulate a debate in the Church of England about why it has never truly grappled with reviving the diaconate.