4 March 2016

Diaconia in the Tradition of the Roman Church (1)

In 1990, Mr John N. Collins published his DIAKONIA Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources (OUP). You can probably fiddle around with Google and discover that its conclusions, more than two decades later, have not been disturbed. If you have queries about details in what I am about to write, a reading of Collins will probably answer them; I am not going to summarise him at any greater length than one paragraph.

Collins began by identifying a particular understanding of diakonia which became fashionable in Protestant circles in the middle of the twentieth century; and then infected the Latin Church too. It saw diakonia as meaning self-giving service to the poor and needy. Based on a misreading of Acts 6, it appealed to Christians at a time when ecclesial structures were losing power and prestige. "OK", it cheerfully claimed, "if you've lost your power and status you can still surreptitiously claw it back by asserting the moral high ground of humble service". Collins demonstrated, from examination of profane and sacred Greek usage, that the word diakonia, and its cognates, have a quite different root sense: that of one person's commissioned service to another person.

So the essence of the concept is not the following of Christ who came to 'serve rather than to be served'. The Deacon's basic purpose is not to be washing the feet of the lowest of the low (just as the nature of the Church is not, as we have so frequently been told, to be the Servant Church). Such things may be worthy in themselves ... may, indeed, be the charism of particular holy people. But they are not what diakonia is fundamentally all about.

What is it about? In its essence it is about serving, being commissioned to serve, the Bishop, the Eucharistic celebrant; about serving him in the administration of the Lord's Body and Blood; serving him in the proclamation of the Holy Gospel. Not a philanthropic service but a cultic, liturgical service. In as far as their duties may extend in the direction of philanthropy, it is instructive to observe the role they have in Pseudo-Hippolytus: the deacons are to attend the Bishop and report to him who are sick so that he, if it seem good to him, may visit them. Their ministry is to the Bishop, not to the needy. This role survives almost verbatim in the classical Anglican Ordinal: the deacons are "to search for the sick, poor, and impotent ... to intimate their estates, names ... unto the Curate".
Continues.

6 comments:

Palam├Ęde de Charlus said...

Ah, but what of Archdeacons?

mark wauck said...

Timothy Graham will doubtless deplore my provision here of a hyperlink: The problem with values carried by diakonia /“Diakonie” in recent church documents, but here it is. The link is to a recent article by Collins. Here is the abstract:

"Since Vatican II diakonia has been a commonplace in theology for loving Christian service. The term and its values were imported into Roman Catholic theology from largely German Protestant scholarship of the 1930s [Thus the presence of the German word "Diakonie" in the title]. However, the concept was severely criticised at the 1990 Synod of Bishops by Cardinal Ratzinger for obscuring the true nature of ordained ministry. In more recent years, however, the concept has been represented in some significant documents emerging from the magisterium (Deus caritas est). The development is unfortunate and is a disservice to the theology of ministry at a time of its crisis. Moreover the concept has been exposed by linguistic research as having no basis in what early Christians meant by diakonia."

Pages 3-4 contain a precis of Ratzinger's address to the 1990 Synod. In footnote 17 Collins notes:

"The reference provided by Ratzinger was to my dissertation at the University of London in 1976, “Diakonein and Associated Vocabulary in Early Christian Tradition”. The published version (note 4 above) did not appear until July 1990. How Cardinal Ratzinger came to access the thesis remains mystifying to me, but the published volume would have greatly strengthened the linguistic case he wished to make at the Roman Synod."

Thomas said...

Would I be right in surmising, on a related train of thought, that Jesus' characterization as "The Suffering Servant" is similarly misconstrued if it is seen first and foremost in terms of his serving us as a wounded healer? It would primarily be about his identity as the perfect Servant of the Father; one who "learned obedience through suffering", which I take to mean that he lived out continual obedience in the midst of utter suffering, rather than his having to be taught to obey by being made to suffer (like yours truly). So it's above all a title that speaks of his life and death of sacrificial service to The Father on behalf of human nature. It's not that the other aspects of his redeeming ministry aren't true, just that everything else follows from that. If that's right, you must be getting through, Father!

Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

As one who is the same age as Israel (ABS was born in 1948), this atavistic man remembers when it was taught that the Mass was a Holocaust; well, it still is but we call it the Lord's Supper because that is less offensive to protestants (but not to ABS).

If you want to have some didactic fun, politely ask your local Pastor or Priest if the Mass is a Holocaust. He may know the answer (but prolly not) but if he doesn't know the answer his curiosity will likely be piqued and he may well search out the answer and, once having learned the answer, that answer may be the impetus to discover what else it was his seminary training ommitted in the interest of Ecumenism.

Ecumenism is the Universal Solvent of Tradition(tm)

Timothy Graham said...

One mustn't disappoint: Mr Mark Wauck! You stoop to the depths of a hyperlink! Deplorable!

Edwin said...

Dear Palam├Ęde de Charlus, Archdeacons are important because they gave rise to a disputation in the University of Oxford; "whether an Archdeacon may be saved"; better matter than the question of Angels and Pins.