11 January 2020

Diaconia in the Tradition of the Roman Church (3)

The model of ministry which, aided by Collins, I have drawn from the Gregorian Sacramentary and which survived unspoiled until Vatican II, is uncannily similar to what we find in one of the earliest writings associated with the Magisterium of the Roman Church: the First Epistle of Clement. Read Chapters 40-44. "To the High Priest his proper liturgiai are given, and to the priests (hiereusin) their own place is given in due order, and on the Levites their own diakoniai have been imposed." As Collins points out, the language in this passage "continues to refer exclusively to cult... so that 'the office of bishop' (episkope) which is under dispute is referring to the central function within Christian cult".

I Clement, and the Gregorian Sacramentary, see the Christian ministry in terms of the Old Testament Hebrew priesthood. The Bishop is the High Priest; the Deacons are the Levites. I know no trace in these early writings of the notion that Diakonia is to be read in terms of ideas drawn from Acts 6 about service to poor widows; no references, even, to S Stephen. Such allusions, such illustrations of the meaning of diaconate drawn from the text of Acts, are historically secondary or even tertiary. I here recall two observations of Dom Gregory Dix. The first is his insight that it was only in the third century that one starts to find Scripture, recently 'canonised', being used to support theological assertions; that previously the Tradition could be - and was - asserted without scriptural proof-texts (thus Trinitarian teaching did not draw support from Matthew 28:19, nor did Roman bishops trumpet Matthew 16:18-19 whenever they exercised authority). He writes: "Unless we recognise the important change produced in Christian theological method by the definite canonisation of the NT Scriptures, which only begins to have its full effect after c.A.D. 180, we shall not understand the second-century Church ... hitherto the authoritative basis of Christian teaching had been simply 'Tradition', the living expression of the Christian revelation by the magisterium of the bishops, whose norm and standard of reference was the Tradition of Rome."

The second is Dix's awed confession of the antiquity of the Roman Rite: " The evidence of the scientific study of liturgy inclines more and more to show that the old Roman Sacramentaries have preserved into modern use an incomparably larger body of genuinely primitive - and by this I mean not merely pre-Nicene but second and even first century - Christian liturgical material (if only we know how to look for it) than any other extant liturgical documents."

It is one of the ironies of history that it was an Anglican scholar who perceived these things a single generation before the sacramental formulae of the Roman Rite fell into the hands of disrespectful innovators. (Those classical Anglican liturgists who, unlike Dix, did survive to witness the conciliar period ... Willis, Ratcliff ... left on record opinions about what was done in that decade in which uncomprehending disgust is the most noticeable feature.)

What I am saying is this. The understanding of Christian ministry, including the Diaconate, as fundamentally and essentially cultic - embodied in the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice - which we find in the ancient Ordination prayers of the Roman Church, goes back to before the NT Scriptures were universally known and appropriated as normative. It is as early as that. The Reformation has left most Westerners - Catholic as well as Protestant - with a sub-conscious assumption that "going back to the New Testament" somehow implies going back to the earliest sources. Au contraire. There was a time when the incorporation into worship, teaching, and doctrine of elements or ideas borrowed from the NT was novel, revolutionary, and innovatory. (We might usefully remember that the authority of the book of Acts was - judging from the surviving evidence - not successful in generating the invention of the feast of the Ascension forty days after Easter until the second half of the fourth century.) The old Roman Ordination prayers are so archaic (if not in their actual texts, then in their conceptual matrix) as to go back to that period in the first and second centuries. Later writers (Irenaeus; Cyprian; Eusebius) do speculate upon a link between the Seven and the Diaconate; the Roman texts obviously antecede this Scripture-generated speculation.

The pre-Conciliar Roman Pontifical preserved the 'Levitical' and cultic understanding of the Diaconate and knew nothing of the 'Service-to-the-poor' Diakonia which the twentieth century was to find so appealing. It showed no interest in the 'philanthropic' concept of Diakonia. There are mentions of S Stephen in the historically secondary parts of the rite; but it should not be thought that even the entrance of S Stephen into the Tradition, when it eventually occurs, automatically brought 'philanthropy' with it. The long medieval address Provehendi has, towards its end, a brief mention of S Stephen; but it is for for his chastity, not his philanthropy, that his example is commended to the ordinands. While the ancient Gregorian Consecratory Prayer mentions him not at all, the final prayer Domine sancte, an addition of Gallican origin, does allude to S Stephen and the Seven in passing: but is still principally concerned with the deacon as a man who serves at the sacred altars. This is hardly surprising. The text of Acts itself, after the debatable material in chapter 6, gives no evidence whatsoever for a reading of S Stephen and S Philip as having a 'concern' for the needy.

{It may be a satisfaction to Anglican readers to recall that the Prayer Book Ordinal, despite the strictures of Apostolicae curae, here, as in many areas, is in the pre-conciliar and ancient tradition of the Roman Rite before the Improvers got at it: it expands the old Sarum Oportet formula as follows: "It appertaineth to the office of a deacon, in the church where he shall be appointed to serve, to assist the Priest in Divine Service, and specially when he ministereth the Holy Communion ...".}



Ian Coleman said...

Superb post, Fr Hunwicke! Deo volente I will be starting my studies for diaconate in September; the clarity of your exploration of the concept of diakonia couldn't be more welcome.

The Saint Bede Studio said...

Thank you v much for these posts, Father. Are you also familiar with Martimort's work " Deaconesses in the Early Church " ?

Deacon Augustine said...

God bless you in your studies, Ian. A word of warning, however. Depending upon where you will be studying, be aware that Collins' work is not looked upon too favourably by some of the powers that be. It doesn't really jibe with "what Vatican II had to say about deacons" and as we all know that Vatican II is the super-dogma which trumps all other dogmas, and the Church only really started at Vatican II, quoting Collins will not win you many brownie points at some seminaries.

You also may find that it is not too politic to over-emphasize the teaching and preaching role of the deacon. After all this was also another function of a Levite and is the role that St Luke most stresses in Acts with regards to St Stephen and St Philip. As long as you remember that Acts 6,8 to 8,40 is not as inspired as Acts 6,1-7 you should do fine.

Mary Jett said...

Where is the first Dix quotation from? "Unless we recognise the important change produced in Christian theological method by the definite canonisation of the NT Scriptures," etc.


Fr John Hunwicke said...

Dear Mary

It's from one of the series of articles on the Papal Primacy which Dix wrote for the periodical Laudate in the 1930s. They were reprinted in 1975 under the title Jurisdiction in the Early Church Episcopal and Papal, which I suspect is long out of print.

Ben of the Bayou said...

My dear Father Hunwicke,

A truly superb series of posts. Since you are enabling comments, I wish to ask you, our benevolent host, whether there be a way in which Acts 6 does fit within the matrix enuntiated by Collins, while yet not restricting (nor even focusing) diaconal functions to "charity"? To wit, Collins showed that diakonia is service offered to the person of Authority. Now, the Acts are very clear that the Apostles, as the ghostly Fathers of the newborn Church, were responsible not only for the " breaking of the Bread" and for teaching and preaching, but also for the distribution of goods from the freewill offerings of the faithful. This seems inherent to their Office of Apostle as "faithful and prudent stewards" of the Lord's oeconomia. The Deacon of Acts 6 would fit precisely with this idea that, *because* the Deacon assists the Pontiff at the altar of Christ from which His lambs are fed, than he also assists the Pontiff in his fatherly role for the family's other needs.

Would you kindly offer your opinion?

Anonymous said...

can you describe Fr any linkage you see between cultic and tradtional in the purest sense of the words

Anonymous said...


El Codo said...

Do you think ,Father ,that the wonderful Dom Gregory would have joined the Ordinariate or would he just have become a Catholic in the ordinary manner?

Scribe said...

Dear Father,

Thank you for this superb series on the nature of the Diaconate, and indeed on the other Orders of the Church. It is salutary to be reminded that the Church existed as a structured and hierarchical entity long before the Canon of Scripture was established.

PM said...

Indeed even modern Scripture scholars would support one of the planks of the argument. It is commonly held now that the Christological hymns are the start of Colossians, Philippines and Ephesians, and perhaps even the Johannine prologue, were texts already in liturgical use before the composition of the books.

Father's (and Collins's) this also gets some support from a little-known doctrinal definition in Vatican II's Lumen Gentium (LG).LG formally taught that epsicopal consecration was a sacramental act conferring the fullness of holy orders, not, as medieval and later scholastics thought, merely a sacramental giving a priest additional jurisdiction. (Even Aquinas, though I shudder to say it, got this wrong.)

taLG sought because of the rediscovery of patristic texts and closer study of liturgical documents. In particular, Mgr Duchesne's study of the Liber Pontificalis showed that it was common for the archdeacon (i.e. senior deacon) of Rome to be elected Pope and to be consecrated as bishop without first being ordained a priest; Leo the Great was one of them. This practice established that the episcopate indeed contained the priesthood as well as the diaconate, the point of LG's teaching. But it also underscored the unity of all three degrees of orders and the sacral character of the diaconate.

As an aside, Vatican II's better known doctrinal definition, the treatment of the Fontes in Dei Verbum, seems to me to be entirely consistent with the position of Dix which you outline.