The assumption in the medieval Western Church was that deacons normally would proceed to priestly ordination. While Reformation era Protestants often imagined themselves to be abolishing medieval errors and accretions, as often as not they failed to distinguish the truly medieval from the actually ancient. The assumption that the diaconate is merely a step towards high things is an obvious example. The Prayer Book Ordinal famously has the ordaining bishop pray over new deacons that they ‘may so well-behave themselves in this inferior Office, that they may be found worthy to be called unto the higher Ministries in th[e] Church’. This petition is an almost perfect summation of the late medieval and Reformation era attitude towards deacons, which the Tridentine Roman Church also shared.
One of the many theological fashions of the post-Vatican II Church, begun largely in the Church of Rome but quickly spread beyond, was a supposed ‘restoration of the diaconate’. The ‘restoration’ took a number of forms and was supported for a number of reasons, most of which included a belief that ancient, patristic norms were being revived.
For Roman clergy prior to Vatican II, the vow of celibacy was taken at the bestowal of the last of the minor orders, namely the subdiaconate. All deacons, therefore, were to be celibate. The restored diaconate that followed Vatican II was bifurcated into a ‘permanent’ diaconate, opened to married men, and a ‘transitional’ diaconate which included a vow of celibacy and was generally, as the name suggests, a step towards priesthood.
In the Anglican world, there was no mandatory clerical celibacy. Sometimes no bifurcation between ‘permanent’ and ‘transitional’ deacons was made by Anglicans, or it was treated as theologically insignificant and merely practical in basis. Other Anglicans accepted the distinction and based it on a difference in preparation and standards: in such cases permanent deacons were sometimes exempt from requirements for a theological degree or from examination in some subjects that were part of the mandatory preparation for priests.
While the nature of the change in the diaconate was not exactly the same in differing Churches, the rhetoric of ‘restoration’, renewal, and even elevation of the diaconate was common. Indeed one often heard, and sometimes still hears, that the diaconate now is ‘an equal but different ministry’ from priesthood: no more talk of ‘this inferior Office’.
In both the Roman and the Anglican worlds, however, the common rhetoric was not matched by reality. In both Roman parishes and in modernist Anglican circles – and sometimes even in Anglican dioceses and parishes that are relatively conservative in liturgical matters – the supposed restoration and elevation of the diaconate is often accompanied by an actual removal of diaconal distinctions and a sharing out of traditionally diaconal functions.
This rhetorical elevation and practical diminution of the diaconate can be seen most clearly in the matter of administration of the chalice and of Holy Communion from the Reserved Sacrament. Traditionally, both for Romans and Anglicans, authority to give Holy Communion was strictly confined to clerics, with the chalice particularly associated with deacons. This tradition is effectively abandoned in the Roman Church by the novelty of ‘extraordinary’ Eucharistic ministers. In fact, far from being extraordinary or unusual or limited to cases of very great need, in fact lay ministers of Holy Communion are quite ordinary and commonplace in Roman parishes. So ‘ordinary’ are such lay ministers of the Blessed Sacrament, that one regularly sees laymen and even laywomen administering the chalice while clerics who are present remain seated and unoccupied during the communion of the people. Similarly, hospital calls, sick calls, and shut-in visits, when they include Holy Communion, are regularly administered by the laity.
In Anglican parishes, even on occasion in Continuing Church parishes, the same things are seen: the chalice is sometimes administered by lay ‘chalice-bearers’ and pastoral visits, including Holy Communion from the Reserved Sacrament, are made by layfolk.
These practices are abuses, as the pretense that they are ‘extraordinary’ in the Roman Church in fact evidences. It is psychologically harmful and undermines the authority of the clergy for laymen to administer sacraments to other laymen. There are plenty of cases of clerical irreverence and incompetence, but clergy at least may be presumed to have a higher general level of instruction and professional carefulness than the laity. To make a sacred thing commonplace by handing it over to those not ordained undermines the significance of Holy Orders.
More particularly, in regard to the diaconate, these practices take one of the most distinctive functions of the supposedly restored and elevated diaconate and, in short, shares it out promiscuously. This radical innovation effectively undermines the diaconate. At the end of the day, the supposedly restored and elevated diaconate is in fact demoted in a Church in which sacred things are treated as commonplace and casual.