Wednesday 3 November 2010

Priests, Deacons, Subdeacons...and Ethiopians

(Picture from Wikipedia)

I don't have much time to linger on Liturgical blogs these days, alas. Whenever I do look at RC tradworld blogs, however, I do notice one feature of tradworld liturgies that irks me: the practice of priests serving the Liturgy not as priests, but rather as Deacons and Subdeacons. I've also been reading a little about the Ethiopian rite of the Divine Liturgy and tradworld vs Ethiopian Orthodox is quite a contrast.

Reading tradworld rubrical guides, new and reprinted, one often sees instructions to the effect that Priests may carry out the functions of the Deacon or Subdeacon at Mass, or similar. In the Latin rite, a layman may fulfill the functions of the Subdeacon, with certain restrictions, of course, on what he can wear and do. This raises several important questions about how the Western Church "does" Liturgy: Are we saying that the rite is inherently defective, because it puts into vestments a person (the Subdeacon) who needn't be ordained to fulfill that office? Why is it that under current rules, both an ordained priest and a layman can serve as Subdeacons at the Liturgy? Does that make sense? Is there supposed to be a sharp line between clergy and laity, and which side of the Minor Orders does it fall on?

At the Ethiopian Liturgy, one will find at least five (seven is canonically correct) ministers: The Celebrant, the Assistant Priest, the Deacon, the Subdeacon, and the Lector, to which Fanbearer and Acolyte are added to make up the canonically required seven. A Priest assists, but he does so as an Assistant Priest. There is no notion of "demoting" him to the rank of Deacon for the duration of the liturgy.

Western practice begs the question, what actually is the Priest-Deacon? Is he a just a Priest in Deacon's clothing? If he is, why does he receive Communion with his stole tied inappropriately, or if he's acting as Subdeacon, not at all? The inconsistencies that arise, where the Priest in choir is expected to receive Communion in a stole, but the Priest-in-Tunicle isn't!

Another major question is that of the relationship between Office and Liturgical Function. My understanding of Orders, starting from scripture and going on to the Fathers, is that each clerical order has both an Office and a Function. In some cases, the liturgical function overlaps a little: Bishops and Priests both celebrate the Liturgy, Subdeacons and Lectors (formerly) both chant Readings. Yet, their respective offices are not precisely the same. Is it right then, for a priest to temporarily relinquish his proper function to fulfill that of another minister, or for a layman to usurp the liturgical function proper to a Subdeacon?

This might all seem like so much splitting of hairs, and shying away from providing real answers. But comparing the Ethiopian and Latin-rite practice reveals the massive gulf between how East and West project their own notions of convenience onto the Liturgy.

Convenience does matter, though. In my church, I'm used to priests acting as Deacons. We don't have a Deacon affiliated to the Parish, and when one visits, he acts as Deacon. Luckily though, I don't think I've ever seen a Priest act as Subdeacon in the Parish (which must be one of the worst liturgical solecisms ever!). The rotation of lay servers in this role is perhaps not the ideal, but is certainly better practice than using a priest, and approaches at least a "simulation" of ministers in minor orders. And to my mind, the minor orders are the answer to this problem. That and the promotion of the Diaconate. One of the good things (but possibly the worst named) to come out of late twentieth-century mucking around with the Liturgy is the revival of the "Permanent" Diaconate, individuals who are ordained as Deacons to fulfill the Office of pastoral care and teaching, and the Functions of the Deacon at the Liturgy. Surely that is the first step in achieving an understanding of orders that chimes with scripture and tradition.


  1. Have you been hacking into my e-mail account?

    Only last night I mentioned this western practice in an e-mail to a friend who, like me, often desires to perform liturgical rites fully, even if the manpower is not there. Essentially, what I said was that we should simply do the best we can with what we have, and pray for it to be a heartfelt offering in spirit and in truth. I pointed out that, taken to its extreme, the putting of the liturgical ideal before the reality could mean we end up with priests vesting and acting as deacons and subdeacons, for the sole purpose of enabling a high mass to be put on, as though a Sung Mass were somehow defective.

    This doesn't generally happen in our rites. In the absence of a deacon, various diaconal roles are either omitted or redistributed, according to their necessity and significance, but nobody dresses up as something he is not. The exception is perhaps the case of laymen or readers who are blessed to wear the subdiaconal stole and serve as subdeacons. This usually arises if there is a need for a subdeacon and the man in question is called to serve as such, but has stated an intention to marry and has not yet done so. The canons prohibit clerical marriage after ordination to the subdiaconate and call for any subdeacon who dares to marry to be deposed. So this is a pastoral concession, and even then, these men are not afforded all of the privileges of subdeacons: they may not touch the Holy Table or Oblations Table, they may not wear the cassock, they may not pass through the Holy Doors, and in places where subdeacons are customarily communicated at the Holy Table, such men must still receive outside the altar with the laity.

    I'm not sure what this dressing up and dressing down means for the integrity of orders and function, and of the liturgy as a whole, but it is a question worth raising. The answer, of course, would be to restore the subdiaconate and ordain more of them, and deacons for liturgical service in the parishes. That would solve the diaconal problem and give proper ecclesiatical blessing for those laymen who give of their service to do what they do so well.

  2. I'm confused. You and commenter #1 write as if priests are not also deacons. We really are! and Bishops are also priests and deacons, possessing the fullness of holy order in their character. One does not cease to be a deacon when he is priested (or bishopped). So there is nothing whatever wrong with a priest acting liturgically as a deacon. But he must always defer to a deacon who has not (yet) been priested, even in so simple a matter as reading the gospel.
    So with regard to "nobody dresses up as something he is not," that simply isn't true in the case of moving "down" the ranks. But certainly no one can act as something to which he has not yet been ordained, e.g. a layman acting as deacon as was so routinely (and presumptuously) done my college and the other Anglican college across the street in Toronto.
    Good blog. Keep it up.

  3. Ian,

    I take your point, but I wonder if the assertion that "Bishops are also Priests and Deacons" disguises a distinction between Order, Office and Function which is reflected in Apostolic tradition.

    The Sacrament of Orders is one, of course, but maybe such signs as the Bishop wearing a dalmatic and tunicle under the Chasuble have more to do with the Bishop's jurdisdiction over his clergy in those orders, rather than his continued (and in a sense, redundant) occupation of those offices and their functions? That would certainly make sense of the Bishop's tunicle, as a Subdeacon is regarded as not receiving the Sacrament of Orders anyway.

    Bishops are indeed priests, but are they presbyters? There is a distinction between the Bishop's enjoyment of the fullness of the Priesthood (summus sacerdos s. primi ordinis) and the Presbyter's "simple priesthood" (simplex sacerdos s. secundi ordinis). This fullness might relate to the Bishop's full exercise of the Apostolic ministry: his ability to consecrate other Bishops as well as celebrate the liturgy (as Our Lord did) which a presbyter-sacerdos doesn't have. A deacon can't do either and is appointed to the Office of Deacon (the word "office" being found in the older forms of ordination rite, highlighting a traditional recognition of Office as distinct from Orders) to assist Priests of both kinds (Deacons of honour at a Pontifical Mass, for example).

    So in stepping "down the ranks", isn't a presbyter conflating the Sacrament of Orders that he shares with a Deacon, with Office and function? Isn't that why, as you point out, a "real" Deacon should be deferred to to read the Gospel? I probably wouldn't go as far as to say that he's compromising his Priesthood, but to me a Presbyter acting as Deacon is unnecessary from a Liturgical point of view, as Tradition provides us with Deacons ready-made. Pastoral necessities and the reality of Parish life, however, are different matters!

    Were you ordained to the Subdiaconate before the Diaconate and Presbyterate? I wonder how many traddie RC priests who act as Subdeacons actually were also.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your comment about sneaky Anglicans inventing Deacons ad hoc.

  4. Dear Ian+,

    I'm afraid I haven’t much time as I’m just off out but, essentially, the reason I write as though priests are not also deacons is because that is precisely what I believe. You seem to be approaching this from a Latin sacramental viewpoint, which is fine. However, the specifically Latin doctrinal concept of ordination conferring an “indelible character upon the soul” is not something that is believed among us Orthodox. The diaconate, priesthood, or episcopate is not something that belongs to the character of the soul of a man but rather a charism that is granted him by the Holy Spirit that he exercises only within the communion of the Church and at his bishop’s pleasure. It can be just as easily taken away as it is granted, by which I mean that, not only can a clergyman be removed from office but he can actually be deprived of the grace of priesthood and returned to the lay state, (whether for discplinary reasons or at his request, for any of a number of reasons). I know that doesn't speak to the point of this post directly but it does raise questions about the "once a deacon, always a deacon" assumption on which the practice under discussion rests.

    From an Orthodox standpoint, we start not from the bottom up but from the top down. That is to say, as a man progresses through the orders, he is not having layers added to what he already possesses, so that if we peel back the outer layer of priesthood, we find the diaconate still in there somewhere. Order are not collected. Rather, the bishop is the symbol (meant in the true sense of the word) of Christ among his diocese, and he orders its life for the benefit of the salvation of those over whom he has spiritual jurisdiction. All of these various charisms and ministries properly belong to him, not as an indelible mark on his soul but only through the work of the Holy Spirit, the consent and affirmation of the people of God, and, importantly, his continued communion with the whole Church through believing and teaching the Faith. In ordinaining men to various orders, he is extending an element of his charism to them, at his discretion, determining how they are to minister in his diocese. It is sacramental - more than just a mere commissioning to perform a function - but it is not indelible, and it belongs to the communion of the Church rather than the individual man. Therefore, a bishop who goes into schism is no bishop* and a clergyman is not properly identified as being sacramentally anything other than what his bishop determines him to be. If the bishop has invoked the Holy Spirit to extend to a man the grace of the presbyterate, then he is a presbyter and not a deacon.

    *(Incidentally, this is the main reason why episcopi vagantes never really took off in Orthodox circles to the same degree as in the west, {for want of a better term}. Where it has existed, the groups clearly adopted the Latin teaching of indelibility. To us, a legitimate tactile succession on its own means absolutely nothing if the "bishop" teaches or practises heresy, or is out of communion with the rest of the Church.)

    I can’t cite sources just at this moment but I seem to recall reading, (perhaps in the Eastern Catholic code of Canon Law but I cannot be certain without checking, which I currently do not have time to do), that the Uniate churches have basically sold out and adopted the Latin position on indelibility. What Anglicans believe on this is not my place to say. However, given that among Anglicans there seems to be little agreement about the sacramental nature of priesthood in the first place, I think it not unreasonable that there is likely to be some diversity of understanding about the question of indelibility, and Joseph's understanding within that context seems quite legitimate to me.

  5. @Michael: Question; just for information! Why then is a Sacred Minister in Orthodoxy buried with different rites to those of a lay Orthodox communicant? Is this about the body - ie that it was consecrated for ministry - or about the character/soul of the deceased? If the latter, does this betray some element of difference/deference regarding the reception of Orders as one having been "set apart" from the laity and if so does this imply a kind of appreciation similar to the Western concept of "indelibility"? (As an extra(!) why do monks receive a different service from communicant laity too, though they were not Sacred Ministers?)

  6. Dear Canon Jerome,

    Please forgive another incomplete reply. I'm currently a guest in someone else's home so shall try to be brief.

    The different funeral service for clergy doesn't imply indelibility. However, yes, it does, as you suggest, reflect the charism that was imparted to the person, the complete person being body and soul. That the soul, being part of the person, is configured to Christ in a particular way by the grace of priesthood isn't something I would wish to deny. I only mean to point out that, as we see it in Orthodoxy, there is nothing to suggest that, if it is the will of the Church, that effect may not be negated.

    As for monastics receiving a particular funeral service, the numbering of seven sacraments is also not traditionally Orthodox. You will find it in some more recent Orthodox catechetical materials from the past 150 years or so, or possibly slightly longer. I have read it suggested that this is due to western influence in Russia and also Greek clergy being educated in western seminaries due to the difficulties of preparing clergy under Ottoman rule. Traditionally, we do not place any particular number on the sacraments, and monastic tonsure and life is considered a sacrament among many Orthodox. While there seems no absolute consensus on this point, the funeral rites and communion practice, not to mention the canonical order of concelebration of clery, do seem to corroborate this understanding that monastics are somehow sacramentally set apart from the laity. It is certainly found in the catechism of Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk.

    Therefore, while monastics, if not ordained, are not numbered among the clergy, it doesn't of necessity follow that they are sacramentally the same as the laity.

  7. But Michael, even in the Byzantine rite those sections of the liturgy reserved to the deacon, such as chanting the litanies, are NOT simply not done when no deacon is available, they are still chanted, but by the priest; hence, the priest is taking the place of the missing deacon. Please do not try to force a separation between east and west that does not exist.