A Case For Permanent Female Deacons

Mike Smith

A Case in Point

Last May, a young woman I know expressed interest in ordination. However, her understanding of Scripture is that the only appropriate ordained ministry open to women is that of deacon. Currently a teacher, she is 29 years old and keen to serve as a stipendiary minister. She is also keen to be trained residentially on a full time course in order to be properly equipped theologically and pastorally.

Perhaps unsurprisingly in these days, she has faced a number of hurdles that would not be placed before either a female candidate with a different understanding of Scripture or a male candidate who shared her views. Essentially, she reached the impasse that if she did not consider herself called to be a priest (which would make her ministry “value added”) it was not financially viable to train her full time since she could never be an Incumbent. The clear implication was that, in the end, this was the only ordained ministry worthy of significant investment. Additionally, due to her “narrow” theology, a curacy would have to be arranged even before she entered the selection process. It was suggested that if she did not consider herself called to be a priest, non-ordained ministry would be a more appropriate route.

The Seriousness of the Issue

In this paper, I will show that the permanent diaconate is a ministry that has been within the mainstream of Christian understanding since apostolic times, and especially so within Anglican polity. Before coming to that, however, I think it is right to raise several issues that indicate why this is so serious.

First, the above case has revealed straightforward discrimination against a female candidate, albeit for unusual reasons. It is clear that this would mean a straightforward blanket “no” to any biblically conservative female candidate for full time ordained, diaconal ministry. It seems especially ironic to practice such discrimination against a female candidate for the diaconate on the basis that the presbyterate is now open to women. It denies the charity of “two integrities” at the very point it should be most closely guarded. It isn’t that many years since the old Order of Deaconesses allowed a biblically conservative woman to pursue a full time, recognised ministry in the Church of England. Now the equivalent option is denied and only a lengthy, non–stipendiary route to the diaconate is potentially available – though not encouraged – and certainly with no opportunity for full-time training.

Second, from the perspective of a conservative evangelical parish, this policy reveals an unjust use of our common funds. A standard parish share includes around £2500 to cover selection and training costs of ordinands. A substantial proportion of this covers those training full time. In our parish, we shall therefore contribute around £5000 this year alone towards clergy training. The position of the diocese means that our parish is expected to pay for the training of female candidates for the presbyterate/priesthood (to which we object, but live with in the name of “two integrities”) while we are simultaneously, and systematically, denied access to that same fund for the full time training of a female candidate for the diaconate. This does not help a financially overburdened PCC pay its parish share joyfully.

Third, this is an issue of concern to several parishes in our diocese. This as an issue prejudicial to an understanding of ordained ministry shared by a significant number of ordained ministers. Several of these have either had a full-time vocational deacon in their ministry teams or would be willing to have one in the future.

Fourth, and most seriously, this concerns a young woman keen to serve the Lord in full time ministry in the Church of England. It is a vulnerable time, and she should be receiving huge encouragement to test her vocation. Doesn’t our church need gifted, godly young clergy – even if they don’t all end up as Incumbents? Don’t we pride ourselves on the breadth of our church? From her and our perspective, it is not breadth that we see, but rather the twin dominance of a narrowly liberal view of women’s ministry coupled with a vision of ordained ministry overly driven by pecuniary concern. Shouldn’t ordained ministry embrace a variety of personalities, positions and ministries rather than coalescing all into a monochrome Incumbent’s role?

For these reasons, though the treatment of our candidate has been sadly unsurprising, it is unacceptable. We hope to find a better way forward.

Let me now move to make a positive case for a distinctive diaconate.

The Diaconate in Scripture

Deacons are notoriously hard to define in the New Testament. They clearly existed as one of the two “official” or “recognised” ministries, the other being that of the “presbyter” or “bishop”, the latter two being interchangeable terms in the NT. The “elders” and “deacons” were based in local churches but recognised by all the churches (so, eg, Philippians 1.1). We would use the language of ordained ministry to refer to these two roles. So what do we know of the deacon’s ministry?

First, if Acts 6.2-7 refers to deacons (as most consider it does, though the word is not used) then we see that their ministry is complementary to those who have “the ministry of the word of God” (Acts 6.2). The deacon’s ministry is primarily practical and pastoral just as the apostles’ (and later presbyters’) is primarily concerned with preaching and prayer. This is complementarity, not compartmentalism: presbyters are not forbidden to be pastorally concerned, and deacons are not forbidden to intercede or teach!

Second, women could be deacons, for the simple reason that Phoebe was one (Romans 16.1). Her position at the head of the list of Paul’s fellow workers is interesting: at the very least it suggests that if the church doubts the value of the diaconate or considers they really ought to “add value” to their ministry by becoming presbyters, it is not close to the mind of the apostle of Christ. It is more conjectural, but a good exegetical case can be made that Paul is referring to female deacons in 1 Timothy 3.11, rather than to the (male) deacon’s wives.

Deacons in the New Testament have a clearly distinctive ministry (although not necessarily a permanent one: like Philip in Acts 8, a deacon may move on to another ministry). They are honoured for their role. From the apostolic age, there were both male and female deacons. The relative silence of the New Testament on the exact job description of the deacon leaves scope for the church in every generation to discern what particular ministry best complements that of the presbyter. Certainly, the church should, if true to Scripture, be seeking people “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6.5) to be deacons today.

The Diaconate in the Formularies

The 1662 Ordinal remains normative for our understanding of ordained ministry. In the preamble to the “Ordering of deacons”, the opening rubric declares: “… there shall be a Sermon or Exhortation, declaring the duty and office of such as come to be admitted Deacons; how necessary that Order is in the Church of Christ; and also how the People ought to esteem them in their office.”

The service includes readings from 1 Timothy 3 and Acts 6, suggesting that our reformers framed their understanding of the diaconate from the passages mentioned above. The ordination candidates are asked a series of questions by the bishop which seek to ascertain that the candidate is truly called, biblically sound, submissive to episcopal authority and living a consistently Christian life. Significantly, there is no assumption that preaching to a congregation is an integral part of the deacon’s ministry. The deacon may preach “if thou be thereto licensed by the Bishop himself” but one is no less a deacon if this is not the case.

One of the bishop’s questions to the candidate for the diaconate especially distils the understanding of this ministry and is worth quoting at length:

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, and to help him in the distribution thereof, and to read holy Scriptures and Homilies in the Church; and to instruct the youth in the Catechism; in the absence of the Priest to baptize infants; and to preach, if he be admitted thereto by the Bishop. And furthermore, it is his office, where provision is so made, to search for the sick, poor, and impotent people of the Parish, to intimate their estates, names, and places where they dwell, unto the Curate, that by his exhortation they may be relieved with the alms of the Parishioners, or others. Will you do this gladly and willingly?

In fairness, it might also be pointed out that in the 17th century there was no opportunity for women to be ordained deacon and the presumption of the ordinal is that ordination as a presbyter will duly follow.

However, according to our formularies, deacons are necessary and their office should be honoured. It is an office designed to complement that of the priest and to combine both pastoral and appropriate teaching elements, though it is not intrinsic to a deacon’s office that he should preach to the gathered congregation.

The Diaconate in recent Anglican history

Although a female diaconate survived in the eastern churches until the 12th century, the west was not so enlightened. Following early 19th century initiatives in mainland Europe, from the 1860s, women could be deaconesses in the Church of England. Whether they were clergy or laity was disputed, and successive Lambeth Conferences in the early 20th century vacillated over the question. It is a distinction that seems to trouble modern Anglicans more than the apostles: they spoke of “elders” and “deacons”, not “clergy” and “laity”. Nevertheless, 150 years ago there was a significant restoration of a biblical ministry to women which flourished to the wide benefit of the church. This was followed in 1987 by the opening of the ordained diaconate to women. In all of this, we rejoice.

Ironically, the equivalent ministry today has now become much harder to pursue since the doors were opened to women being presbyters/priests and the pressure is to consider that the only option. For those who do not feel called to this ministry, or who are convinced that this development is contrary to the New Testament, a door has been closed to our common detriment.

The Diaconate in the Contemporary Church

The policy in our diocese appears to be in tension with that of the national church. The national Ministry Division portrays ordained ministry as a kaleidoscope of opportunities to serve the Lord in a wide variety of contexts, rather than telescoping all to an Incumbent’s role. In terms of the diaconate, the Church of England website is quite clear in distinguishing the probationary from the distinctive diaconate, and traces the distinction to one’s calling:

The ministry of a deacon is to be a servant, both within the Church and in the wider community. A person who is accepted for ordination as a priest is first ordained as a deacon. Then, after a period of normally a year, he or she is ordained to the priesthood. This reminds us that humble service is always at the heart of priestly ministry. However, some are called to be life-long distinctive deacons. These are people who are called to ordained ministry but not as priests. Their ministry encapsulates the servant nature of all Christian ministry.

(Bold added;

The Diaconal Association of the Church of England (whose patron, the Bishop of Wakefield, describes the “recovery of distinctive deacons” as a “revolution”) lays out a vision for a contemporary, distinctive diaconate:

There is a great need for men and women with a commitment to diaconal ministry to serve as distinctive or vocational deacons. Deacons operate in teams, committed to collaborative working alongside priests, readers and other lay people, helping to facilitate the whole church to live out its baptismal call to serve as Christ in the world; discerning the key issues of injustice and need, and developing effective strategies to “make a difference”. The diaconate represents and has as its focus “Christ the Servant”. Deacons are called to remind the church of its diaconal responsibilities and to challenge the world beyond the church to tackle injustice and need. (

There seems to be huge encouragement formally, nationally – and ecumenically – to foster the renewal and development of the vocational diaconate.


  1. In addition to other options for ordained and licensed ministries, the opportunity to consider ordination as a permanent or distinctive deacon should be explicitly encouraged. Little need change at the formal level: candidates for this ministry should follow the usual route that those who consider themselves called to be priests or presbyters.
  2. While recognising that such a ministry will only ever likely cater for a minority, it should not be required of potential candidates that they arrange a curacy before the selection process begins. Having said that, I recognise that informal conversations to that end would be wise.
  3. Training options for a candidate for the distinctive diaconate should be determined in the same way as that of candidates for the ordained presbyterate, namely by considering the candidate’s aptitude, age and personal circumstances. Their inability to become Incumbents should not automatically bar them from full time training.

Rev Mike Smith, Vicar of Hartford, March 2010