By: Protodeacon David Kennedy
Do deacons in the Eastern Churches preside at worship?
What does “preside” mean in regards to worship? There are obviously various and diverse roles and functions in worship, especially in the liturgical assembly of the Church. All worship is not necessarily liturgical; for example someone praying upon rising in the morning is worshipping but it is not liturgy. I will restrict these comments to what we find in the official liturgical books of the Eastern Christian Churches. Is there evidence of the deacon presiding at the liturgical prayer in these books? This can only be answered if we have a clear concept of the different literary types found in these books.
Let me present a couple of simple questions that can apply to all liturgical texts. Who has been assigned the “voice” for a particular text? The “voice” usually falls to one of the following: bishop/presbyter, deacon, reader/cantor, choir, the assembly of the baptized. At times, the “voice” will be quite particular, e.g. the candidate for baptism, the man and then the woman in the exchange of consent at marriage.
We need also to ask, who is being addressed? Is God being addressed, is the assembly being addressed, is a particular person in the assembly being addressed? When the deacon chants, “Let us be attentive”, he is addressing the whole assembly but when the deacon chants, “Master, give the blessing”, he is directly addressing the celebrant or presider. Let us take note that these diaconal addresses are not presidential, however, when the celebrant addresses God in the anaphora, this is a presidential address.
What is it that makes the anaphora presidential while the diaconal admonitions are not? In the anaphora God is being addressed; the celebrant’s “voice” is in the plural, “For all this we give thanks to You, to Your only-begotten Son, and to Your Holy Spirit; for all things which we know and do not know, the benefits bestowed upon us both manifest and hidden.” (Byzantine Anaphora of Chrysostom.) In the presidential prayer, the celebrant’s “voice” is the “voice” of the whole assembly addressing itself to God. The celebrant or presider speaks in the name of the whole assembly and the assembly gives its seal to the prayer with the “amen” which traditionally ends these prayers. This contrasts with prayers that the celebrant “voices” on his own behalf, e.g. “No one who is bound to carnal desires or pleasures is worthy to approach You or to draw near to You, or to minister to You, O King of Glory…Bending my neck, I approach and I petition You:…” (Celebrant’s prayer before the Transfer of the Gifts or Great Entrance in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.) This payer is addressed to Christ in the first person singular and the concluding amen is the celebrant’s amen, not that of the assembly.
Thus we can see that the texts reveal that presidential prayers are:
- addressed to God (usually the Father)
- voiced in the plural not the singular
- assented to or sealed with an amen by the assembly
- assigned to the celebrant-priest, i.e. the bishop or presbyter.
When we look at the liturgical texts, we are hard pressed to find that anything that meets the above criteria is assigned to deacons. The deacon usually addresses the assembly or the celebrant. Does the deacon address God on behalf of the assembly, and does the assembly seal such a prayer with its amen? The textual evidence does not lead to such a conclusion. This is not to say that the deacon never addresses God. In the Byzantine Divine Liturgy in the synapte following the gospel there are two petitions in which the deacon addresses God rather than the assembly. Let us look at this Ektenia of Fervent Supplication.
Deacon: Let us all say with our whole soul and our whole mind, let us say.
Choir: Lord have mercy.
Deacon: Almighty Lord, God of our Fathers, we pray You, hear us and have mercy.
Choir: Lord have mercy.
Deacon: Have mercy on us, O God, in the greatness of Your compassion, we pray You, hear us and have mercy.
Choir: Lord, have mercy. Thrice.
Deacon: We also pray for our most holy universal Pontiff, N., Pope of Rome…
(Protodeacon Alexander Ageykin, Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Moscow. Photo: patriarchia.ru)
Thus, we notice that there are two petitions that are directed to God and that do not follow the usual paradigm of diaconal address in synaptes to the assembly. Does that give the deacon a presidential role? Let us look at the whole of this synapte. While the deacon is standing on the ambo and chanting this synapte, the priest is standing before the altar and silently praying: “Lord, our God, accept this fervent supplication from Your servants. Take pity on us in the greatness of Your compassion. Let Your loving kindness descend upon us and upon all Your people who await Your abundant mercy.” When the petitions have come to an end, the priest exclaims in a loud voice the doxology of the prayer: “For You are a merciful and loving God, and we give glory to You, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and for ever and ever.” Then, the choir assents with: “Amen.” We can conclude that this synapte follows all of the criteria of a presidential prayer: a prayer that is always the prayer of the whole Church and hierarchically structured to manifest the whole Church. (Notice: priest, deacon, choir/assembly.) There are other examples of this in Byzantine liturgy, e.g. Lytia at Vespers, Matins, and the Synapte for the Reposed, where the deacon addresses God but they always include the presidential role for the celebrant priest, along with the assent of the assembly.
The textual liturgical evidence does not demonstrate a presidential liturgical role for the deacon in the Eastern Christian Churches. Yet, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium 29, explicitly states that the deacon, “to the extent that he has been authorized by competent authority, is …to preside at the worship and prayer of the faithful,…” If deacons were to preside in the Eastern Catholic Churches this would require an authorized change in the official liturgical books enacted with the authority of the Synod of Bishops or their equivalent. No individual hierarch has such authority. Note that prior to the Vatican II, the deacon did not preside as an ordinary minister. In the Latin Church only when a priest is absent, may a deacon in certain situations which are clearly made explicit in the official liturgical books, be said to preside.
What one does in the liturgical assembly should be what one does outside of the liturgical assembly. Do deacons preside outside of the assembly? Certainly, the bishop does in all manner of things in the local Church. His presidency is not simply liturgical but can be seen in liturgy, word and charity. The presbyters who are active co-operators with the bishop who always presides over the presbyteral college, in a more limited manner preside in the local Church in liturgy, word and charity. The presbyter’s presidential role is always in communion and conjunction with his bishop’s. The one who presides in the local Church has the fullness of the apostolic mandate and succession, namely the bishop. The presbyters share in this mandate but in a limited manner. The diaconate, if we understand this word correctly is always in relationship to the bishop. The deacon is not a member of a college but a direct agent of the bishop who is mandated to do something on behalf of the bishop. The historical evidence in the Eastern Churches just does not warrant deacons as presiding in the liturgy.
(More on this topic in the future.)