John Chryssavgis, Remembering and Reclaiming Diakonia: The Diaconate Yesterday and Today (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2009) xii + 190 pp.
(Reviewed in Logos: Vol. 52, 1-2 (2011) pp151-153, by Protodeacon David Kennedy.)
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Every deacon, every candidate for the diaconate, and for that matter anyone who has been ordained to this rank of the mystery of holy orders should make the time to read this seminal work. Very little has been published on the diaconate in the Eastern Christian Churches, and Chryssavgis makes an all important and most welcome contribution in this area of study which has been approached in recent years almost exclusively from a Western perspective be it Roman Catholic or Protestant.
The Forward is penned by Metropolitan John Zizioulas to whom Archdeacon John Chryssavgis draws upon in regards to a Eucharistic ecclesiology of relationship (cf. Zizioulas, Being as Communion, Chapter 6.) Throughout this study the focus is on ecclesial identity rather than individual vocation. This is a much-needed shift from an individualistic theology of orders to one of personhood, for one can be an individual alone but can only be a person in relationship to other persons. For the Christian, regardless of what order he or she is in, personhood can only be found in the ecclesia, which is a typos of the Holy Trinity.
While the diaconate has often been reduced to a transitional stage on the way to the presbyterate, Chryssavgis contends that if one must be ordained a deacon prior to being ordained a priest the diaconate must be significant to the very essence of the Church. He presents his thesis: “It is, therefore, critical for the Church to recognize and affirm the authority and ministry of the diaconate in its specific gifts in order not to reduce the priesthood and the episcopate in general. Properly exercised, the diaconate will serve to magnify the role of the priest and to dignify the office of the bishop. Sadly, over the centuries the Church failed to adapt the office of the diaconate to the new tasks that surfaced; at the same time, formerly administrative and liturgical tasks of the deacon were laid aside for social or practical reasons. Yet, in spite of such changes, the diaconate is in no way an outmoded model. It remains a sacred ministry and should not be allowed either to stagnate or fade. Instead, it should be restored as a deeper and inner challenge for the entire Church. Gone are the days when the ordained ministry was viewed in simplistic terms, when the bishop or priest would authoritatively address God’s word to a passive laity. The presuppositions and principles behind such fundamentalism and authoritarianism have long collapsed. There is a need today to define a truly representative ministry and authority – not as a result of purely social, historical, or cultural changes but for the sake of theological and spiritual integrity. The restoration of the diaconate will inevitably remind us of the fundamental truth that the ministry belongs to all of God’s people upon whom the mystery of God is generously and graciously showered in manifold ways.” (15-16).
Chryssavgis presents diakonia, which should be distinguished from the order of the diaconate as essential to the Apostolic Church. He sees “the Church’s very identity…as being revealed through service and sharing.” (28). Authentic Christian diakonia “becomes a willingness to suffer with those whom one is serving…it demands vicariously assuming upon oneself the suffering of others…if as Christians we are not living out the “great litany” of the Orthodox Liturgy, then perhaps the charismatic succession of apostolic ministry is already disrupted.” (37). This point is so easily overlooked when the diaconate is relegated primarily to a liturgical role and when diakonia is exclusively assigned to ordained deacons. Diakonia belongs to the whole of the ecclesia in its catholicity and the deacon is a typos of it.
This study makes a survey of the New Testament texts and the pre-Nicene writings pertinent to the concepts of diakonia and the diaconal order. Its brilliance is that it never looses sight of the essential experience of the ecclesia as a communion of persons hierarchically structured. The very foundation of the Church is in the Incarnation and Pentecost, uniting all to Christ in the Holy Spirit to the glory of the Father. For Chryssavgis there is no severance between who the deacon is and what the deacon does; there is no severance between the deacon and the other orders (bishop, presbyter, laity) for all are united by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is in distinction to a theology of orders that is founded upon potestas, which is possessed by an individual. Almost all of Western theology on the diaconate struggles with presenting an identity for the deacon that is distinct and in some way related to potestas, and Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians would benefit significantly from reading Chryssavgis.
Also in contradistinction to the Western theology of the diaconate, Chryssavgis speaks of the diaconate as the first order of the priestly ministry both for male and female deacons. While this study is focused on the male diaconate, Chryssavgis leaves no doubt that a full reclaiming of diakonia must include a restoration of the female diaconal order.
The text not only provides the reader with a survey of the diaconate in the Constantinopolitan tradition from an historical perspective but it also establishes a theology of diakonia and the diaconate within that tradition. There is a current but not a fully extensive bibliography along with endnotes and a number of appendixes and indexes. These will all prove helpful to students who make use of this study. For this reviewer there are few minor problems such as the presentation on the office of the archdeacon (91) where greater detail in the text and more extensive notes would be beneficial to the reader. The only serious lacuna is in regards to the studies of John N. Collins, especially Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990). Collins’ basic thesis of the deacon as “one who serves as an intermediary in a transaction, an agent, a courier; as one who gets something done, at the behest of a superior, an assistant” (F. W. Danker, ed. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) should not be overlooked. Admittedly, Chryssavgis makes mention of Collins in endnote 8 on p156 but he does not tell us why he finds Collins’ interpretation of the “concept and function of deacons in the apostolic community and the early Church” to be “somewhat controversial.” I suspect that much of Collins’ linguistic studies would harmonize well with the ecclesiology of relationship presented by Chryssavgis and founded upon Zizioulas.
These minor points aside, this well written and engaging monograph of Chryssavgis sets a standard for a theological understanding of both diakonia and the diaconate for years to come, especially for those who follow the Orthodox tradition but also as a challenge to Roman Catholic and Protestant thinking on this topic. (Note: this study is free of polemics.) If this reviewer were teaching a course on the diaconate, he would make this study mandatory reading and hopefully, the students would find it as fascinating as he did.
May I suggest ordering from the publisher Holy Cross Press?