By: Protodeacon David Kennedy
The primary rational that Orientalium ecclesiarum gives for the restoration of the diaconate in the Eastern Catholic Churches is “in order that the ancient legislation (discipline) concerning the sacrament of orders in the Eastern Churches may regain its force.” It is here that an examination of footnote no. 21 of the text needs to take place in order to gain an understanding of the phrase ‘ancient legislation’.
We will begin with Canon 18 of Nicaea (AD 325) that reads:
“It has come to the attention of this holy and great synod that in some places and cities deacons give communion to presbyters, although neither canon nor custom allows this, namely that those who have no authority to offer should give the body of Christ to those who do offer. Moreover it has become known that some of the deacons now receive the eucharist even before the bishops. All these practices must be suppressed. Deacons must remain within their own limits, knowing that they are the ministers of the bishop and subordinate to the presbyters. Let them receive the eucharist according to their order after the presbyters from the hands of the bishop or the presbyter. Nor shall permission be given for the deacons to sit among the presbyters, for such an arrangement is contrary to the canon and to rank. If anyone refuses to comply even after these decrees, he is to be suspended from the diaconate.”
According to Canon 18, the following practices must be addressed and corrected:
- Deacons distributing communion to presbyters. (It mentions nothing of deacons distributing communion to bishops, although it seems that this would also be prohibited.)
- Deacons receiving communion before bishops. (It corrects this abuse by stating that deacons are to receive communion after the presbyters.)
- Deacons sitting among presbyters. (It is not explicitly clear if this is only a prohibition in liturgical assemblies or in all circumstances but given that the rest of the canon focuses on ‘communion’, it might be presumed that the context is liturgical.)
The rational for correcting these liturgical abuses are:
- Deacons do not ‘offer’ the body of Christ. There is to be found in this canon a distinction in liturgical function or role between the deacon and the presbyter. Although the canon does not explicitly tell us what the deacon’s liturgical function is, (more about that below from G. Dix) it tells us that the function of the presbyter is to ‘offer’. There is a distinction between offering and receiving; and between offering and distributing.
This distinction can be found in the writings of St. Justin the Martyr, Apologia I (lxv): “When the president has given thanks and all the people have assented, those whom we call deacons give a portion of the bread over which thanksgiving has been offered, and of the wine and water, to each of those who are present; and they carry them away to those who are absent.” At the time of Justin did the deacons distribute the eucharist not only to the laity but also to the ‘president’ of the assembly? If so, is Nicaea prohibiting an early practice?
Robert Taft in his essay Receiving Communion – A Forgotten Symbol? draws our attention to the East-Syrian practice in the canonical collection of Gabriel of Basra near the end of the 9th century:
Question 19: When there is only one priest and one deacon, what should they do, for in one canon it prescribes that the deacon should not give communion to the priest?
Answer: In this matter the Catholicos Iso’yahb has determined as follows. It is not allowed that the deacon give communion to the priest, who is distinguished from the deacon by his higher rank. So if no other priest is there to give communion, but only a deacon, the situation should be handled according to a fine custom, namely: the priest takes the ‘coal’ [=consecrated particle] from the altar and put it in the hands of the deacon. Then he bows before the altar, takes the ‘coal’ from the deacon’s hands with the fingers of the right hand, places it on the tips of the two fingers of the left hand, and brings it back to his right palm. The deacon says only: ‘The Body of our Lord.’ Likewise the chalice: he gives it into the hands of the deacon, and after he has prostrated himself and bowed, he rises and takes the chalice with both hands, while the deacon holds the foot of the chalice with one hand. When the priest receives the deacon says: ‘The Blood of our Lord.’ Then the deacon puts the chalice on the altar…” (Beyond East and West. Washington: Pastoral Press. 1984. 105-106.)
Possibly, Gregory Dix can shed further light on Canon 18 in regards to the term ‘offer’.
“The Greek terminology concerning the oblation (prosphora) is through the pre-Nicene period quite clear, and does not (as a rule) vary from one writer to another. The communicant ‘brings’ (prosenegkein) the prosphora; the deacon ‘presents it or ‘brings it up’ (anapherein); the bishop ‘offers’ (prospherein) it. (Cf. Canons 1, 2 and 3 of the Council of Ancyra, c. AD 314). The prosphora itself is at all points ‘the gifts of Thy holy church’, but the ‘liturgies’ of each order in connection with it are proper to each order and not interchangeable. It is the special eucharistic ‘liturgy’ of each order which distinguishes it and constitutes it a separate ‘order’ in the organic Body of Christ.” (The Shape of the Liturgy. London: Dacre Press. 1970. 111-112.)
- Each ‘order’ has its limits and it appears that deacons have assumed a ‘liturgy’ which is not their own, according to the canons or custom. Nicaea reflects an understanding of liturgy and orders that is organic and corporate. There is one body of the Church and it has a diversity of orders within it. Each order has its own functions and those functions are not to be assumed by another order.
- Very importantly and something that can easily be missed in Canon 18 is that deacons are in a relationship to the bishop as his ministers. The principle is clear: one cannot be a deacon without being a deacon to someone, and in the Church one is a deacon because one is a diakonos (minister) of one’s bishop. But this is not the relationship that presbyters have to the bishop for the diakonoi are subject to the presbyters. Clearly Nicaea does not hold to the concept that presbyters are also deacons.
- Where and with whom one sits sheds light upon one’s order in the Church. The presbyters form a college about the bishop, with the bishop as the head of that college. The bishop’s cathedra (chair of teaching) is to be found either in the eastern apse facing the assembly or on the solea in the nave facing the east. From here the bishop presides not only over the entire assembly of the Church but is seen physically as the head of the presbyteral college. The presbyters sit to the left and right of the bishop forming either a ‘U’ or semi-circle about him. The deacons stand, for by taking this posture, they can more easily fulfill their liturgical duties either as assistants to the bishop or keeping order in the liturgical assembly. The diakonoi relate to the bishop not as a college but individually, each one acting as designated by the bishop as an agent, intermediary, courier or assistant who gets something done at the command of the bishop.
- Those deacons who will not conform to Canon 18 will be punished by suspension from the diaconate.