The rites of Holy Ordination.
Duties of the Deacons in the Church
The word “deacon” was used by the early Christians to refer to the first rank of the priesthood. Many rules were mentioned in “The Collection of Safawy Ibn el-Asal” written in the thirteenth century, which sheds light on the importance of the deacon’s duty in the Church. In fact, even in the Apostles’ era there was a persisting need for this duty to fulfill the Apostles’ service and to complete the work of preaching. This is why our fathers the Apostles chose seven deacons, among them St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The deacon’s role at that time consisted of visiting and serving the orphans and widows, and distributing the tithes over the needy, while the Apostles devoted themselves to prayer and preaching (Acts 6:3-4).
Concerning the qualities of the person who is to be chosen for this important and strict duty in the church, St. Paul the apostle speaks of this matter in his first epistle to his disciple St. Timothy saying,“Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons…. Let deacons be married only once and let them manage their children and their households well; for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus” (I Tim. 3:8-10,12-13).
Also, in the Canons of the Apostles, it is written that St. Matthew said, “It should be that the choosing of deacons – as it is written – be by the mouth of two or three witnesses; and they should be tested in all services and should obtain the approval of the congregation. Each should be married to one wife and have raised their children in righteousness. They should be kind, humble, not rebellious, not hypocritical, and not driven by anger, for anger casts out wisdom. They should not take by appearance according to richness, so that they must not oppress the poor. They must not be of those who drink wine excessively, and they must be diligent for good works. They should stand by the brethren with special needs, and incline to those needy to fulfill their debts…” (Apostles 15).
The number of deacons that a church could ordain was decided upon in the Council of Nicea: “They should ordain as many deacons at the church needs; however, not more than seven that live on the service of the altar, and the rest are volunteers” (Nicea 62). The Deacon is ordained by the laying of the hands, where the bishop lays his hand on the candidate, and he recites with the priests who accompany him the special prayers of ordination (Apostles 53). The honour of the deacon and his position in the church was commented upon by Ibn el-Asal, who said, “Let the deacons be blameless like the bishop. Let them be given great honour and be considered as one of the clergy of the church. They should be depended upon in the service of the church, without seeking the glory of men.” Ibn El-Asal also says that the deacon does not just serve in the ritual services of the church, but at all times. He should also visit the widows, the orphans and the needy, then inform the bishop of what the congregation needs. The bishop gives the deacon according to the needs of the people, and he (that is, the deacon) gives each one according to his need.
Regarding his service in the church during the Divine Liturgy, Ibn el-Assaal says, “Either the deacon or the priest reads the Gospel, and he passes through the congregation during the service to check if anyone is asleep, laughing or talking to his friends in an unsuitable way…” There has been some changes to these rules; for instance, the priest reads the Gospel in Coptic, while the deacon reads it in the comprehended tongue. Moreover, the deacon does not pass through the congregation to check on them in the present time, since the need has now changed; however, he should be diligent for good works at night and in the day, everywhere (Apostles 17). Also, among the duties of the deacon is that he could give the Blood during communion if necessary, as mentioned in the rules of the Apostolic fathers “He should not the distribute the bread of blessing… neither should he carry the Offerings (the Lord’s Body), but if the bishop or the priest is in need, he could carry the Chalice…” (Apostles 75).
Some of the reasons – mentioned by Ibn el-Assaal – that could cause a deacon to lose his rank include the following: if the deacon has received his rank through bribery, deception or by pressuring the authorities; if he was ordained twice for the same rank; was married twice; became a drunkard or an evil-doer; insisted on overlooking good works; became known for bearing false witness; left his church without the permission of the bishop; accepted the baptism of heretics or prayed with them. It was also mentioned in the rules of the Council of Ankara: “If a deacon was ordained without being married, he should stay without marriage. If he married someone after being ordained a deacon, he should be cut from his deaconship” (Ankara 10). The following was mentioned in the Council of Nicea concerning the same matter: “If he (the deacon) confessed after his ordination that he committed a sin before he was ordained, he should be prohibited his deaconship, so that he should not participate in any service pertaining to the Offering (Eucharist). However, if he denied his wrong and was rebuked by the congregation, he should be brought down to the rank of the Sub-deacon” (Nicea 12).
Deaconship is divided into the following ranks: Deacon, Sub-deacon (Epi-diakon, or deacon helper), Reader (Oghnostos), and Chanter (Epsaltos). The Deacon is the one to whom applies all that is mentioned above about the service, his relation to the bishop, his service to the widows, the orphans and the needy, and informing the bishop about their cases, in addition to his regular service in the Divine Liturgy. For the Sub-deacon, however, his role is a helper of the Deacon in the church. His duties are to carry the books, fix the lamps, drive out any animal that enters the church, such as dogs and cats, as well as to divide between the rows of men and women. In other words, his service is more of an organizational service than a spiritual one. As for the Reader, his job is to read the canonical readings of the church and explain them. The Chanter, on the other hand, is responsible for chanting the hymns of the church.
In the present day, many of these duties have changed according to the current needs of the church, although the ranks remain unchanged. Nowadays, the deacon (in the general sense of the term) has to be the role model for the congregation, in prayer, in visiting the orphans, the widows and the needy, in teaching the Church principles and the Orthodox faith. He should also lead the people in the liturgical services, and teach the hymns, liturgical responses and the Praises of the church to children, so that everyone would pray with one heart, one mind, and one Spirit.
It is worth noting that the deacon should arrive early to the Liturgy, and if he missed the Absolution of the Servants, he should not put on the service clothes, nor participate in the deacon’s service. Also if he came after the reading of the Gospel, he should not partake of the Holy Mysteries. While the deacon puts on his service clothes (after the priest prays over it) he should recite the Psalm “I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up” (Psalm 29), and the Psalm “The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty” (Psalm 92). Also he should not take off the service clothes before the dismissal of the angel of the sacrifice, and when he does take off his service clothes, he should recite the Psalm “Clap your hands, all you peoples” (Psalm 46).
Mikhail, Deacon Albair Gamal, The Essentials in the Deacon’s Service, (Shobra, Egypt: Shikolani, 2002), p. 1005 – 1007. Translated from Arabic by Mina Girgis, edited by Bishoy K. R. Dawood.