Thursday, 5 March 2009

How Not to Argue for the Permanent Diaconate

I was reading the Anglican Diocese of Sydney magazine Southern Cross today and came upon an interview with Phillip Jensen on the permanent diaconate.

As he should, he goes back to Scripture to discover what a deacon is (and what a presbyter is, so as to discern the relationship between the two). Unfortunately, he doesn't come up with much.

"[The term diakonos] is applied to all kinds of people including Jesus, and the apostles and their colleagues. Only in two passages do English translations transliterate the word as deacon. Neither of these explains in any detail the nature of the ministry. The Anglican Ordinal has a more precise understanding of 'deacon'..." This more precise understanding Phillip Jensen then goes on to elucidate, both in theory and practice. Then he turns to presbyters. "The New Testament says more about presbyters. But again it talks about the quality of the person rather than the specific role of presbyter. It is a ministry of caring for the Church of God, and of being able to teach. That is, the presbyterate is a pastoral role rather than a sacramental one. It is not limited to the paid professional ministers but is the local eldership of the church." How exactly he knows this when, as he says, Scripture does not pinpoint the specific role of presbyter, he doesn't say.

There are a few things to be said about this.

Firstly, the jump from the raw data of Scripture to the Anglican Ordinal is stark. Is it not remotely possible that some information about the role of both deacon and presbyter might be mined from what we know of how these roles were exercised in the first centuries? There are such things as precedents. This possibility does not seem to occur to Dean Jensen.

Secondly, this approach is emblematic of a whole mindset that is afraid to read the Bible in context. Every Scripture passage has a context- the passages around it. But the Scripture itself has a context- the milieu into which it is written and the community from which it springs. Neither of these are unknowable quantities. In the interview, one would think that the Bible was a long-lost document that had been rediscovered after a thousand years, and that the role of Phillip Jensen and others was to somehow recreate the Church which it talks about, like historical societies who try to re-enact famous battles as accurately as possible (interestingly, Phillip Jensen himself mentions and defends himself against this charge later in the interview- I would argue his entire approach to Scripture assumes the charge's validity). Of course, there is no need to start from scratch. There are several communities who can point to an apostolic origin for themselves, and which have maintained a continuity with that heritage without rupture. This is not even exclusive to the Catholic Church- a quick survey between the the latter, the various Orthodox churches, the Copts and the Thomas Christians of India would yield a number of immediately apparent commonalities. We're not trying to penetrate the mystery of Greek fire here.

Thirdly, the most fundamental flaw in Dean Jensen's Scriptural approach is it makes the massive, unspoken and unwarranted assumption that the Bible is meant to be an encyclopaedia of Christianity. This is an assumption only too common among Protestants of all stripes. The Bible is treated as a theology manual. Anything not contained therein is by definition no part of Christianity. So, instead of being a vital element and witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Scripture becomes the sole source of that Gospel, something it was never intended to be (as witnessed by the problem of defining such basic roles as deacon and presbyter from it).

Of course, the reason why neither 'deacon' or 'presbyter' is given a cut-and-dry definition in Scripture is perfectly obvious. The Gospels were written to enunciate the events of the Gospel. The Epistles were written to clarify theology and solve problems in the churches. The role of deacons and presbyters was neither an explicit element of the former nor something under dispute like the latter. Christians didn't need to be told what a presbyter was and did- they could see that every Sunday. The presbyters didn't need to be told in writing what they were supposed to be and do- they were told in person by the Apostles who ordained them. Unless you are writing a complete encyclopaedia of Christian belief and practice, why write down something everybody knows anyway? Clearly, the Apostles didn't.

The irritating thing about all of this is that I actually agree with Phillip Jensen. The permanent diaconate is a valuable and (for many centuries now) vastly undervalued and underused role in the Christian heirarchy. There are perfectly good reasons for re-introducing it. Many have been both enunciated and implemented in the universal Church since Vatican II. Unfortunately, Phillip Jensen, due to his demand that the Bible be something its not, remains blissfully unaware of some of the strongest arguments in his favour.

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