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Contextualising Dorothea Reininger’s "Women Deacons"

Contextualising Dorothea Reininger’s Women Deacons

by John Collins

In 1999 Dorothea Reininger published Diakonat der Frau in der Einen Kirche (Women’s Diaconate in the One Church), the most comprehensive account yet available in one volume of developments since the 19th century affecting women’s place in the diaconate.

Let it be said at once that the book is of a value far exceeding the values it has for women. While Reininger has written in the interests of women, she has served these interests by what she has to say about the nature of the diaconate in itself, its modern developments, its theological foundations, and its connections with ordination, lay ministry, and the church. In a sense, the study might almost be called gender-free, as Ottmar Fuchs has also noted ("Wer ist der Diakon?", p. 131 n. 28). Given the gravity of women’s straits in the Roman Catholic Church, however, one might be ill-advised to urge that approach to the book. Nonetheless, this breadth underlines the significance which the book holds for the many reviews of diaconate currently in process across the churches.

The book provides a quite magnificent assemblage of scholarship over its 730 pages. (The pages are large, the print is not, and the paper is heavy – putting much too much pressure on the spine of the paperback). Primary sources occupy 10 pages, secondary sources 40. Contents occupies 17 pages and plots the course of the discussion closely, serving in this way as an index, which is otherwise not available.

After an introduction on the relevance and methodology of the study, discussion develops across three main sections:

  1. the state of the question of women deacons in the Roman Catholic Church (130 pages);
  2. the experience and understanding of diaconate across the ecumenical sector (430 pages);
  3. prospects for women’s diaconate in the Roman Catholic Church (70 pages).

The middle section (B) generates the most part of the theological drive operating in the concluding section. This is perfectly understandable, as the story of the modern diaconate is rooted in the 19th century Lutheran initiatives of people like Fliedner (40 pages) and Wichern and the hugely influential 20th century theologian of diakonia Paul Philippi (13 pages). Thus, the focus is unavoidably on the experience of the Evangelical Church of Germany, a factor largely accounting for the huge predominance of German writings in the bibliography. An understanding of the thinking in this circle is critical because its theology (60 pages) underpins the whole modern movement of both female and male diaconate.

A separate treatment (90 pages) follows on the varied and changing experiences within the Church of England. These experiences continue to retain a special significance beyond that communion. After a report of developments in the Old Catholic Churches (50 pages), Reininger provides a rich treatment of diaconate within the various churches of the Orthodox tradition. In some ways these 110 pages are the most valuable in the book because they access material from sources which would not be readily available to many students. In particular, the report here of the debate about the significance of cheirotonia versus cheirothesia will clear the air for many. Section B closes with 30 pages on ecumenical endeavours.

In the concluding section (C) Reininger addresses her leading issue of the possibility of women deacons in the Roman Catholic Church. One notes the professional ease and care with which she moves through major theoretical considerations of ecclesiology and of the relationship between presbyterate and diaconate, before entering finally into a consideration of the nature of the diaconate itself, its relationship to lay ministry, and its availability for women.

For this massive study the present reviewer and all those growing numbers of theologians, church synods, and ecumenical bodies pressing on in a search for a diaconate which works theologically and pastorally, and which is acceptable to the church at large, will long be indebted to Dorothea Reininger for a brilliant exposé of a complex story and for her powerful and entirely reasonable advocacy for a fair go for those women in the Roman Catholic Church who might want to be ordained as deacons.


At this point the not so well informed student of the diaconate could well be surprised to discover how deep and wide remain theological disagreements and uncertainties about who the deacon might really be. The question is of particular interest to the reviewer, whose own research into the ancient values attaching to diakonia appeared in the book Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources (1990 - not 1995, as advised by Reininger – and now out of print), and it is noteworthy what little part the results of that research take in Reininger’s many-sided analysis of the diaconate.

Reininger herself notes on p. 631 the startling contrast between Collins’ understanding of diakonia and the now traditional understanding of that Greek word as helpful and loving service which underlies her own and virtually all other modern theologising about the diaconate. When, however, Collins’ understanding has been entering more and more closely into mainstream exegetical studies of the New Testament, one could have expected Reininger to present some critical appraisal of its relevance to her considerations of the disputed identity of the deacon. Instead she does little more than report the existence of the "sensational" views before camouflaging them under marginally related issues. These discussions we will revisit. For now I would like to set the context in which I have come to read Reininger’s great work in November 2000.

Bressanone 1997

In October 1997 the International Diaconate Centre (IDC) hosted its biennial International Study Conference in Bressanone. Roman Catholic in its organisation and focus - its theme was "The Permanent Deacon between 'Priest Substitute' and 'Diaconia'" - the conference nonetheless had an ecumenical dimension, and the Roman Catholic participants themselves represented a considerable diversity of diaconal practice. Conversations, lectures and workshops in the midst of this diversity stimulated a renewed interest in the ways that different sections of the diaconal movement have been revisiting their roots in an attempt both to enrich their understanding of their calling in the church and to advance their cause.

En route from Melbourne to Bressanone, I prepared for the conference with reading previously unavailable resources on the diaconate, especially concerning early stirrings of modern Roman Catholic interest in the diaconate, at the Caritas-Bibliothek in Freiburg im Breisgau, among resources at the IDC's new home in Rottenburg am Neckar, and in the theological faculty of Tübingen. I had a sense that the conference would be the most significant event in the calendar of the Roman Catholic diaconate since the Second Vatican Council. Contributing to this sense was the information that Archbishop Sepe from the Vatican was to report on the major review of the diaconate which the Congregation for the Clergy had been conducting. The official report, not then available, has since been published as Basic Norms for Formation and Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons. As it turned out, and even making allowance for the obviously canonical character of its parameters, the document is remarkable in its theological blandness.

Other aspects of the conference contributed to provoking further interest in the diaconate. Principal here was the impression that the conference intended to address the novel and rapidly developing pastoral situation of the shortage of priests in the Roman Catholic Church. It soon appeared, however, that this pastoral situation was problematic for many deacons. In their case, the increasing shortage of priests had already been requiring them to take up pastoral and liturgical roles when they held firm views that their role was to meet needs lying outside the margins of conventional pastoral work. These views received strong support in the keynote address of the noted Roman Catholic theologian Bishop Walter Kasper. His presentation was significant not only because of his standing as a theologian but also because at the time he was bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart and as such patron of IDC, which is housed in Rottenburg. However, the address, to which we must return, was directed precisely at providing theological support for the kind of diaconal role which was already in place and which so many of the deacons present had been filling over previous decades.

>Deacons and the church

As proceedings at the conference developed, it appeared that in defending a diaconate of the margins the conference was drawing largely on a diaconal strategy which had its roots in theological notions about diakonia which the movement had inherited from the first generations of 19th century deacons. In this process, however, one element appeared not to come within the direct consideration of the conference, and this was the deacon’s place in the church. Questions arose: What precisely is the ecclesial character of a deacon who works beyond the margins of the local church? Is the deacon’s connection with the church an integral part of the deacon’s identity? What does ordination contribute to the deacon’s identity?

This search for the meaning of the deacon's ordination has intensified under two pressures. One has arisen from the now widespread practice of ordaining deacons in churches which descend from the Reformation and which had previously withheld ordination from their deacons - if indeed they had them. In this process, for example, we have, on the one hand, the synodal decision of the Church of Sweden in 1999 to recognise deacons as members of the ordained ministry, while, on the other hand, we have the continuing debate in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America about reversing the decision of the Churchwide Assembly of 1993 not to ordain deacons.

The second pressure has been working in a different direction. Within Roman Catholic circles we hear an increasingly vocal appeal to the concept of the sacramentality of ordination at the very time when the specific theology of diaconate has become less and less easy to describe. Unfortunately this appeal tends to take on the appearance of a fall-back position in the face of difficulties experienced in reaching a satisfactory theological statement about the nature of the diaconate.

Appeal to the notion of sacrament carries great weight, of course, in the Roman Catholic context, but in this instance one could be justified in seeing it as papering over theological deficiencies. Certainly, however, the appeal carries little conviction for many individuals, especially women, who for years have been carrying out tasks now identified as those of the ordained deacon while they themselves remain ineligible for ordination of any kind. Such a situation would seem to demand a more honest appraisal of just what theology can tell us about why the diaconate should be recognised as pertaining to the sacrament of orders. An effective appraisal is not facilitated by the kind of dumbing down of the theology of ministry in general which has pervaded so much ecclesiology these last thirty years.

In Uppsala during December 1999 and January 2000 I took an opportunity to address this question of the relationship of deacons to the church today. The opportunity arose through the generous hospitality of Dr Sven-Erik Brodd, Professor of Ecclesiology in the Faculty of Theology of the University of Uppsala, in conjunction with the administrators of Samariterhemmet in Uppsala, and of Ninni Smedberg, a deacon and Strategist for Diakonia in the office of the Church of Sweden, also in Uppsala.

The exercise produced an as yet unpublished manuscript Deacons and the Church: Making connections between old and new. Its discussion opens on the question of the diaconate in today's churches, moves back to what we can discern in the earliest sources about deacons and their place in the church – distinguishing in the sources passages directly relevant to deacons from passages directly relevant to the church body - and concludes with comments aimed at encouraging more innovative reflection on deacons today. In this the emphasis is on how the church might establish and nurture deacons more as functionaries operating from within an ecclesial environment than as the lone rangers or isolated social workers which their present situation often makes them appear.

Background 1976-1990

My own interest in questions affecting the diaconate stem, as many readers would be aware, from my authorship of Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources. This book was not about the diaconate, however, nor about diakonia as that word has been used in diaconal circles for a century and a half. Rather, it presented a semantic study of the Greek diakon- words which early Christians used to designate several aspects of ministry in the church. In the course of this linguistic survey, the question of the diaconate naturally arose, but the enquiry extended also to functions and situations beyond what we today would understand as coming within ecclesial ministry. Some applications of more recent insights into various aspects of ministry appear in other publications listed at the end of this article.

The relevance to the modern diaconate of this research, which was the basis of a doctoral thesis completed in London in 1976, I attempted to describe in an article which appeared in German translation in Diaconia Christi of June 1994. (In at least one significant passage this translation was defective.) Subsequently the article appeared in its original English form in the special edition of Diaconia Christi (Sonderheft, June 1994) which marked the 25th anniversary of the renewal of the permanent diaconate in the United States. On both these occasions the article appeared in the company of contributions by - among other prominent voices - Bishop Karl Lehmann, then chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, Bishop Walter Kasper, already mentioned, and the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, archbishop of Chicago, a diocese with over 800 deacons.


The appearance of the article in these two publications did not, however, prompt the kind of response and dialogue about diaconal issues which it had been my hope to stimulate. In saying this I am not overlooking a contribution by Anton Houtepen occasioned by the article. Called (to translate the German title) "Diakonia as an invitation from God: Concerning the diaconate as a missionary and evangelistic task", it appeared in Diaconia Christi (1995). In my view the suggested new profile of the diaconate which Houtepen outlined here is constructed on an unworkable assumption. This is that one can transpose the meaning of diakon- words from one passage to another without prior consideration being given to what the new literary context might require for the interpretation of the words. To my mind this invalidates Houtepen's proposal.

The present paper is not an attempt to revisit the linguistic and semantic area of discussion. After the positive reviews which the original study attracted (see the bibliography) and the similar response given to the shorter study of ministry as an ecclesial function in Are All Christians Ministers? (1992) there is little point going over the same ground.

Reviewers have already alerted the theological readership to the fact that the understanding of the Greek diakon- words which had long been conventional - not to mention influential - in so much theology of ministry since the 1950s is now no longer available because that understanding rests on a basic misreading of the Greek sources. Some scholars have called that finding and its implications "devastating", "shocking", "somewhat unfashionable" and "not politically correct", but in the ten years since the publication of the major study no scholar has been drawn to rebut it either in principle or in the extensive detail on which the research is based. Indeed, in 1995 one prominent New Testament scholar, Jerome Murphy-O'Connor of the Ecole biblique of Jerusalem, wrote in Revue biblique that scholars were now "forced … to rethink one of the dogmas of New Testament scholarship".

Complementing positive reception of the research in circles of New Testament scholarship, several respected publications on ministry in the church have drawn attention to the relevance of the new research to practicalities in the church today. Shortly after publication of the research Thomas P. Rausch, in Priesthood Today: An Appraisal (1992), anticipated that the book would be "controversial". A few years later, in the well received A People of Priests: The Ministry of the Catholic Church (1995), Michael Richards called the book "indispensable" for the study of ministry. In a major study of the same year, L’Église locale (1995), the late prominent theologian and ecumenist Jean-Marie Tillard integrated the new evaluation of diakonia into the theology of the local church.

In contrast with such approaches, another leading theologian of ministry, Thomas F. O'Meara, presented a "completely revised edition" of his widely read Theology of Ministry (1999) without a mention of the new material. This was in spite of the fact that, from its first edition, the book has made much play of the significance of the term diakonia in the formulation of a doctrine of ministry. In regard to the diaconate in particular, an aspect of ministry where most scholarly writing originates in Germany, one notes that, Reininger’s aside, no substantial German publication has attempted to make use of the research.

Anglican and Nordic interest

Exceptions to such scholarly reserve merely tend to draw attention to an unusual situation. Thus the widely used Many Servants: An Introduction to Deacons, by the North American Episcopal deacon Ormonde Plater, drew substantially on the new research as early as 1991. For several years leaders of the diaconal movement in the Church of England have also been attempting to appropriate aspects of the research for their own developing theological profile of the deacon. A leading influence here has been Dr Sr Teresa of St Andrew's House in London, editor of the newsletters Diakonia News and Distinctive Diaconate. At a formal level, in November 1998 the General Synod passed a motion originating from Richard Noble of the Ely Diocesan Synod of 1997 to establish "a working party to consider the concept of a renewed diaconate" in the light of "new insights about diaconal ministry" (Distinctive Diaconate April 1999). These "insights" included in the first instance the results of Collins' research (St Neots Deanery Synod). Bishop Stephen Sykes of Ely guided the motion through the synod, and the longstanding advocate of the new research, Bishop Barry Rogerson of Bristol, was appointed chair of the working party.

Within Lutheran diaconal circles in Sweden, Norway and Finland a wide level of interest in the implications of the research is evident in numerous recent publications listed in the bibliography. Although not all contributors to the discussion move comfortably in a field where the diaconate faces the task of realigning itself with previously unrecognised values in the concept of diakonia, writers are at least frequently conscious of the challenge. Sven-Erik Brodd indicated as much at the conclusion of his contribution to Borgegård and Hall’s The Ministry of the Deacon: Anglican-Lutheran Perspectives (1999), the first volume of working papers from a study circle sponsored by Anglican and Nordic churches (ANDREP). Brodd expressed the expectation that "the focus of future debates" would be on "the charitable character" of the diaconate "since this concentration on the charitable task of the deacon has been shown not to be in accordance with the New Testament and the Early Church."

In ANDREP’s second volume just one year later (Borgegård, Fanuelson and Hall, The Ministry of the Deacon: Ecclesiological Explorations, 2000), Brodd addressed precisely this question under the title "Caritas and Diakonia as perspectives on the Diaconate". Here, time and again, Brodd exposes the theological difficulties which arise for the diaconate when these two terms are understood as synonyms for acts of love. While in my view he could have opened further theological possibilities for today with a more nuanced presentation of the place of diakonia in the first Christian experiences of church, he has emphasised the need to locate the deacon theologically within the structure of the church rather than in the functions of the deacon. And this line of thinking has been facilitated – indeed, has been necessitated – by the existence of a new interpretation of the ancient understanding of diakonia.

In presenting the final contribution to this volume, Robert Hannaford extends the discussion in the direction which the first contribution by Sven-Erik Brodd invites. Seeking to locate the diaconate within the context of a general theology of ministry, Hannaford builds on what he describes as "the ecclesiological background to the concept of ministry" which Collins’ analysis of diakonia provides. Hannaford’s considerations of the representative and relational nature of ministry do serve, however, to draw attention to the theological tensions which necessarily arise when one attempts to speak of a first century diakonia from within the context of ongoing 19th century understandings.

As the Nordic contributors are aware, these tensions have long been felt within their Lutheran tradition, and they are clearly in evidence in the contrasting Anglican and Lutheran programmes of education of deacons described by Olav Fanuelson: the one orientated towards largely traditional parish life and the other mainly developing professional qualifications in the health, social or educational sectors. In an imaginative and spirited attempt to resolve such tensions, Kjell Nordstokke, combining principles of liberation theology with insights from Collins’ linguistic analysis, develops a description of diakonia as "conscious mission with divine authority and with the mandate to be a go-between in contexts of conflict and suffering". For this kind of diaconate to be effectively prophetic and transformative in society, it is "vital to root diaconal praxis and its authority in the identity and fundamental mandate of the Church."

Nordstokke and others are well aware that such newer understanding of the diaconate "does not necessarily correspond to the Lutheran tradition of diakonia", but are drawn in their directions largely by virtue of the reinterpretation of diakonia. Sectional interests, however, continue to limit the impact of the reinterpretation on today’s theology and practice of the diaconate. The situation is reflected in the position adopted by the Anglican-Lutheran International Commission in its Hanover Report, The Diaconate as Ecumenical Opportunity (1996). The report identifies the sources contributing to its conclusions as (1) the Faith and Order's consensus in Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982), (2) Collins' "historical-philological corrective to earlier understandings of the diakon- words" (para. 60), and (3) tradition. The significance of Collins' corrective is said to be that it "has called [the] earlier consensus [about the meaning of diakonia] into doubt" (para. 4). Such acknowledgement notwithstanding, the report proceeds to build in compromises which allow today’s practice of diaconate to continue conforming with 19th century views of New Testament diakonia.

Persistence of 19th century views

In concluding his own reflections on caritas and diakonia, Brodd warned of the pitfall of turning for models of the diaconate to "the situation 150 years ago", but there are many who prefer this path. If they do not go the whole distance, they tend to go at least half way to when German scholars of the early 1930s first formulated a theological and linguistic legitimation for the 19th century model of diaconate, then flourishing in many "motherhouses". Primarily this was in the work on diakon- words by Wilhelm Brandt (1931) and, under his influence, H. W. Beyer, who contributed a study of the words to Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (1935 in its relevant German volume). These studies, and their popularisation through Eduard Schweizer in Church Order in the New Testament (German 1959) and Hans Küng in The Church (1967), were largely the object of lengthy critique in Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources, and the studies still carry for some readers today the authority of those significant scholars. Thus, Brodd’s compatriot, Mats Hansson, in "Diakonins teologi", a contribution to Tro & Tanke (1999), does indeed open his discussion with a report of Collins' research but, discounting it in a footnote on grounds which have no bearing on linguistic issues, prefers to develop a theological basis for diaconate precisely from those evaluations of diakonia at which Collins had directed his strongest criticisms (Beyer, Schweizer, Küng).

German Diaconal Centres

Many an individual student aspiring to the diaconate is still thus inclined. What is more noteworthy is the way that the major theological centres of the diaconal movement appear to ignore the new research entirely. This is true especially of German organisations and institutions, both Lutheran and Roman Catholic. That they should be of a similar mind in this is perhaps not surprising in the light of the historic indebtedness of the Roman Catholic renewal of the diaconate to the German Lutheran evaluation and practice of diaconate.

The major institution providing theoretical and theological support to the vast German Lutheran Diakonie operation is the Diakoniewissenschaftliche Institut within the University of Heidelberg. One of its latest major publications has been the second edition of Schäfer and Strohm's Diakonie - biblische Grundlagen und Orientierungen (1994), where studies like those of Horn on the leading diaconic sayings of Jesus, of Holtz on "Christus Diakonos", of Roloff on the non-religious character of the diakon- words in the context of meals – and indeed of Schweizer himself on "The diaconic Structure of the New Testament Community" – maintain the interpretative line established fifty years previously.

In a role that is more pastorally than theologically orientated, the Roman Catholic International Diaconate Centre situated in Rottenburg am Neckar has long supported the permanent diaconate restored at the time of the Second Vatican Council. Recent issues of its journal Diaconia Christi carried three significant studies illustrating how deeply the scholarly Lutheran thinking about Diakonie has permeated Roman Catholic thinking on the diaconate. In the last issue of the journal for the 20th century Rolf Busemann presented a study of "The Deacon in the Early Church", but once the study opened with a description of the diakon- words as expressing "essentially a turning to the other person and an outreach to the neighbour" we know that the profile of the deacon will unfold to the traditional German pattern. A similar comment applies to the paper which appeared in the journal’s first issue of the 21st century. This was Giuseppe Bellia’s "The biblical-patristical roots of ordained diaconate" which was prepared for presentation to 2000 deacons on a jubilee visit to Rome in February 2000. The third paper merits separate consideration.

Dr Kasper's paper

Confusion regarding the values carried by diakonia within early Christian understanding is apparent also in the paper by Dr Walter Kasper already alluded to. While Dr Kasper is by no means alone in the understandings he brings to the word, his is a case of some importance because he was delivering the main theological paper at an international conference of 1997. The paper has since been published in its original German (Diaconia Christi 1997) and in an English translation (Deacon Digest 1998), perhaps in other languages as well. In its talk of diakonia as the ecclesial task taken up by the deacon, however, Kasper draws directly on the classic German concept of diakonia as "a work of love and charity". This is the original Lutheran concept from the mid-19th century whose subsequent pathway into Roman Catholic theology of the diaconate was traced in Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources.

That book sought to expose the credibility of the claim that the term diakonia expressed a special concept espoused by early Christians. Nonetheless Bishop Kasper yet again put together a theology of diaconate on the basis of diakonia as humble love and service. To this end he produced the chain of familiar passages from the New Testament and from Ignatius of Antioch which speak of diakonia, thereby aiming to establish that "in a special way the deacon represents Jesus Christ, who came to serve (Mark 10:45) and who humbled himself and allowed himself to be enslaved (Philippians 2:7)".

In this, an artificial correlation between Mark 10:45 and Philippians 2:6-7 supports the view of diakonia as a lowly and loving service when in fact neither passage expresses any of those aspects. In Mark 10:45 the service or diakonia of the Son of Man is his commitment to the mission he has received from on high, while the iconology of slavery in the Philippian hymn bears no correlation to ideas and values expressed in Greek by diakonia.

The arbitrary attachment of these passages from the New Testament to a pre-existent conception of the diaconate as a ministry of loving service does little to establish confidence in the profile of the deacon which Bishop Kasper finally produces. This deacon is to be "the outpost and the listening post, the outrider and the vanguard of the Church" in overcoming the fragmentation of community in the world. The deacon's place is in "fringe and fragmented areas of society" where he should "'drive' communio-diaconia in such a way that he helps to build up the Church of the future."

Heiligkreuztal 2000

A second significant international conference under the aegis of the International Diaconate Centre was held at Heiligkreuztal near Rottenburg am Neckar in September 2000 and addressed questions of the formation and education of Roman Catholic deacons. The papers made up the whole issue of the journal Diaconia Christi 3/4 2000, and, in addition to reports and comments of a pastoral nature, included several theological reflections on the identity of the deacon. All of these, in keeping with the German tradition, assume the authenticity and legitimacy of a diaconate of service rooted in the idea of Jesus as the one who came to serve, Christ the Servant. The motif appears over and over. Reporting on the formation of deacons in Latin America and the Caribbean, José Mesa Angulo explains: "The Deacon Jesus Christ is given to us as a model of humility and of service." Addressing deacons in a homily to mark the occasion, Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, emphasised that ordination had conformed them to "Christ who became servant of all." In a theological paper, Valter Mauricio Goedert of Brazil explained: "The deacon is a servant of the servant; he should teach others to serve like Jesus. He is the image, the icon of the Servant Christ… " Theodore Kraus, a leading figure in recent diaconal developments in USA, concluded a paper on formation of deacons with the axiom, "the deacon is the sacrament of the Church for service to the needy." In particular, in a major intervention, Ottmar Fuchs’ intriguing reflections on the interrelationship between Christian witness (martyria) and service (diakonia) rest entirely upon the standard German conceptualisation Diakonie. This is to make no allowance at all for the fact that research has shown diakonia was never an early Christian expression for service of those in need.


The papers of another significant conference on the diaconate appeared in Haquin and Weber's Diaconat XXIe siècle (1997). Here, methodology changes from biblical roots to exploration of the sketchily described diaconate of the Second Vatican Council. The outcome, however, is similar to the established German profile of a diaconate of service. Hervé Legrand elaborated the council's teaching for the purpose of establishing charity as the hallmark of deaconship. In the course of his treatment Legrand needed to take note of the linguistic findings of Collins because these stand in the way of understanding diaconate as a ministry of charity or service. Instead of entering debate with Collins, however, he chose merely to convey the opinion that "[Collins'] work is least convincing on the philological level ". James Monroe Barnett had attempted little more in the revised edition of his influential The Diaconate: A Full and Equal Order (1995), writing off Collins as an "extensive, but misleading, word study" whose theological tendency is controlled by medieval views of church order. Although in Barnett's case the debate was taken further in the pages of the newsletter of the North American Association for the Diaconate (1995-96), I believe that such passing and unsubstantiated criticisms are not to be taken seriously. In linguistic matters, especially those which underpin theoretical positions - in this case, the theological profile of the deacon - criticism must take up its task in the linguistic forum. In other words, it must argue matters of interpretation on the basis of text before the criticism can be given any weight.

USA Roman Catholics

In the numerically strong Roman Catholic diaconal movement of the United States – embracing some 12000 of the church’s 25000 deacons - discussion of the essential nature of the diaconate seems to have been muted under the rhetorical blanket of Vatican II's tripartite formula from the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium. Here the teaching is that ordination dedicates deacons to "the service of the liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity" (LG 29). At first sight this statement might suggest deep theological roots but is soon revealed as so general as to be unhelpful in defining the specific character of an ordained diaconate. To parade the statement as if it held the key to essential questions about diaconate is to disappoint anyone making the attempt to explore its meaning. A typical attempt along these lines would be the Pastoral Letter of Archbishop Harry Flynn in 1999 marking the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the permanent diaconate in St Paul-Minneapolis.

For myself I would attribute to the formula of the Second Vatican Council a capacity to obscure rather than to illumine the discussion of the specific character of the diaconate. We can illustrate this, for example, in the treatment by William Ditewig of "The Sacramental Identity of the Deacon" in Deacon Digest (2000). A certain significance attaches to this paper because William Ditewig is a member of the committee which has developed drafts of the Directory on the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States. The author draws freely from this source. The point here is that Ditewig makes the core theological issue the participation of the diaconate in an "Apostolic Ministry" which is "a Three-fold Office of Diakonia", namely, Word, Sacrament and Charity. Because all ordained men participate in this diakonia, what the term diakonia is to mean theologically takes on a particular significance. At this point of Ditewig's discussion, however, what we find is that diakonia has value here because it is understood to stand over against "power" and because it is understood to be expressing the kenotic status of a Christ who serves, with allusions to Philippians 2:6-7 and Mark 10:45.

Diakonic allusions of this kind were commonplace in ecumenical theology of the 1950s and, thereafter, in much of the Roman Catholic ecclesiology which developed in the wake of Vatican II, as illustrated above in Bishop Kasper’s paper. Such allusions were in fact the focus of the extended critique of late 20th century understandings of diakonia which made up Part I of Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources. It is difficult to see what justifies the linguistic recycling of diakonia in this area of theological discourse today when scholarly opinion is now ready to acknowledge that, in linguistic terms, an ecclesial diakonia carries as much power or authority as it requires, that diakonia of itself does not express the notion of a service to its recipients but, on the contrary, an obligation to a mandating authority, and that the icon of the kenotic Christ from the letter to the Philippians has no linguistic connection with diakonia.

The Second Vatican Council's own occasional uses of diakonia were themselves, if not ill-conceived, at least vague and ill-defined, and it is a great pity that theologians have consistently failed to bring a critical analysis to bear on the ecclesial character of the "service" which Ditewig correctly recognises as a particular emphasis in the Council's teaching. Confusion as to the ecclesial nature of "service" is largely the reason why so many dioceses in the United States - as in many other countries, like my own Australia - remain ambivalent towards the diaconate or even antipathetic to it.

Dr Reininger’s "bridging role"

Let us return to consider Dorothea Reininger’s treatment of the theme. We have seen that members of a study group within the Anglican and Nordic Lutheran churches have engaged themselves in a process of a deep re-evaluation of the diaconate. In this the group has been working largely under the inspiration of the Porvoo Common Statement of 1993 in which these churches committed themselves "to work towards a common understanding of diaconal ministry". Part of the initiative of the group has been to account variously for the reinterpretation of the ancient Greek diakonia. By contrast, we have also revisited the dominant emphases in diaconal studies which emanate from European continental sources and from the international Roman Catholic diaconal movement. Invariably, studies in these circles reveal a casual disregard for theological implications of the reinterpretation of the Greek term diakonia. Thus we can say that the context in which Reininger’s major analysis of diaconal theology appeared would encourage her to follow the traditional German and continental trend. Such disregard, however, was not the case.

Instead of disregard, Reininger brought to her study a considered position in regard to the reinterpreted diakonia.. She introduced a report of the new research late in the study, it is true, but at a significant juncture of her concluding section. Having reflected on the Roman Catholic ordained diaconate as integral to the single sacrament of order, as well as on the relationship of diaconate to the presbyterate, her study moves into a final reflection on "the identity of the diaconate" in preparation for mounting its conclusions about women’s rightful place within the ordained diaconate in the Roman Catholic Church.

The section on identity is thus important. It develops to a predictable pattern. Throughout the lengthy preceding explorations Reininger had worked with an underlying understanding of the central term diakonia as loving Christian service in its many forms. In fact this understanding is a terminological given (p. 179), and its status as a technical term was already well established in the middle of the 19th century within the work of Johann Hinrich Wichern (pp. 250-252). The authenticity of its biblical character is initially presented on the basis of Paul Philippi’s writings in the second half of the 20th century. These identify the critical formulation of this Christian diakonia as Mark 10:45, "the Son of man came not to be served but to serve… " (pp. 258-261). The further elaboration of the caritative dimension of the term’s value within the Christian community forms the substance of the introduction to Reininger’s consideration of the identity of the diaconate (pp. 629-631).

Here we engage with linguistic evaluations drawn from the classic scholarly source of the 1930s in H. W. Beyer’s article on the Greek diakon- words in Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. On the basis of these evaluations – and of the later consensus supporting them - we read of an "etymological" connection between the pastoral practice of diaconate and the sense of loving service said to be carried by the Greek words in the New Testament (p. 630). Thus the diaconate is especially responsible for "caritative care" in the church and, although historically the church experienced a gradual depreciation of this diakonia, the renewed diaconate of modern times has the capacity of "diakonising" the whole of the church’s ministry and of the church itself. We even read that this thoroughgoing "diakonising" of the diaconate and, through it, of the church could well be the outcome of finally ordaining women as deacons (pp. 648-653).

This is the strongly diakonic context within which Reininger introduces the new evaluation of diakonia which departs from this modern diakonic consensus. In taking account of the new evaluation, however, Reininger presents only one aspect of the semantic profile of diakonia described by Collins. This is the aspect represented in the idea of "go-between or bridge", an idea which would come closer to the intention of the biblical authors and to the early Christian understanding of the diaconate itself. In a few lines Reininger sketches the aspect of Collins’ research relating to this and, in spite of finding it something of a sensation (p. 639, "fur Aufsehen"), seems happy enough to accommodate this aspect of the new linguistic data within her understanding of the diaconate. In fact she ventures to show that historically some element of a go-between function has always been observable in practice. This she exemplifies from records of early Christian deacons acting as intermediaries between bishops and their communities, from some historic functions of deacons in Orthodox liturgies, and from connections modern deacons seek to establish between the local church and the social margins where they work. In following sections Reininger seeks to find ways of enlarging the scope of this bridge-making function within the modern diaconate.

From the standpoint of Collins’ research, however, Reininger’s attempt to accommodate the new linguistic data simply will not work and is misconceived. This is most clearly evident in the statement that "the two characteristics of the diaconate – on the one side the call to diakonia (Diakonie), on the other the function of mediation – are not necessarily mutually exclusive" (p. 633). What we have here is a statement about diakonia (Diakonie) in the sense of loving Christian service current in the modern consensus which Reininger supports, whereas a main outcome of the research, only fleetingly and partially represented in Reininger’s report of it, is that the ancient diakon- words never expressed ideas relating to care for others or to loving attention of any kind. This is equally true of early Christian writings as of all usage in Hellenistic and classical Greek. We can only conclude that it is not possible to reflect on the diaconate theologically on the basis that one aspect of the Greek diakonia denotes loving service while another aspect denotes the function of a go-between. Loving service is simply not represented in the field of meaning covered by the ancient diakon- words.

Mandated officer

The range of ideas conveyed by the diakon- words in ancient Greek can indeed be usefully described as having some connection with the idea of go-between, as noted by Reininger and as could be elaborated on the basis of instances of the words in the sense of an authoritative messenger (2 Corinthians 11:23), of a delegation between churches (2 Corinthians 9:1), of the activity of a household servant fetching for a master or mistress (Mark 1:31; Luke 10:40; 12:37 [the master!]). On the same basis we could understand why Phoebe (Romans 16:1) is to be understood as a delegate of the church in Cenchreae to the churches in Rome rather than as a deacon or some other sort of minister in her community.

This is not the place to argue or promote these linguistic and semantic characteristics of the Greek terms which underlie the words for deacons and diaconate in European languages. It is appropriate, however, to point out that the research is misrepresented when used to support diakonia (Diakonie) in the sense of loving Christian activity in its many forms. The relevance of the etymological connection between the diakon- words and the diaconate is in another semantic field altogether. This is the field of action in an in-between space, the activity of the intermediary, of the go-between, of the mandated officer. The primal reference of the action is not to the recipient of the diakonic activity but to the person who has mandated or authorised the activity. In the case of the deacon/diakonos among early Christians this person was the bishop or presbyter. Used technically of a deacon, the term bore no reference to the community or its needs.

Writers and readers within the German tradition of Diakonie are, of course, surprised at assertions of this kind. Reviewing the volume Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources, the North American Lutheran theologian and ecumenist John Reumann called the assertions "devastating". That was in 1991, the year following publication of the book. Thus the research is not something merely from "the nineties", as Reininger reports it, but has now been in the academic arena for over ten years. In this long period, not once has any linguistic item been challenged on specifically linguistic grounds. On the contrary, other studies working from a linguistic base in the New Testament, such as those by Campbell (1994:133), Hafemann (1995:115-119), and Bash (1997:37,153), have singled it out - even as a model of sociocultural linguistic research.

In these circumstances one does not easily understand how German scholarship seems to have almost totally overlooked the research. Reininger is singular in paying attention to it (and she notes on p. 632 one theologian, H. J. Weber, who supports its relevance to the diaconate). However, the major impact of the research on the classic argument she has mounted for women’s access to the ordained diaconate is not, as she would have it, in adding the neglected dimension of a bridgebuilder to the profile of the deacon, useful as this might be. Rather, the major impact is in eliminating from the semantic field of diakonia any direct denotation of loving Christian service. The 19th century German word Diakonie, like its derivatives or equivalents in other European languages, is a misnomer. Accordingly, if we are to look to the title of the deacon and of the deacon’s office of diaconate for intimations of what the role of the deacon is in the church, we are constrained to look at facets of meaning which do not include connotations of loving Christian service.


To this observer initiatives in the Roman Catholic theology of diaconate have been weighed down with a discredited mass of 50-60 year-old linguistic assumptions about the uses of diakonia in early Christian writings. When these have combined with conciliar rhetoric about liturgy, word and charity, the outcome has been a theological amalgam which does not satisfy deacons, pastors, synods, communities, or theologians. A telling illustration of the dissatisfaction engendered by this situation is to be seen in final comments at the Heiligkreuztal conference 2000 by Jorge Jimenez, who was attending as President of CELAM, the Latin American Bishops’ Conference. After the mandatory complimentary remarks, Jimenez politely conveyed not only his impression of a wide diversity of style and pastoral engagement among deacons of different regions but also his impression that "the identity of the deacon is not clear". His colleague on the final panel, Fritz Lobinger, bishop of Aliwal, South Africa, and an innovative pastoral strategist, expressed less dissatisfaction with the diversity of theory and opinion, but advised of a further necessary stage yet to be reached.

Within a Roman Catholic context women hold a particular interest in this unfinished state of diaconal theology and pastoral practice. They observe men being introduced in increasing numbers to an order whose precise nature international study conferences seem unable to determine, and they do not take any joy from the irony that by acting widely as non-ordained collaborators in various aspects of ministry they already fill virtually all the roles of today's deacons.

The first step towards rebuilding confidence in the diaconate would seem to be to get the text right. As noted earlier, some are evidently trying to do just this. And the same seems to have been the advice of the ecclesiologist and ecumenist George Tavard in reviewing Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources. "Had it been published at the time of Vatican II," he claimed, "the present book could have provided a basis for the needed theological reflection." (Worship 1992)

Among those who weigh up this linguistic material, however, are some who consider that what the word diakonia meant in ancient times does not matter provided we have an agreed understanding of it today. This position could possibly be defended if one could guarantee that others would not then turn around and transfer the modern meaning of loving, humble service back into the ancient text. But that is what regularly happens. Thus, looking only at Mark 10:45, we even read statements purporting to be rendering that portentous theological statement into English to the effect that "the Son of Man came to help people".

Clearly, to engage in such wordplays is to do violence to the text, an act which it is difficult to envisage churches of the reform knowingly encouraging. The Anglican-Lutheran International Commission, by contrast, saw that seeking the meaning of the text was one of their first responsibilities. While continuing to work from the insights of tradition, they proceeded by taking into account "the historical-philological corrective to earlier understandings of the diakon- words" (The Hanover Report, 60). In Reininger’s close attention to this document (pp. 591-594), one could have expected to encounter some engagement with the linguistic principle espoused there because that principle threatens to undercut the substratum of diakonia (Diakonie) on which her proposal for women’s diaconate rests.

In theological terms much remains to be done for the modern diaconate. So much drafting of new possibilities continually seems to be constrained in the procrustean bed of denominational or synodical requirements and dispositions. One small initiative which appeared to stir the imagination and fire the enthusiasm of a representative group of Swedish deacons was developed at a one-off workshop in Sigtuna in January 2000 by Kjell Nordstokke, Director of Det Norske Diakonhjem, in collaboration with Collins. A summary in English of the presentation was published in Svensk Kyrkotidning (17 March 2000).


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