Is a deacon anything more than a liturgical frill?

Thomas O’Loughlin

After centuries when the diaconate was but a passing step towards the presbyterate, many find this idea strange and even awkward. Others believe it is just another clericalist approach to ministry and an un-necessary complication. But could the diaconate bring other benefits? Thomas O’Loughlin is Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham.

There is a constant, but seldom remarked upon, phenomenon regarding ‘optional’ items in any frequently repeated liturgy. Either, that which is optional gradually becomes exceptional, and finally becomes so rare that its presence is seen as a frill, a decoration, and a distraction from ‘the core’ of the event; or, it is included so frequently that it becomes equivalent to a fixed item: it can be omitted, but actually never is. The first course, when the optional becomes a rarity, is by far the most common. In short, that which you can do without is treated as a luxury, an ‘icing on the cake’. One must ask the question whether or not one should devote time and resources to this luxury. This can be seen in matters large and small. The Prayer of the Faithful in a Eucharist celebrated on a weekday is a small example: one need not have it – so omit it – unless it is something special like a local celebration when it becomes part of the ‘special menu.’ Omitting communion from the cup or using the Tabernacle at Mass are other examples: the minimum will do – and has done so for centuries – and so concerns about their appropriateness seem just the crazy foibles of liturgists.

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