Church History, Ecclesiology

Bishops and Synods: Testing the Spirits

Published on: November 28, 2017
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In modernity and postmodernity, bishops and synods have taken varying approaches to testing the spirits and ascertaining what is needed for the renewal of pastoral ministry. The task engaged by the participants in the symposium hosted by the St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess on October 6-7, 2017, was to consider how the Church might renew the order of the diaconate. My lecture focused on the work of the Moscow Council of 1917-18, especially the conciliar engagement of a process for restoring the patriarchate. I proposed the council’s restoration of the patriarchate offers a pattern for the contemporary discussion of renewing the diaconate, since these are ministries performed by Church orders. Here are three approaches to ministerial renewal from the Moscow Council that can be applied today to the questions posed to bishops and synods as they deliberate the matter of renewing the diaconate:

  • Testing the spirits. The decision to restore the patriarchate was not impulsive, but the product of ascertaining a need in the Church’s pastoral ministry. It would be inaccurate to claim that the Russian Church was bereft of any good leadership during the synodal period. On the contrary, the Church produced formidable intellectuals, strong theological academies, and saints during this period. Church leaders noted the absence of the patriarchal office able to consolidate the Church and encourage the bishops in their local ministries, to serve as a unifying voice within the Church. In this vein, the appeal for the re-creation of the patriarchal office was timely.
  • Church-wide deliberation. The decision to recreate the patriarchate was not made behind closed doors in a haze of white smoke among a group of privileged monastic and celibate men. The decision was made by the entire council, which consisted of lower clergy and lay representatives as well as bishops.
  • Awaiting God’s response. When the time to elect the actual patriarch arrived at the council, the Church left room for God’s choice by having the final selection made by lot.

The process of testing the spirits on pastoral ministry performed by the three major orders of the Church has been underway for quite some time now. The results have been uneven because two prevalent patterns are colliding with one another. The predominant pattern of imagining Church ministry is one of continuity. The order most crucial for Church ministry is the priest: because the priest presides over the vast majority of sacraments and is the official representative in the parish community, we have seminary programs designed to form priests equipped to carry out these duties. Continuity places an overwhelming amount of the ministry in the hands of the priest; the only role for the deacon (in this paradigm), is to chant the lines of the liturgy appointed to him. The decay of diaconal ministry was so steep in Orthodoxy that many Euchologia simply assigned all liturgical petitions to the priest. In the paradigm of parish continuity, the deacon’s role is to be on hand to lead hierarchical liturgies or to serve as a temporary stepping stone on the path to presbyteral ordination (some priests were a deacon for one day). Permanent deacons were both rare and a luxury. I know this from my own experience: most parish priests don’t know how to serve with a deacon because we are so rare.

Testing the spirits collides with continuity when we imagine how the diaconate might complement presbyteral ministry. In exceptional cases, deacons might teach, preach, provide spiritual direction, anoint the sick, distribute Communion to those who cannot attend liturgy, and represent the parish or diocese in some official capacity, in addition to leading the assembly in liturgical prayer. Presbyters delegate these ministries to deacons when their time and energy is occupied with other ministerial duties. When deacons perform these ministries, the assumption is that the action was blessed as a result of testing the spirits, ascertaining the need for deacons to minister in these areas.

The question for bishops and synods is this: are they willing to take the step of testing the spirits to identify areas of need in the Church and determine how these areas can be addressed through diaconal ministry? In certain pockets of the Church, the diaconate has re-emerged and deacons do contribute to pastoral ministry in the Church at the parish and diocesan levels. Is this re-emergence of a permanent diaconate in certain pockets of the Church a product of the outpouring of the Spirit upon us? I am convinced that the resurgence of the diaconate is inspired by the Holy Spirit; I am also convinced that the serious conciliar deliberations and decisions to reinvigorate the order of deaconess are also inspired by the Holy Spirit, evidenced in particular by the 2004 synodal decision of the Church of Greece and the recent decision of the Patriarchate of Alexandria to appoint deaconesses for pastoral ministry.

The point here is that bishops and synods must be willing to test the spirits: if the situation of today’s Church differs from that of one-hundred years ago, there is plenty of justification for bishops to bless the study of renewing the diaconate to address contemporary pastoral needs, to train and educate ordained deacons and candidates for ordination to do the work addressing today’s needs, and to ordain and appoint deaconesses to pastoral ministry.

Because the diaconate is a Church order, the courage to test the spirits and appoint deacons and deaconesses with expanded ministerial roles will result in the re-creation not only of the diaconate, but also of the presbyterate. In other words, a renewed diaconate sharing in the work required by Christ’s high priesthood might not be an exact copy of the diaconate from the previous generation or of any given era. This same reality applies to the order of deaconess: a re-creation of this order may not result in an absolute replica of the medieval version of the Byzantine order of deaconess. If we are willing to test the spirits and be honest about effective pastoral and liturgical ministries, we have to be open to the possibility that ministerial roles might shift. Acceptance of shifting roles is particularly crucial if renewing the diaconate includes the ordination of deaconesses. We cannot assume that the deaconess will simply be a copy of the deacon, or the deacon a copy of the priest for that matter. Complementarity is sure to enrich the ministries performed by all the orders, much more so than copying.

When bishops and synods deliberate this issue, it is essential that they bring it to the whole Church. A proposal to renew the diaconate should be introduced to the Church first before it is implemented, to avoid the perception of forcing an issue on the Church. Practically speaking, at this point, the matter would have to be discussed at the local level of an autocephalous Church. The point is to introduce something that will be received within the Church; if a renewed diaconate is not received, then it has been imposed on the Church.

The primary task posed to bishops and synods is the willingness to test the spirits and ask, how can we all serve Christ and build up his body today? An openness to changing and shifting roles is not a challenge to something we all hold true: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Instead, it is a commitment to obeying the will of God and raising up men and women who will preach that message to the ends of the earth.


This essay is part of a series on the diaconate in the Orthodox Church derived from talks delivered at the St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess “Renewing the Male and Female Diaconate in the Orthodox Church Conference” in Irvine, California in October 2017.

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About author

  • Rev. Dr. Nicholas Denysenko

    Rev. Dr. Nicholas Denysenko

    Emil and Elfriede Jochum University Chair and Professor of Theology, Valparaiso University

    Nicholas Denysenko serves as Emil and Elfriede Jochum Professor and Chair and concurrently as associate professor of theology. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota (1994), and his graduate degrees at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (M.Div., 2000) and The...

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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