Liturgical Duties of a Deacon
by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane, Bishop of Maine
Deacons have specific liturgical responsibilities in the worship of the Episcopal Church that are intended to reflect their role as servants of Christ. These duties include taking the Good News of God’s love to the world (proclaiming the Gospel), bringing the concerns of the world into the church (working with others on the prayers of the people), modeling servanthood (preparing the table) and sending the people of God out to serve the world (proclaiming the dismissal). Ideally, each of these liturgical duties is matched by real world and congregational ministries.
From the ordinal: “Your are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. You are to assist the bishop and priests in public worship and the ministration of God’s Word and Sacraments...” The ordination service suggests that the primary liturgical responsibilities of the deacon are proclamation of the Gospel and prayer. The deacon assists with the preaching and the sacraments.
Leading Worship: Deacons are frequently invited in a variety of settings to lead the servants of Christ in prayer. This may be at a ministry site or with a gathering of congregants. Familiarity with the prayer services of the BCP is very helpful. Deacons may also lead Morning Prayer under the direction of the priest-in-charge. If Morning Prayer is offered regularly, licensed lay ministers should share this ministry. Deacons may preach on an occasional or regular basis.
Deacons may assist in the administration of the consecrated elements in worship. They may also take the consecrated elements to the sick and shut-in. With the Bishop’s permission and as a matter of missionary strategy, deacons may administer communion from the reserved sacrament when “the services of a priest cannot be obtained.” (BCP, 408) With the bishop’s permission, in consultation with the priest-in-charge and as a matter of pastoral judgment, deacons may officiate at weddings and burials.
Concerning blessings and anointing: Deacons may not offer God’s blessing to the people or pronounce the forgiveness of sins. Deacons may pray over people and assure them that they are loved and blessed by God.
The operational distinction regarding blessings is found in the words that are used. The priest speaks directly on behalf of God. (“The blessing of God... be upon you.” “Almighty God have mercy on you...”) In contrast, the deacon speaks of our hope. (May Almighty God grant us forgiveness...” “Almighty God have mercy on us...” “May God bless us and keep us...”) Blessings for persons at the communion rail are to be administered by the priest.
Although anointing of the sick is primarily reserved to priests, in times of necessity a deacon may anoint (BCP 455-56), particularly in their servanthood ministries outside the church. Such anointing may be of particular concern to deacons who are hospital chaplains, hospice chaplains, nursing home chaplains, even prison chaplains.
Warning signs of the blurring or confusion of liturgical roles:
1. Liturgical duties are listed first in the deacons’ letter of agreement.
2. Deacons are expected to lead services at their assigned church on a regular basis, except as a matter of missionary strategy approved by the bishop.
3. The priest-in-charge proposes communion from the reserved sacrament rather than securing a supply priest for vacations or other absences from the parish.
4. The deacon’s liturgical duties take time away from the deacon’s servanthood ministries.