Unlike the majority of the churches on the European continent and the Church of Scotland, the Reformation in England to a great degree left the hierarchy of the church intact. It is true that the monasteries and convents were disbanded and a number of minor orders of ministry (such as doorkeepers and subdeacons) were let go. However, the ancient orders of bishops, priests and deacons were retained. In the preface to the Ordinal in the Book of Common Prayer we read:
It is evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient authors, that from the apostles’ time there have been these orders of ministry in Christ’s church: bishops, priests, and deacons.
The statement is interesting as much for what it does not say as much as for what it does. For one thing, it does not limit ministry to these three orders. It simply argues for their legitimacy. No doubt the reformers were aware that the Bible speaks of apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers, workers of miracles and administrators, to name a few. I suspect that they would have argued for bishops, priests and deacons as part of the bene esse, rather than the esse, of the church—useful and important, but not absolutely necessary.
We begin our study with the term deacon, the office which I believe is the essence of all ministry. Indeed, the Greek word from which it is derived (diakonos) is consistently translated “minister” in the King James Version of the Bible. Jesus used the word in the gospels when he said that “whoever would be great among you must be your deacon”. Not only that, but after the apostles themselves, deacons are the first form of ministry which we find in the New Testament. In Acts 6, the apostles called upon the church in Jerusalem to “choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” to look after the distribution of aid to the widows in the congregation. While the word “deacon” is not used here, it would seem that the passage is pointing to the same function. Later in the New Testament period we find deacons in the church at Philippi and at Ephesus. In his instructions to his young protégé Timothy, Paul writes,
Deacons … are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.
In the Prayer Book service of ordination, deacons are instructed that not only are they to assist the pastor in leading worship and teaching, they are also “to search for the sick, poor and impotent people of the parish … that they may be relieved with the alms of the parishioners …” That the diaconate, the ministry of service, is basic to all ministry, can be seen in the fact that both priests and bishops are first ordained as deacons.