The Character of the Deacon

edited by James Keating, Paulist Press, £13.99

In his characteristically generous foreword, Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, describes this volume of essays as “an excellent resource for those in formation” for the diaconate and those already ordained. That need not be the full extent of its intended readership, however. As Bishop Burbidge observes, this is a book that can usefully be read by all, since “to understand the diaconate is to reflect more completely on the sacrament of holy orders in its totality”, and so the Church.

While the book can be profitably read by all sorts of people, its one principal flaw is that the quality of the essays is uneven. If this were intended to be a work of serious scholarship, I suspect that only three of the essays would justify their inclusion. On the other hand, if the object were to produce a book of “popular” theology, then those same essays would perhaps be thought too challenging, too specialised and too recondite for the general reader.

One might expect that the first section, “Diaconate and Scripture”, would be a useful way into the subject. It should be so, and the contributions of both Deacon Stephen Miletic and Dr William Wright offer theologically unchallenging but helpful general introductions to the diaconate, by way of reflections on what the person and life of Christ has to say to the subject. Unfortunately, they are preceded by Fr Scott Carl’s “From Being with Jesus to Proclaiming the Word”, which falls firmly between two stools. This essay is neither so accessible as to readily engage the non-specialist nor, as it makes its way through the question of what the “deacon” words used in the New Testament actually meant at the time the texts found final form, does it offer to the scholar anything substantial that JN Collins has not already said.

The middle sections, “Diaconate and Tradition” and “Diaconate and Prayer”, are stronger. Fr Shawn McKnight’s essay, “The Uniqueness of the Deacon”, asks important questions about the liturgical and Eucharistic impetus underlying ordination. It never quite takes seriously enough, however, the truth that the liturgy is not only the source of all the Church’s power, it is also the summit towards which all her activity is directed.

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