For them, it has been a journey of many years. For the Diocese of Virginia, it has been a journey of many decades.
"We as a diocese reclaim the ancient and sacred order of deacons and as a full, separate and distinct order of ministry," declared Bishop Shannon Johnston at the ordination ceremony of the first vocational deacons in our diocese.
After finishing his sermon, Bishop Johnston laid hands on the foreheads of Barbara Lockwood Ambrose, Dana Evenson Buchanan, Mary Elizabeth Emerson, Marty Monroe Hager and Linda E. Murphy, and made them into deacons.
"You will serve by offering the redemptive love of Jesus Christ to those the most in need," the bishop told the new deacons, "especially the poor, sick and lonely."
It is hard to overstate the importance to our diocese of the ordinations on Saturday bringing to life this distinct and iconic order of ministry. There have been a handful of vocational deacons in our diocese, but they've been ordained in other dioceses and on loan to us. But Virginia has never ordained its own deacons -- not until Saturday.
Each of the new deacons has walked a long road of preparation and many disappointments, all for the privilege of being ordained to ministry of servanthood that carries no salary and requires obedience directly to the bishop. The five attended a three-year theological school that met primarily on weekends, and served internships in social service settings.
A few words of explanation about the diaconate are in order. The Deacons as a distinct order of ministry has its origins in the New Testament. In the early Church, deacons brought communion to the sick and served the poor.
In later centuries, the diaconate became more of a stepping stone to other clergy orders -- the priesthood and episcopate (bishops). We retain a vestige of that with our "transitional deacons" whereby people like me are required to serve for six months to a year as deacons before moving onto the priesthood.
Yet there have always been permanent deacons. You can identify them as those clergy who are wearing their stole diagonally across their left shoulder.
Deacons represent living icons bringing the church into the world and the world back to the church. They do not celebrate the sacraments, but as their name suggests -- deacon (a Greek word for table waiter) -- their liturgical role is to read the Gospel, set the Holy Table for Communion, and declare the dismissal sending us back out into the world. I believe the most important words a deacon declares is the dismissal. The best deacon dismissal I ever heard was "get up, get out and go do something."
The Book of Common Prayer rite for ordaining deacons includes this instruction by a bishop to a new deacon: "You are to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship. You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world."
The site of Saturday's ordination was especially symbolic -- St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Annandale, in the suburbs of Washington DC. The neighborhood is modest with a high immigrant population.
Deacons typically hold secular jobs, but they bring to their jobs their sense of servanthood. The bishop pointed out that "to be plain honest" all of us -- bishops, priests, deacons and lay people -- should bring that sense of servanthood to all that we do. But, he said, deacons are especially supposed to bring the pain of the world back to the church. "This charge is unique for deacons," he said.
"Hold the Church accountable," the Bishop continued. "I want deacons to raise Cain with the Church!"
For me, it's been a privilege to serve on the diocesan Committee on the Diaconate. I've seen up close the many turns and tumbles as the Diocese of Virginia has created a program for the education and formation of vocational deacons.
The chair of our committee, The Rev. Jane Piver, has shown great leadership through many travails in bringing these extraordinary people to this day and she is owed much thanks by many.
It wasn't easy for any of them, and I especially admire their fortitude and perseverance. We will soon be evaluating the program, and hopefully tap the wisdom of the experience of these five new deacons.
On Saturday, it was time for the celebration of a great milestone in the life of the Church.
"May your ministries of service be your heart's joy," the bishop concluded in his sermon.
Photos by yours truly from my pew.