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The Church of North India (CNI). (Comments from Churches Involved in Union Negotiations).

The founding parents of the Church of North India had envisaged that it would be free to develop an appropriate diaconate as might be demanded by the needs and life of the church. The form of a permanent diaconate would be such as to free other ministers (presbyters and bishops) to perform the functions which more appropriately belong to their distinctive calling. The ministry of the diaconate might be undertaken for life by persons who have been accepted for this ministry by the diocesan authorities and have received due training (which might, in some respects, be different from the normal course of training for presbyters). The expression "permanent diaconate" is also used in the constitution. (1) The order of service for the ordination of deacons in the CNI Book of Worship already provides for the ordination of deacons for life, or permanent deacons.

Since its fourth synod (1980), the CNI has turned its attention to making provision for an appropriate diaconate. This was entrusted to the theological commission and its final four recommendations were received, subject to comments recorded below, by the eighth ordinary synod in 1992:

1. The CNI should have a full-time paid permanent diaconate not to replace the work of voluntary part-time lay leadership.

2. Essentially his or her work should be basically service oriented, dealing with development and justice issues, which would include teaching, counselling and healing.

3. Special attention needs to be paid to the grooming, selection and preparation of deacons.

4. Other details need to be worked out in temps of salary, promotion and benefits ensuring a threefold ministry and a not three-tier ministry.

Comments on the recommendations:

1. The elements such as being full-time, paid, promotions and benefits--being administrative in nature--would need to be carefully re-examined before final formulations are drafted.

2. The permanent diaconate may be more associated with managerial functions of the ordained ministry. It may not replace the supplemental or non-stipendary ministry. The relationship between a permanent diaconate and the liturgical functions of the present diaconate may be examined and clarified in final formulations.

A paper was presented in the bishops' conference in Gangtok in the diocese of Eastern Himalaya in 2001 in light of the above recommendations and comments. Its aim was to clarify the theological basis and current scholarship in this area, in order to facilitate the process of ordaining and appointing permanent deacons within the existing constitutional provisions. It was hoped that the institutional and conceptual change in relation to the diaconate should be grasped as an opportunity for mission as a united and uniting church, and as a chance to locate diaconal ministry within the mission and ministry of the church as a whole.

The diaconate is an institution of great importance as a ministry closely related to central aspects of the very identity of the church: service, outreach, humility and human needs. The debate has continued as to whether the diaconate is an ordained or a lay ministry, and whether those intending to be ordained as a pastor should first be ordained to the diaconate (e.g., the diaconate having a transitional function).

Earlier scholarly work had argued that waiting at table, and service of a humble sort, was the paradigmatic sense of the term "diakonia". Now this earlier consensus is being questioned. In the world in which the early church lived, "diakonia" seems to have referred to the service of a "go-between" who carries out activities for another. In the letters of Paul, it also appears that the term "diakonia" is used to describe Paul and some of his associates as "go-betweens" who carry the gospel from God or Christ to those who are to hear the message of salvation. (2)

The church becomes visible in its gathering as a eucharistic community (1 Cor. 11:8). In Corinth it was evident that some members of the community were not caring for other members in that meal which anticipates the eschatological consummation of the reign of God (1 Cor. 15:28). The celebration of the eucharist has shaped the governing structure of the church. Liturgy is the work of the whole people of God. Ministry is, first of all, ministry of the church as a whole; the whole community is a priestly people (1 Pet. 2:9). Hebrews brings together the ministry of Christ and the inter-related ministries on the part of the people: "Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name" (Heb. 13:12-16).

The ministry of deacon was traditionally expressed, within the liturgical celebration of the gathered eucharistic assembly, by assigning parts of the rite to the deacon: reading the gospel, leading the intercession, receiving the gifts, setting the table for the meal, serving the eucharistic meal, administering the ceremonial. In the Anglican tradition bishops, priests and ordained ministers in general are ordained into ministries that have to do with word and sacrament; and in the Lutheran tradition, bishops and ordained ministers in general are defined by their connection with word and sacrament. However the Anglican tradition has preserved an ordained diaconate--whether transitional or permanent--and "deacon" in an Anglican context usually refers to someone in this office. Anglican churches also have deaconesses and other designated persons who carry out diaconal ministry: for example licensed lay workers, and communities of religious. At the time of the Reformation, Lutheran churches did not preserve an ordained diaconate, and the term "deacon" in most Lutheran traditions refers to a person consecrated or commissioned to a ministry focused on parish work or social service, but not ordained.

Many of the diaconal ministries within churches arose in response to specific needs in their respective Societies; that is, they express the response by the churches to particular historical and cultural realities. Thus the dominant factors in generating the diversity of diaconal ministries have been the various needs which they have sought to meet and, while respecting this cultural and historical diversity, the need is to reflect critically on it because some forms of diaconal service may have outlived their usefulness, and some may need to be reformed.

The most obvious diversity is amongst the diaconate as an ordained position, and forms of diaconal ministry which are rather "commissioned". Moreover, different forms of the diaconate relate in different ways to the decision-making structures of the churches. Some were initially mandated by the central structures of the church authority, while others arose as grassroots initiatives responsible to the church in more indirect ways. A relative freedom from central decision-making structures has permitted some diaconal ministries to be "spaces" where excluded groups (e.g., women) have been able to shape their own ministries. The "go-between" role of diaconal ministry operates in both directions: from the church to the needs, hopes and concerns of persons in and beyond the church; and from those needs, hopes and concerns to the church. Therefore it is a matter not just of ministries of service (diakonia) but also of witness (martyria) and worship (leitourgia).

A renewed definition of the diaconate for our time--and particularly to meet the need of our local constituencies in north India--is most urgent. Deacons are not to be merely an inferior order of ministers, exercising lowly service; rather they should be ordained to assist the presiding officers of the community (bishops and presbyters), both in proclamation and celebration of word and sacrament, and in coordinating the community's diakonia in Christ. Ordination is into both an activity and an identity; it demands some kind of life-long commitment. All this would imply a reconsideration of the transitional diaconate, and the possibility of direct ordination to the priesthood for persons discerned to have presbyteral vocation without their passing through the diaconate.

The presbyters may perceive a renewed diaconate as a threat to their own identity and role. If, however, presbyters can welcome deacons as partners-in-ministry then the diaconate can stand as a witness against the ecclesiastical distortion rooted in exclusivist attitudes and practices. The lay members may perceive a renewed diaconate as a threat to various ministries in worship which are now exercised by lay persons, but which might be re-absorbed into what might be seen as a more "clerically"-oriented diaconate. But it must be understood that what deacons do is the same as what Christians, in general, could or should do. What is distinctive is their call to be publicly accountable servants who have a charge to model, encourage and coordinate diakonia.

A good diversity of approach is possible in dealing with a "permanent diakonia" according to ecclesiastical circumstances and missionary needs. It could be exercised as full-time, part-time, non-stipendary or stipendary, with remuneration coming either from church or non-church sources. Raising the possibility of an "ordained diaconate", one visibly incorporated into ordered ministry and eucharistic liturgy, challenges the church to take greater ownership of "diakonia" as a sign of apostolicity and encourages the whole people of God to understand their daily life as an arena for Christian service. It is characterized by practical expressions of God's redeeming love in concrete acts of justice, reconciliation and healing. A renewed diaconate can strengthen these acts with the church's authority and blessing, by linking them with the eucharistic meal.

In the light of my above presentation, and in the light of the reflection and suggestions in the bishops' conference, the following recommendations were made for study and discussion. After further discussion, the theological commission of the Church of North India approved the recommendations and sent them to the 11th synod in October 2001. The synod executive in February 2002 accepted the "permanent diaconate" in principle and proposed to incorporate some practical suggestions for implementation. The text follows:


(CNI constitution, part 1, chapter I, sec VIII, sub-section D; clauses 15,16, pp.28,29, subsection E, clauses 23, 24, p.30)


The diakonia is characterized by practical expression of God's redeeming love in concrete acts of reconciliation, healing and justice. The "permanent diaconate" can effectively strengthen these acts with the church's authority and blessing by expressing [them] within the liturgical celebration of the gathered eucharistic assembly. It is an ecumenical opportunity for contemporary life and mission of the Church of North India. Diaconal ministers are called for life to be agents of the church in interpreting and meeting needs, hopes and concerns within the church and society. It is an ordained ministry of worship (leitourgia), witness (martyia) and service (diakonia). The ordination calls for life-long commitment within one ordained ministry of word and sacrament to meet the ecclesiastical and missionary needs of the constituencies of the Church of North India.

1. The permanent diaconate shall consist of "deacons for life" ordained by a bishop to assist the bishop and presbyter in church's mission, proclaiming of the word, celebration of the sacraments and coordinating the community's diakonia.

2. The ministry may be undertaken for life by persons who are convinced of their call to the permanent diaconate of the church and possess gifts for such a district ministry, not to be ordained subsequently as presbyter within the threefold ministry of the CNI.

3. The candidate shall be ordained after being duly selected, and accepted by the diocesan ministerial committee; and must receive the training specially designed for this ministry in conjunction with the needs of the community and accepted by the diocesan council.

4. It can be exercised as full or part time, stipendiary or non-stipendiary as per the need and context of each diocese.

5. Ordinarily a person shall not be made a deacon till he has reached the age of twenty-five.

6. The deacons under this provision shall be recognized as deacons within the threefold ministry of bishops, presbyters and deacons.

7. They in their ordination to the diaconate shall be required to make a public confession of the particular life long vocation, and commitment to it for life.


(1) Constitution of CNI: Part I, Chapter 1, Section VIII, Sub-section A, Clause 16, 18, 24, p.29.

(2) The Diaconate as Ecumenical Opportunity: The Hanover Report of the Anglican-Lutheran International Commission, London, Anglican Communion Publications, 1996.

Contact: Rt Rev. Dr D.K. Sahu, Bishop of the Diocese of Eastern Himalaya, Church of North India, Bishop's Lodge, P.B. 4, Darjeeling--734 101, India, tel. +91.354 52.208, +91.354 53.882, email V.S. Lall, General Secretary, Church of North India Synod, CNI Bhavan, 16 Pandit Marg, New Delhi 110 001, India, tel. +91.11 373.10.79, fax +91.11 371.69.01, email, web site
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Author:Sahu, D.K.
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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