Diakonia: Phoebe, Ancient Greek Cups of Tea, and the Gospel

Sermon given at the Ordination of Deacons, St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, February 4th 2006

Twenty years ago less five days, on February 9th 1986, eight deacons were made here in this Cathedral. Many of the ingredients were the same: candidates, families, friends, bishops, clergy - although this time we hope there won’t be a bomb scare. They were, of course, the first women duly ordained as deacons in the Anglican Church of Australia. Some are no longer with us, having gone on to higher things (one has gone to Perth, which is not quite as good); I salute them all.

Some of those being made deacon today are too young to remember those events; but they are far from being a matter of archival interest. For the Church into whose sacred ministry these ten men and women are about to be ordained is still engaged in an unfinished process of reflection and action about the participation of women and men in the ministry of the Church, including the respective roles of deacons, presbyters and bishops. The character of that reflection is relevant not only to what we do here today, but what we will be doing in two weeks time as we come together as a Diocesan community to reflect on the nature of the ministry of bishop, and the discernment of just who God may be calling to be the next Archbishop of Melbourne.

It is impossible to ignore the contrast between the diversity of this group of five men and five women, representative, not only in gender but in training, experience, and gifts, of the richness of this Diocesan community, and on the other hand the limited scope given to those who have been entrusted with bringing a list of candidates for Archbishop. I think those who celebrated new ministries here in 1986 might have been surprised – not to say appalled - to think we would still, twenty years later, not be giving ourselves the opportunity even to consider duly qualified women for election as bishop.

When those eight women were made deacon here in 1986 we were at a relatively early stage in rediscovering the distinct functions and purposes of deacons in general, as well as the unmistakeable participation of women in the diaconate and other ministries in ancient times. We read and re-read scripture, and suddenly noticed women as well as men in the New Testament performing functions described by the Greek word diakonia, a term used in the New Testament to refer to aspects of the work of Christ himself and of the apostles and others. Some of these are given the title “diakonos” – from which we get “deacon” – for instance Phoebe, who was lurking the whole time in Romans 16:1, called the diakonos of the Church of Cenchreae near Corinth, and also described a patron or benefactor of Paul’s, commended by him to the Church at Rome in his letter to them.

Twenty years ago most of what we said theologically about deacons was to do with service, and to some extent we imagined Phoebe in these terms too. We had been taught that diakonia took its meaning from sayings and stories like that of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. For some, that supposed fundamental symbolism of the diaconate as menial service meshed with admission of women to the diaconate, and that order only, as reinforcing a view of subordination. In the historical imagination Phoebe was being allowed to make cups of ancient Greek tea – a good thing, by the way – but little more.

More recent examination of the language of the New Testament suggests that diakonia is to be understood not as service in the menial sense, drudgery divine as it were, but as authoritative service, such as that of an ambassador or delegate: powerful, representative, facilitating action on behalf of another – typically, of God. So when Jesus speaks about the service of the Son of Man who came “not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many”, he is presenting himself not as our servant (this time at least) but as God’s diakonos, the revealer of God’s mysterious power, and his saving work as the task that he enacts. Jesus’ service, in this instance at least, consists of radical yet powerful obedience to the will of God.

What then of deacons? Deacons – supervisors of these ordinands take particular note - are not there to do the ministerial tasks no-one else wants. While they may often have a special role binding up the broken hearted and healing the sick, they do so not because this is their sole prerogative, but because they are to exercise various ministries on God’s behalf, and of behalf of the bishop and the Church too – in liturgy, in preaching the Gospel, and in caring for God’s people. Their title does not indicate subservience; it indicates a delegation of full authority to do all these things. As we look at the ancient Church, deacons sometimes exercised greater authority than presbyters, nd often became bishops – I have warned these ordinands not to get any ideas about the upcoming Episcopal election, as I’m sure the list is more or less settled…

So the first-century Christian Phoebe, who twenty years ago was a model for us of the possibility of women’s participation in the diaconate, her sandaled foot barely stuck in the door of ordained ministry, now looks rather different. It is actually not clear that she held a permanent, ordained office, or indeed whether anyone did at this very early stage. But she was representative, ambassador, of the Church of Cenchreae to the Church at Rome – and not under anyone else’s authority. She was, from what we can tell, likely that Church’s most prominent leader. Twenty years after we made her a model woman deacon, it turns out Phoebe was also actually a pretty good model for a first-century woman bishop.

Well, it might be preferable to some if we forgot this stuff and got on with the point of preaching the Gospel. But in fact this is the point – who will preach the Gospel? Who will, under the Spirit’s guidance, exercise the gift and burden of proclaiming the Gospel inside and outside the Church? I am delighted to be among those bringing these ten, ready to be bold and fully-authorized ambassadors for Christ, proclaiming his reconciling ministry, his death and resurrection and the hope of the Church for our future life in him to our broken and divided world; but as we pray the gifts of the Spirit on them, let us also pray that across the brokenness of the Church, all those whom the Spirit is calling to preach the Gospel with boldness may be nurtured for their diverse ministries, lay and ordained, men and women, so that world may indeed believe in the one who sent Jesus Christ.

Let us in doing so give thanks that these men and women have responded to this call, and pray that they and others whom we call to various ministries, including that of bishop, will not impede the Spirit’s call to men and women to proclaim, teach, pastor and exercise authority at all levels in the diverse and dynamic Church we are called to be.

[Note: My debt to the scholarly work of John N. Collins will be apparent to some. See Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources (Oxford, 1990)].


  1. Anonymous5:39 am

    Strange, Andrew, but in seeking a German-language source on the web after several hours of the afternoon reading German books on 'Diakonie', and looking to follow something up on the web, your blog came up. Our paths have not crossed, so far as I know, but I have the closest connections with UK/cofe {as its website states it) - in particular with Paul Avis - while here in Melbourne I find it rewarding that you too should be pushing a revised vision of diaconate (not to mention 'ministry').


Post a Comment

Popular Posts