Why we need "this inferior office"

ALMIGHTY God, giver of all good things, who of thy great goodness hast vouchsafed to accept and take these thy servants unto the office of Deacons in thy Church: Make them, we beseech thee, O Lord, to be modest, humble, and constant in their ministration; to have a ready will to observe all spiritual discipline; that they having always the testimony of a good conscience, and continuing ever stable and strong in thy Son Christ, may so well behave themselves in this inferior office, that they may be found worthy to be called unto the higher ministries in thy Church; through the same thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and honour world without end. Amen.

From the Form and Manner of Making Deacons, BCP 1662 (Ireland 1926, and PECUSA 1928).

Of all of the provisions in the classical Anglican rite for the Making of Deacons, perhaps nothing has attracted so much vitrolic criticism as this prayer at the conclusion of the rite, with its reference to "inferior office".  If the order of deacon is to be taken seriously and restored to its ancient dignity, then surely the recommendation of Lambeth 1968 was required:

That Ordinals should, where necessary, be revised ... by the removal of reference to the diaconate as "an inferior office".

What the criticism overlooks, however, is how the offending reference is itself rooted in the offence of the Gospel:

Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded. Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet ... So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you?

As Augustine notes, the Lord's action here reveals the mystery of both the Incarnation and the Passion:

But why should we wonder that He rose from supper, and laid aside His garments, who, being in the form of God, made Himself of no reputation? And why should we wonder, if He girded Himself with a towel, who took upon Him the form of a servant, and was found in the likeness of a man? Why wonder, if He poured water into a basin wherewith to wash His disciples' feet, who poured His blood upon the earth to wash away the filth of their sins? Why wonder, if with the towel wherewith He was girded He wiped the feet He had washed ... When about to be crucified, He was indeed stripped of His garments, and when dead was wrapped in linen clothes.

The Eternal Word, then, assumed as "inferior office", manifesting how "he loved them unto the end".  By contrast, there is a Petrine quality to the insistence that it is offensive to refer to the diaconate as as "inferior office" when it is the case this phrase beautifully and powerfully indicates the authentic dignity of the office and work of a deacon.  What is more, it proclaims that all ordained ministry, the ministry of priest and bishop, is founded here, in this "inferior office": not in exalted claims, or personal gifts, or the status of super-apostle, but in being conformed to the Word of the Father who "made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant".

The dignity of the office of deacon, and of all ordained ministry, is not in a claim to a superior office, but precisely in the gift of "this inferior office".  The limits placed on the ministry of the deacon ("to assist the Priest" at the Eucharist, rather than to administer the Sacrament; "in the absence of the Priest to baptize infants"; to preach when "admitted thereto by the Bishop") give liturgical and sacramental expression at the outset of ordained ministry - when one becomes a cleric, exercising authority within the Body of Christ ("Take thou authority to execute the Office of a Deacon in the Church of God") - to the truth that this ministry is to be conformed to the One who, taking the form of a servant, stooped to perform the menial task of washing feet.  

Ordained ministry needs this declaration that its determining and foundational act is admission to "this inferior office" because of the authority exercised by deacon, priest, and bishop.  The Apostle declares of the Church's proclamation and its ministers, "much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory".  Hooker expounds this theme:

What angel in heaven could have said to man as our Lord did unto Peter feed my sheep?  Preach? Baptize? Do this in remembrance of me? Whose sins ye retain they are retained, and their offences pardoned whose faults you shall on earth forgive? What think we? Are these terrestrial sounds, or else are they voices uttered out of the clouds above? The power of the ministry of God translateth out of darkness into glory ... O wretched blindness if we admire not so great power (LEP V.77.1).

If "this treasure" is to held rightly "in earthen vessels", the vessels need a continual reminder not to exalt themselves.  Which is why ordained ministry begins with "this inferior office".  And why to be ordained priest or consecrated bishop, one must necessarily first have been made deacon, serving in "this inferior office".  The ministry of priest or deacon cannot be exercised apart from "this inferior office": it is necessary, foundational, required, continually reminding the priest or bishop that their ministry begins in being conformed to the One who washed feet, who assumed the nature of a servant.

Rather than demeaning or belittling the office of deacon, "this inferior office" points to its true dignity and the true dignity of all ordained ministry: conformity to Christ Crucified, to the One who "humbled himself", who asks us "Know ye what I have done?".  Deacons, priests, and bishops are called not to Petrine rejection of "this inferior office" but to a Christ-like embrace of it.  The failure of contemporary Anglican ordinals to retain the phrase has diminished the recognition of this (not least in an age when management discourse is corrupting the theology and practice of ordained ministry).  Perhaps, however, it should not surprise us.  The Church always has found the teaching regarding "inferior office" challenging:

And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation against the two brethren. But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.


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