This week has seen another three online seminars as part of the “What did deacons do?” project. When the recorded versions are available I will post the link.
At the conclusion of the discussion questions were raised about what might be included in a summary chapter to conclude the book based on the project. Discussion had indicated that the pattern was one of decline in the significance and role of the deacon in the fourth century, and thought was given that this might need some explanation.
My own suggestion is that this is the result of change in the nature of episkopoi, who gain bigger dioceses (note the legislation against chorepiskopoi) and a result of this, in turn, the increase in the number of presbyters. As the aboriginal episcopal function of charity disappears the role of the deacon as administrator of this episcopal charity also disappears. Moreover, as presbyters grow in importance and numbers, assistantship turns into assistance not to the bishop but to the presbyter. Of course there are exceptions; Rome is distinct as a relatively small urban diocese with a large extra-diocesan responsibility, and the community of the Testamentum Domini has a bishop (and presbyters) who fasts and prays and doesn’t do anything else, so it’s all left to the deacons! But in other sources, such as Ephrem and Chrysostom (discussed this week), we observe the diminution of the role in the fourth century and beyond. The evidence that might indicate a more active role is in the church orders, but as is often remarked, these are archaeological, and tend to repeat material which is traditional, but no longer reflects real conditions, and therefore have to be used with great care. Thus when Canones Hippolyti states that the deacon accompanies the bishop this is actually from Traditio apostolica, and is in any case a mistranslation by the Arabic translator due to misunderstanding the Coptic translation from which he was working. I am sure that the original Greek verb was προσκαρτερέω.
Rather unfashionably, might I also suggest that the development of woman deacons in the latter part of the fourth century might in turn result from this diminution? In other words, if a role is not that important, then it might be entrusted to a woman!