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The Orthodox Diaconate in The Benelux

Deacon Barnabas Genbrugge.
Asten, June 9th, 2018.

Eerwaarde vader Aartsdiaken,
Ιερολογιότατοι πατέρες,
Dear Brothers in the diaconate. 

At the request of Archdeacon Filádelfos I will try to share with you some humble thoughts of mine about the Orthodox Diaconate in The Benelux. I admire the courage of our beloved Father Archdeacon for entrusting me with this task, and since I didn’t receive a proper theological education, I am open to any corrections and remarks from you all. 

I will try to limit  myself to two aspects of this subject:

first, the issue of the diaconate itself, and

secondly the form it can take in the Benelux.

The Diaconate

The Bible is very clear about the requirements for someone to be ordained as an Orthodox deacon. He has to dispose of a good reputation [i], be chaste, not double tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre [ii], the husband of one wife: who rules well their children, and their own houses, holding the mystery of faith in a pure conscience, having no crime. Their wives should be chaste, not slanderers, but sober, faithful in all things [iii].

Later early Christian texts mention similar demands, such as being worthy of the Lord, meek, truthful and approved, but not lovers of money [iv], without blemish before His justice, servants of God and Christ, and not of men: without slander [v], deceitfulness, nor love of money, but chaste in everything, compassionate, zealous, walking according to the truth of the Lord, Who made Himself servant of all [vi].

But what is the role and function of an Orthodox Deacon?

We all know that the Greek word “διάκονος” means “servant”, “table servant”, “cup bearer. The choice of this word for our position in the Body of the Church is highly significant. It was a royal function, which was held in high esteem. The diákonosat the royal palace was a person of trust, a close collaborator of the King: his personal waiter.

The diaconate of the Church was established very early. As a matter of fact, the very first Christian martyr was the very first deacon: Stephen [vii]. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles [viii]even tells us that the order of the deacons was established before there were any priests. It is therefor logical that up till today the Orthodox deacons are servants to the Bishops, who are the successors of the Apostles. The Bible specifies that the deacons had to relieve the Apostles from the duty of the common tables of love [ix], so that they could concentrate on continuous prayer and the Word of God [x]. However, the deacons soon also received liturgical responsibilities as servants at the Table of the Lord [xi], which in time became even the core of their diaconate.

It is obvious that the Orthodox Diaconate has taken different forms. After the apostolic times, different societies at different eras have entrusted Orthodox Deacons with diverging responsibilities. At some times deacons were quite literally the ears and eyes and mouth of the Bishop, his confidant, representing him on highly important moments, while at others, the deacon was someone who failed to meet the expectations for the priesthood, or simply considered a redundant but decorative [xii]liturgical element, something like a “proto-protopsaltis”.

The deacon could and can also be entrusted with tasks like teacher, administrator, chanter (psaltis), guide to prayer, visitor of people in hospital or in prison, etc., which, however, can equally be entrusted to any layman whosoever.

There are, however some clear constant elements. The most important one is being a “go-between”, or (double) representative. This is due to the specific dual position of the deacon in the Order of the Orthodox Church. He is for instance being ordained with a full ordination [xiii], just like a priest or bishop, but is buried with the ritual for a layman.

Although Christ is the first diákonos of the Holy Table, the deacons are not the successors of Christ, but of the servants of the Apostles! This explains the clear distinction between the deacon on one side, and the priest and bishop on the other.

While as the bishop, or his representative the priest, is a servant of the Holy Table, the deacon is only serving atthe Holy Table, simply assisting the priest or bishop. Therefor the deacon is ordained after the anaphora and epiclesis, stressing that he has no active part in the Holy Offering. Furthermore, he can’t do anything without the blessing of the priest or bishop, just like any layman. Perhaps you noticed that anything the deacon is saying during any divine service, are invitations to prayer (bless Master [xiv], let us pray [xv]), or practical instructions (pay attention [xvi], close the doors [xvii], be wise [xviii]).

The correct image or typosof the deacon is that of the angels [xix]. We should be very much aware of this during the Liturgy, were we constantly “circle” around the Holy Throne of God, offering prayers for the world, but also between the Altar and the world. Therefore, we, deacons open up the road during the different liturgical processions, guarding the good order (τάξης)and the Holy Gifts, proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel into the world.


Now, how can we be angels of the Good News in the Low Countries at the Sea?

In The Benelux

The three countries of the Benelux may seem very different. They are for instance hopelessly divided along language lines: Nederlands, Français, Deutsch, Frysk, Lëtzebuergesch [xx], each one with an array of local dialects, which are often hardly inter-understandable. 

Nevertheless, we have quite a few things in common, apart from our mild aversion for Germans (which we are certainly not!!). One of those things is the age-old, deeply rooted sense of equality. The famous phrase “Just behave normal, that’s already crazy enough”[xxi]is just one illustration. Although “boss” is the most dispersed Dutch word in the world, respect is to be earned, and even the most high-ranking boss is expected to be open to any good idea from even the lowest employee. This might – at some times – lead to exaggerated critism of Church leaders and hierarchy. On the other side, no one in the Benelux will be surprised that the Orthodox Church is honouring simple, uneducated, low-ranking people like Seraphim of Sarov or Paisios the Hagiorite more than their hierarchical superiors, even during their lifetime.

In some Orthodox circles and parishes in the Benelux, and the West in general, this sense of
[xxii]may lead to a misinterpretation of the so-called “Royal Priesthood of the Laity”[xxiii]. While clericalism (against which our Metropolitan’s Father, Archpriest Ignace Peckstadt fought all his life) denies the laity any significant role in Church, especially among the Latins, this tendency tends to downplay the importance and role of the clergy. Once again, the deacons can and must clarify this in their position of “go-between”, being both members of the clergy andof the laity.

Church fathers such as St. Isidore of Pelusium explain the “Royal priesthood of the laity” as a meta­phorical call to each Christian to sanctify his/her body, and to transfigure it into a temple of God [xxiv]. It is certainly not meant – as some assume nowadays – that the royal priesthood of the laity is equal or even higher than the priesthood of the clergy. In this view, the clergy are mere servants of the laity, and only acting on their behalf. It is important to stress that the clergy is first and foremost serving God, which should not exclude serving the people of God, quite on the contrary. Notwithstanding this, this is more than a question of priority.

A deacon, priest or even a bishop can turn out to be imperfect. He isn’t however a clergyman due to his ownmerits, but by the grace or the Holy Spirit, who was invoked on him during his ordination for his specific tasks. The Holy Spirit repairs, completes and fixes all defaults of the clergy in another way than the laity. For this reason we, Orthodox Christians, respect every deacon, priest or bishop ex officio, because we respect him as a clergyman, who, as an imperfect human, but by the grace of the Holy Spirit, works divineacts.

Let this problem be an incentive to implicate and engage the laity more in our Church life. The Church doesn’t consist of clergy alone, but also of chanters, readers, altar servants, coffee makers, accountants, catechists, translators, youth (camp) leaders, lecturers, exegetes, apologists, representatives in ecumenical organisations, (tourist) guides, organisers of parish retreats, ethnic festivals or pilgrimages, and so on. Let our position in Church be an example for the laity: being active, attentive, but doing nothing without the blessing of the priest or bishop, but in symphony.

Apart from the profound sense of equality, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg also share the lack of an Orthodox tradition. Pardon me: for ages, even before the conversion of Kiev Rus’, we belonged to the Great and Holy Orthodox Church, but unfortunately, very little is left of it. This too provides us lessons and warning about our diaconate in the Low Countries at the Sea.  

Christianity arrived early to the Benelux, culminating during the episcopate of Saint Servatios of Atuatuca Tungrorum and Traiectum ad Mosam(Tongeren and Maastricht), last defender of Orthodoxy at the council of Serdica [xxv]. Mind you: at that time, it was largely limited to the Latin (and Greek) speaking parts of the multi-cultural Roman Empire. Therefore, when the Roman Empire collapsed, Orthodox Christianity (largely) collapsed too.

We, Orthodox, had not really been interested in converting the now invading Germanic peoples before. At best, some of them had been converted to Arianism by missionaries like Wulfila, who had even elaborated a Germanic alphabet.

Orthodoxy returned by two different ways. One was to bitterly fightArians (e.g. by the over-zealous, fatal “Filioque”) and heathens (by massacres and forced conversions), but another one used profoundconversionof the non-Orthodox, which gave rise to the “Century of the Saints”. I’ll focus on the latter, mainly Irish or Celtic way, quoting the example Osios Bertinós [xxvi]. When the Holy bishop Audomar [xxvii](Otmar, Omaar or Omer)from the Celtic Monastery of Luxeuil re-established the diocese of Tervanna [xxviii], he soon asked for helpers who would be able to communicate with the local people.

encaustic icon by the hand of Protodeacon Paul Hommes

One of them was monk Bertinos, who, long before St. Cyril of the White Lake or Herman of Alaska, decided to simply live a monk’s life on a spot which God showed him. In his case at a marshland on a river, next to a small hill, on which he build a chapel for his bishop to spend a dry retreat. Bertinos lived a very strict, obedient, humble, but not spectacular life. He instructed the locals in Christianity, proved to be a good, beloved spiritual guide, and personally helped them as much as he could, even starting the cultivation of the marshlands. When he died, there were about 100 monks living at his monastery, which became a spiritual andcultural lighthouse until the French Revolution.

Next to Saints like Porfyrios of Kavsokalivia, we, 21st-century Orthodox deacons, can also be inspired by local Orthodox saints like Osios Bertinos, who lived in a somehow similar situation. We should serve both our bishop and the laypeople in all humility, be attentive to their needs and wishes, without trying to impose anything. Let us also note the great importance of spiritual guidancein the life of Saint Bertinos, which he shares with Saint Porphyrios, Paisios, Iakovos [xxix]and many more. Perhaps we ourselves don’t feel the need for an intensive care treatment, but we should acknowledge that we are in need of at least a homeopathic dose, as my spiritual father calls it. Please note that Osios Bertinos lived his spiritual life in continuous connection to a monastery: Luxeuil, Oudemonstra [xxx]and his own monastery, where he lived in obedience to his bishop, Saint Audomar. Remember that during the days of missionaries like Osios Bertinos, it was not easier than today to find a good spiritual father who would understand you enough to guide you well.

The current situation of our and other Orthodox Dioceses in the Benelux also reminds us that the diaconate was instituted for assisting and relieving the bishops (and priests). Often, a decent salary is quoted as an obstacle for ordaining more deacons, who could help the priest to focus again “on continuous prayer and the Word of God”[xxxi]. This is correct, as far as we do not see the diaconate as just another job, but a service [xxxii], an offering, and even a sacrifice.

Remember that following Christ implicates following His example as a servant (diákonos) of all until death. This might however hold a risk of delusion [xxxiii]. We must fight the illusion that we are equal to Christ! We can’t fall into this proselyte, zealot trap. To put it in other words: we mustn’t put too heavy a burden on our family life, but, together with our beloved Archdeacon, keep the right balancein our life.

This brings me to the final point. We, married deacons must always be obedient to our episkopos, our bishop, and ask his blessing for about everything. This is equally true for our “episkopa, our dearly beloved wife [xxxiv]. It is of the greatest importance, especially in the middle of all our hard work for the higher glory and honour of God and His Church, that we not only have the honour of serving the Great and Holy Church of Christ. We also serve the Little Church of God, our family. What example are we giving if we gain everything, but lose the love of our life? In the end, three things will remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love [xxxv]. All his life, the aforementioned Father Ignace Peckstadt stressed that he was ever grateful for the unwavering support of, and synergy with his wife, presvytera Mita. He always stressed her share in his priesthood. The same accounts for my own spiritual Father Bart, whose life was even saved by his wife, when she noticed symptoms which he was ignoring.

After all, the Bible obliges us to have a “good reputation, be the husband of one wife: who rules well their children, and their own houses, chaste, not double tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre, holding the mystery of faith in a pure conscience, having no crime”, and in this way allowing our “wives to be equally chaste, not slanderers, but sober, faithful in all things” [xxxvi].

Τέλος και τω Θεώ δόξα


[i]Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business (Acts 6:3).

[ii]winst / κέρδος.

[iii]Deacons in like manner chaste, not double tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre: Holding the mystery of faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved: and so let them minister, having no crime. The women in like manner chaste, not slanderers, but sober, faithful in all things. Let deacons be the husbands of one wife: who rule well their children, and their own houses. For they that have ministered well, shall purchase to themselves a good degree, and much confidence in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.
(1 Tim. 3:8-13).

[iv]Didache XV,1. The original Greek text reads:
Χειροτονήσατε οὖν ἑαυτοῖς ἐπισκόπους καὶ διακόνους ἀξίους τοῦ κυρίου, ἄνδρας πραεῖς καὶ ἀφιλαργύρους καὶ ἀληθεῖς καὶ δεδοκιμασμένους· ὑμῖν γὰρ λειτουργοῦσι καὶ αὐτοὶ τὴν λειτουργίαν τῶν προφητῶν καὶ διδασκάλων (Διδαχή XV,1).


[vi]St. Polycarp of Smyrna: Letter to the Philippians V,1.

[vii]Άγιος Στέφανος ο Πρωτομάρτυς και Αρχιδιάκονος, see: Acts7:54-60.

[viii]And in those days, the number of the disciples increasing, there arose a murmuring of the Greeks against the Hebrews, for that their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve calling together the multitude of the disciples, said: It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And the saying was liked by all the multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith, and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles; and they praying, imposed hands upon them. (Acts 6:1-6).

[ix]Το τραπέζι της αγάπης, in modern-day “Orthodox Dutch”: “de agapen”.

[x]But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).

[xi]Η Αγία Τράπεζα.

[xii]See BRESSEM, Michael: Why the Orthodox Church Needs Deacons, December 15, 2016 (retrieved from May 21st, 2018 at 4.08 pm).
Particularly stricking is his comparison between a restaurant witha waiter (διάκονος), and one without, where the cook has to arrange for everything. This seems to downgrade the restaurant to a “Frietkot”/”Friterie”.


[xiv]Ευλόγησον, Δέσποτα / Zegen, Meester.

[xv]Του Κυρίου δεηθώμεν / Laat ons bidden tot de Heer.

[xvi]Πρόσχωμεν / Laat ons aandachtig zijn.

[xvii]Τας θύρας τας θύρας [εν σοφία πρόσχωμεν]/ De deuren, de deuren [laat ons in wijsheid aandachtig zijn].

[xviii]Σοφία / Wijsheid.

[xix]GOGOL, Nikolai Vasiljević: La Divine Liturgie méditée par Gogol, (trad. P. Pascal) Editions Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 1952, p. 34 (English version: “Meditations On The Divine Liturgy”), as quoted in: PECKSTADT, Evêque Athénagoras de Sinope: Le diacre dans l’Eglise orthodoxe, (unpublished) s.d., page 9.

[xx]Retrieved fromële_talen_en_huidige_verdeling and on June 1st, 2018.

[xxi]Doe maar gewoon, dat doe je al gek genoeg.


[xxiii]But you are a chosen generation, a kingly priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people: that you may declare his virtues, who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light (1 Petr. 2:9).

[xxiv]PG 78, 784A.

[xxv]Present-day Sofia, Bulgaria.

[xxvi]Born ca. 615 in “Constantia” (most likely Coutances in Normandy), died ca. 709 at Sithiu/Sitdiu Monastery, nowadays St. Bertin’s Abbey at Saint-Omer/Sint-Omaars/Αυδομαρόπολης. His feast day is September, 5th.

[xxvii]Born ca. 600 in Normandy, died ca. 670 in Wavrantis Villa (present-day Wavrans-sur-l’Aa), bishop of the Morins (episcopus Morinorum / επίσκοπος Μορίνων). His feast day is September, 9th.

[xxviii]He established the cathedra of the Morins’ Diocese at the ruined city of Tervanna (Thérouanne/Terwaan).

[xxix]Saint Pophyrios of Kafsokalivia (1906–1991), Saint Paisios of Mount Athos (1924–1994), Saint Iakovos of Evia (1920-1991) are considered to be the greatest Orthodox spiritual guides of the late 20thcentury.

[xxx]“Vetus monasterium”, where St. Bertin lived under the abbacy of Saint Momelin.

[xxxi]Acts 6:4.


[xxxiii]πλάνη / прелесть / waan.

[xxxiv]Oral admonition of Spiritual Father Archpriest Bartholomeos D’Huyvetter.

[xxxv]If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity is patient, is kind: charity envieth not, dealeth not perversely; is not puffed up; Is not ambitious, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never falleth away: whether prophecies shall be made void, or tongues shall cease, or knowledge shall be destroyed. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child. We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now I know I part; but then I shall know even as I am known. And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity (1 Cor. 13).

[xxxvi]Acts 6:3, 1 Tim. 3:8-13.