DEACON (minister, servant), the name given to the lowest order of minister in the Christian church. From the appointment of the seven Hellenic deacons (Acts vi.) we learn that their duty under the apostles was simply to distribute alms from the public fund. In the early church, however, they soon came to discharge higher functions. They assisted the bishop and presbyter in the service of the sanctuary ; in the administration of the Eucharist they handed the elements to the people ; they instructed the catechumens, and in some cases baptized; and the archdeacons came to exercise in the 6th century the judicial power of the bishop over the inferior clergy.
In the Church of England the form of ordaining deacons declares that it is their office to assist the priest in the distribution of the holy communion ; in which, agreeably to the practice of the ancient church, they are confined to the administering of the wine to the communicants. A deacon in England is not capable of holding any benefice, yet he may officiate as a private chaplain, as curate to a beneficed clergyman, or as lecturer in a parish church. He may be ordained at twenty-three years of age, anno currente ; but it is expressly provided that the bishop shall not ordain the same person a priest and deacon on the same day. In Presbyterian churches, as in apostolic times, the deacons have charge only of the pecuniary affairs of the congregation. In the Roman Catholic Church it is the deacon's office to incense the officiating priest or prelate ; to lay the corporal on the altar ; to receive the paten or cup from the sub-deacon, and present it to the person officiating ; to incense the choir ; to receive the pix from the officiating prelate, and to carry it to the subdeacon ; and at a pontifical mass, when the archbishop gives the blessing, to put the mitre on his head, and to take off the archiepiscopal pall and lay it on the altar.
Deaconess. - This was the title of a ministry to which women were appointed in the early church, whose duty it was to perform certain functions towards female catechumens during the ceremony of baptism by immersion, which could not so well be performed by the deacons. Their age was at first fixed at sixty years, but it was afterwards reduced to forty years, and no married woman was eligible to the office. Abuses gradually became prevalent amongst the deaconesses, which led to the suppression of their ministry in the Latin church in the 6th century. The office was abolished in the Greek church in the 12th century.