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I have just signed a contract with James Clarke and Co. for a new book on the history of deacons, entitled Inferior Office: A History of Deacons in the Church of England. This book begins with the Ordinal of 1550, explaining how the reformed Church of England reduced the number of orders to three (bishop, priest and deacon), resulting in deacons becoming the lowest order of the clergy. In the centuries that followed, the diaconate was for many clergy a brief period before they proceeded to the higher order of priesthood, but for a significant minority the diaconate was as far as they would ever progress. Men who were deemed less educated than their colleagues remained in deacon’s orders, as did those who lacked the connections to obtain a ‘title’ to priest’s ordination. These deacons formed a clerical underclass of chaplains, perpetual curates, schoolmasters and other functionaries until well into the eighteenth century. By the beginning of the nineteenth century such deacons had all but disappeared, but in 1839 Thomas Arnold began what would become a noisy movement in the Victorian church for the restoration of a meaningful diaconate, as a way of allowing less educated men to participate in mission and receive holy orders. The campaign ultimately achieved little in England, but it raised awareness of the idea of deacons in the colonial churches. In the end, the Church of England only came back to the idea of lifelong deacons for political reasons in the 1980s, when it became clear that the church needed to do something to allow women to join the clergy. Between 1987 and 1994, women in holy orders were permitted to be deacons but not priests. Finally, the book takes the story of deacons right up to the present day, charting the development of the ‘distinctive diaconate’ in the contemporary Church of England.
I expect the book to be published early in 2015.