In the NT 'diakonos' means 'servant' or 'minister' and in Phil.1:1 and 1 Tim. 3:8 clearly refers to a church officer, though the duties are not specified. As forms of ministry developed it came to refer to the third order of ministry, after bishop and presbyter (priest), concerned with care of the poor, administration, teaching and assistance in worship. But in time the office became chiefly a step on the way to the priesthood and was restricted to men. This has remained so in the Orthodox, RC and Anglican Churches until very recently, when a permanent diaconate has been reintroduced. Among Churches of the Reformation and in English Dissent deacons were introduced in various ways, but as lay officers concerned with administration and charity. In the nineteenth century orders of deacons and deaconesses for the relief of poverty and need proliferated, exemplified in Methodism by the NCH Sisters, the West London Mission Sisters and the Deaconess Orders.

John Wesley ordained some of his preachers as deacons prior to their ordination as elder. This practice was retained in American Methodism until 1996, but was soon abandoned in Britain. Official British statements have tended, as late as 1960, to regard stewards in their administrative and financial roles as the equivalent of NT deacons. But during the twentieth century the office of deacon has undergone widespread reappraisal in most Churches and this has influenced more recent Methodist thinking, resulting in a new Diaconal Order. The Methodist Church therefore now recognizes two orders of ministry, the presbyteral and the diaconal. Deacons, both men and women, are ordained for life and on reception into full connexion are admitted to membership of the Order. They are itinerant and their calling is to represent and make visible the servant ministry of Christ and the Church's calling to servant ministry in the world. In 1996 a similar position, but without itinerancy, was adopted in America by the UMC.

  • Conference Agenda, 1993, pp.223-244