The Deacon's Cross is a cross adorned with a sash, usually red or purple, to mimic the stole worn by a deacon over the left shoulder. It identifies the bearer as a religious official and servant of the church.
A deacon is an ordained cleric or layperson, depending on the denomination, ranking just below a priest or minister. In denominations where the priestly ordination of women is prohibited, the diaconate can be the highest level women are permitted to reach. (See also Women in the Church.) Generally speaking, in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches there is a three-fold ministry; deacon, priest, bishop.
In the Roman Catholic Church, deacons are clerics and take active roles in service to the physical needs of the poor, prisoners and the sick. They cannot, however, anoint the sick or say Mass but they do take part by distributing Holy Communion. Deacons are involved in preaching and they can preside at baptisms, marriages and funerals, but they do not assume priestly roles such as giving absolution. Deacons wear a stole over their left shoulder, crossing over to their right side. This contrasts with the stole worn by a priest or bishop, which is worn round the neck to hang down both sides at the front. Currently, women are not permitted to be ordained to the diaconate in the Catholic Church.
In the Eastern Orthodox and Anglican Churches, a deacon's profile is very similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church. One significant difference is that Anglican deacons are permitted to get married after ordination, as Anglican priests can. In the past, it was more usual to see a deaconess than a deacon in the church, because many deacons went on to become priests. Now more and more women are being accepted into the Anglican priesthood.
In Australia, congregations of Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists formed the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) in 1977 and are now the third largest Christian denomination in Australia (after Anglicans and Roman Catholics). Their deacons, like their Ministers of the Word, are ordained and carry the title of Reverend. The Ministry of Deacon and the Minister of the Word are mutually complementary ministries.
In the Uniting Church one does not become a deacon to become a Minister of the Word; it's not a stepping stone. Both ministries are seen at the same level. However, a Minister of the Word usually begins their ministry from the community gathered (i.e. Sunday morning worship in a church building) whereas a deacon usually begins their ministry from the community scattered (i.e. patrol ministry to remote areas, within an organisation whether church based or secular e.g. chaplaincy).
However, since there is a shortage of ordained ministers in the Uniting Church both Ministers of the Word and deacons, whether male or female, covering the same role and you'll find deacons leading Sunday morning worship in a church building, and Ministers of the Word ministering in traditional deacon placements e.g. school chaplaincy. (For further information about the UCA Diaconate, see college.sa.uca.org.au/...)
Whatever the church, the usual criteria for selecting deacons is based on the qualities described in 1 Tim. 3:8-13. Deacons have different levels of authority and duties according to the particular denomination.
The Mormons, for an extreme example, bestow the diaconate on boys aged 12. These pre-teen deacons are not, of course, expected to preside at funerals, minister to prisoners or other duties that deacons of other denominations attend to. Sometimes there are differences within one denomination. The autonomous nature of the Baptist Church, for example, means that the criteria for appointment and duties of deacons can vary significantly between local congregations.
Some denominations use different terminology instead of 'deacon' and the method of identifying these people differs from the red sash over the left shoulder. For example 'Local Officers' in the Salvation Army wear distinctive trimmings or badges on their uniform, and 'Clerks' in the Religious Society of Friends follow the plain Quaker tradition of no class-identifying features.
See also Robed Cross.