Wednesday, 26 October 2011

More deacons, please!

“It is evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient Authors, that from the Apostles’ time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ's Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.”
So says the preface to the Ordinal affixed to the Prayer Book. But it is also evident to anyone diligently, or even cursorily, reading holy Scripture that the order of deacons in the Church of England, in common with other mainstream denominations, is nothing like what we find there.
In the Bible, deacons and elders are quite separate (and as the Reformers well knew, elders and ‘overseers’, ie priests and bishops, were virtually indistinguishable, but that is another story). Deacons were not ‘probationary presbyters’ but, as their name suggests, a ‘servant’ order in the churches. Only later did the current ‘career development structure’ of deacon to priest to bishop evolve.
I mention this because I was listening to someone the other day describe how a woman in his congregation who felt called to be a deacon was knocked back for full-time training by her diocesan director of ordinands because she would lack the “added value” that comes from being a priest.
Now if deacons lack “added value”, a number of questions spring to mind, not least what the Church of England today thinks of the ministry of its deaconesses which once used to be open to women. Were they really ‘value-minus’? Maybe that really is how some people thought then and regard them now.
But if that is the case then the next obvious question is this: why do we bother with deacons at all?
Virtually anyone who has been accepted as a deacon these days is in that position because they are going to become a priest. And that priesthood will be conferred on them as sure as night follows day twelve months down the track. So as the aforementioned DDO has clearly worked out, being a deacon is currently pretty pointless in the scheme of things.
And please don’t say it’s a ‘training period’. What’s to learn that in twelve months everyone has picked up so that they can make the ‘quantum leap’ to the priesthood — no earlier, but no later? If it was really about probation and learning, being priested should probably come no sooner than the end of one’s title post (ie the first curacy).
However, there is an obvious alternative, namely to reinstate the diaconate as a proper order in itself — the so-called ‘permanent diaconate’. Already there are some women who are in this position. Why not broaden it to include men?
In our benefice, for example, we have a several men who preach locally under a scheme established by a former Bishop of Chelmsford. Would not they be candidates for the diaconate, especially given that they provide very considerable support to the vicar through this ministry.
And what about those women who play a leading rôle in leading Bible studies or visiting — in fact just those things which used to be done by some deaconesses in the past?
One of the problems that we know confronts the Church of England is that people outside the Church (and sometimes those inside) don’t really count ‘lay’ ministry as a ‘proper’ ministry of the Church. We have all come across those situations where people have complained that ‘no one ever visits from the Church’, when what they mean is ‘no one visits me from the Church wearing a dog-collar’. One of the advantages of building up the ministry of deacon would be to have far more ‘collars’ in the local parish church, thereby increasing its visible public ministry.
I can imagine that there will be objections about selection and training: is the strength and significance of vocation the same, will the preparation be the equivalent to that given for priests? But most of these will step from our tendency to think of the diaconate as in some sense still the vestibule for the priesthood. Once we can draw a clearer distinction between the two, then these questions can be seen for what they are — a confusion of issues.
Meanwhile, there is absolutely no reason why parishes should not start putting forward people for the permanent diaconate, since although it is not something the Church of England exactly encourages, it is something it nevertheless allows.
I would love to see several members of our congregations do this (mind you, I’m not sure they’d be so keen themselves to begin with). For evangelicals especially this might be a good move. We have tended to sit very light to the Church’s orders, recognizing that a great deal of ministry can be done by the laity. But this does have its drawbacks. Encouraging people to become deacons could be a very good way of bridging the gap between what we are doing unofficially and what the institution, and the surrounding culture, can cope with.
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  1. Where might Reader ministry fit into this? (Writing as one who received several "Congratulations on our ordination" type cards on being licensed as a Reader...)

    Richard Huss, Solihull

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  3. I know that were 'different' in the Sydney diocese of the Anglican Church of Australia, but we have this 'permanent diaconate'. My friend did his training for youth ministry and has been ordained as a deacon for that particular role, without any expectation that he will ever be 'priested' (though we call it 'presbytered'). I myself have been accepted as a candidate for ordination in early 2013 as a deacon, and don't expect that I will ever pursue the next step. Moving from deacon to presbyter is not automatic, and the evaluation period is rigorous.

    One of the advantages of this structure is that it recognises the real strength of team ministry - in which a parish may be served by a male presbyter and a mixed team of male and female deacons and lay people, all bringing their unique gifts and qualities.

  4. Thanks Stephen, I'd come across rumours to the effect that Sydney had widened the diaconate, but that wasn't what prompted my thinking. Because there is unlikely to be support for such a move here, any practical steps would have to be taken on a different basis - driven 'bottom up' not 'top down'.

  5. To try to make a serious response to Richard, I think Readers have been somewhat sidelined since 'reading' in the congregation is now much more widely accepted. The training for Readers also seems unreasonably arduous, given the limits on what they are allowed to do subsequently.

    In fact, I recently advised someone who was considering Reader training to go for full ordination, precisely because of the 'value added' element. Perhaps I should have suggested he go for the diaconate.

    I suspect having Readers is anomalous, but I wonder whether they should be deacons or presbyters. Probably the latter in the Church of England, would be my interim conclusion.

    1. Iam a Reader who is training at the moment for the Distinctive Diaconate and am to be Ordained this July.Having been a Reader for 13 years I really want to put to you that to Ordain Readers to Deacons or Presbyters without there being a considerable amoount of discernment would be a really crazy move. The Distinctive Diaconate is a specific calling and Readers who miss this point do need to question why they are a Reader in the first place! Is it because they were called to that ministry or is it they have missed the point.Having heard so much about what others feel and think about the Diaconate I ask and put it to Readers be confident in what God has called YOU to and stop mythering about maybe what a Reader should be and go back to the drawing board if need be and discern again what it was God called you to an why? and get on with it! if its somwhere else for goodness sake stop moaning and do something about it. I did! you get the flack but Gods calling is Gods calling!! Grace mercy and peace.

  6. And what I meant to say was, "probably the former" - ie Readers as deacons.

  7. Be encouraged that the only female ordinand at Oak Hill is training for the diaconate supported by your own diocese.
    Ray Porter

  8. Not exactly an encouragement, on several fronts!

  9. Hi John,
    I guess the issue with deacons is that because it is an "ordained" ministry, it comes with all of the same requirements and baggage as becoming a priest. In Australia, that means 4 years of theological education, ministry placements, pensions, insurance, selection conferences, etc. I'm all for preparing our ministers well, but why would you go through all that and then submit yourself to a limited ministry scope in the end? From the diocese point of view, why would you put that investment into someone if they won't take on a parish by themselves?

    The other linked issue is presidency at Communion. If deacons can't preside at Communion, it restricts the flexibility of a parish to use their services. Why employ a deacon when you could employ a priest doing their curacy who doesn't have those restrictions?

    So, I think if you want to have a permanent diaconate, you have to make it a step below the priesthood in terms of ordination requirements and recognition of orders. Perhaps even limit the licence to a specific parish, e.g. John/Jane is a deacon for the parish of X, with a transfer to another parish subject to the bishop's approval. This would make deacons more a product from within their local parish, and commited to its ministry long-term, rather than an outsider who stays for a year or two at most. They should also be free from the requirement to attend all the various clergy meetings, Synods, etc, in order to free them up to focus on ministry in their parish.

    Something else to be considered is ordaining candidates who want to be priests to the priesthood immediately without going via the diaconate. I realise this is a significant departure from Anglican tradition, although the Orthodox churches work this way.

    The problem is to make this happen, you would probably need an international effort, since it would change the understanding of deacons significantly across the Communion. Either that, or a very brave bishop.

  10. Thank you, Poppy, for your good wishes to Readers everywhere. As there are nearly as many of us as clergy, that's a large slice of Anglican ministry to write off.

    Reader ministry has been under strain for many years - a situation which the 2008 General Synod report was designed to confront. The C of E invests time and money in training us, and then doesn't know what to do with us, preferring the unqualified or minimally trained instead.

    Some of us have felt called to the priesthood, but, despite our training and experience, get no more consideration as candidates than anyone else. As for deacons - I have often suggested that our churchwardens and treasurers be ordained as deacons, as that was the original intention of the diaconate in Acts 6. The fact that at least two of the original seven deacons turned out to be more gifted than was thought should not allow us to forget what these deacons were ordained to do, and it wasn't to preach.

    But that means training - and why not theology for church treasurers or Hermeneutics for churchwardens? That's a serious suggestion, so often only clergy and readers are required to reflect biblically on issues that arise, being the 'professionals'. Why not the rest of the church leadership?

    1. Ive been a Reader for 13 years and will be Ordained Distinctive Deacon in July. Oh yes a Deacon is called to preach. You have missed the point. It is so easy to take parts of the scripture and apply it willy nilly. Will Readers stop being so insecure please!!!! and be confident in what God has called THEM o do!!! I did till now and never ever had the insecurities I hear that some Readers have! Be blessed keep doin the good work you do and own it dont please dont try to own a piece of someone elses!!!!!!!!!!

  11. I've just been reading through our Bishop's proposals regarding a long-term mission project for the Diocese of Chelmsford, and there is some interesting convergence of ideas. He writes,

    "For this [plan] to work, there also needs to be a huge flourishing of authorised lay ministry (especially youth and children’s workers, authorised preachers, catechists, pastors and evangelists) and ordained self-supporting ministry. And of course we already have many Readers. Alongside some priests being more episcopal we need many others who will be more diaconal, taking on a pastoral, catechetical and evangelistic ministry at the local level. Each local church needs to have some sort of ministry team and, preferably, some minister to whom they identify as the worship leader and pastor of that community. Sometimes this will be a lay person, such as a Reader, and we should encourage lay led worship and ministry in many of our churches. In many cases I hope it will be an ordained self-supporting minister, so that the sacramental life of our church continues to flourish. But where there are lay led services of the Word it will still be possible within the cluster of communities under the oversight of the (probably) stipendiary priest, for there to be regular Sunday by Sunday Eucharistic provision. Some SSM priests will themselves be the leaders (‘episcopal’ priests) in these benefices."

  12. There is a permanent Diaconate in Portsmouth Diocese which seems to have worked quite well. I really wish that those who are preparing for Readership could in fact be ordained into the Diaconate.

  13. I wonder whether there is any scope, biblical, theological or historical, for a separation between those people who would like to do the pastoral, sacramental and teaching of the priesthood but are not cut out to be managers and those who would make excellent church managers but perhaps aren't so good pastorally etc. It seems like one size fits all and perhaps we need to sepearate out and have different types of priests? This way you could have larger churches with a manager priest, under whom there are pastoral priests, each using the gifts God has given. Not sure how it fits into the discussion but thought I'd throw it out there!

  14. Bishop Dominic Stockford (Evangelical Connexion)27 October 2011 at 15:37

    Deacons preaching? Not terribly Biblical, that idea. I know Stephen did, but he wasn't called to do that as a deacon.
    Deacons visiting? Now that I do find in the Bible. Looking after the practical issues of Christian people's lives. Sensible and practical and helpful and Biblical.
    And what they do in the 'Free Churches'...

  15. I'm one of half a dozen or so Vocational Deacons within the Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic here in Virginia. We tend to be an older group (40+) whov've realized our calling later in life. Aside from our sundry liturgical duties, we've been licensed to preach by our Bishop and are typically engaged in pastoral care-type ministries.

    Andy Terry

  16. Ian Burch, Episcopal Diocese of Chicago

    Greetings from the other side of the pond! In the Diocese of Chicago (TEC), our deacons are either "vocational" or "transitional". When a person's congregation nominates him/her to the diocese for ordination, the congregation and the discerner have already been through at least six months of listening for a vocation. Our vocational deacons serve parishes in the diocese at the whim of the bishop and are not eligible to receive monetary compensation. The bishop often rotates a deacon from parish to parish every two years or so. The formation for a deacon has been a three year program that mirrors seminary, but meets only one weekend a month--One year Bible, one year Church history and one year Theology. Folks in the diocese call it 'deacon school'. I believe this formation style is changing, but I believe it has served the diocese well. I know deacons who serve at the altar happily and do some preaching. I know two deacons who are executive directors of episcopal charities (men's homeless shelter of the cathedral and a rural soup kitchen). I also know several deacons who are hospital chaplains. In any case, when I was in discernment, I was encouraged to consider the vocational diaconate as well as the presbyterate. There is some unrest about whether the transitional diaconate should exist at all. I do understand the 'value added' component of the priesthood -- for instance, one are of interest for me is church planting, which is not possible as a deacon. Here is the Commission on Ministry website, if you're interested:

    As TEC declines, I imagine the role of deacons will continue to be important. Churches can't afford the kind of staff they once have, and focused, trained, ordained people of goodwill and Christian commitment will be needed.


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  18. Thanks for the comments so far. It does look as though globally the diaconate is in a varying state of health. It also would seem that the time is ripe for something more imaginative here.

  19. Incidentally, I think one of the things to balance is the biblical 'template' with the 'on the ground' current practice. We don't, for example, have presbyter/bishops as the early church seems to have done, so we don't necessarily need to try to make our deacons follow the exact same model. Our orders are the way we try to express what we find in Scripture, not an exact replication. Nevertheless, the opportunity is there for an imaginative development of diaconal ministry.

  20. John,

    There is also scope for a more imaginative approach to ordination. In our church, and probably many others, we will pray and publicly lay hands on anyone embarking on a new phase of ministry - be it our new PCC, or the youth group leaders, or someone off to foreign parts. We do it as a sign of being set apart for a task which God has called them to, exactly as the Acts 6 passage relates.

    Some Anglican hackles will rise if I call that small ceremony 'ordination', but apart from not carrying the Bishop's authority, it seems to me that it performs all the same functions as ordination. It recognises a calling ; it involves the whole church in that calling; and we commit that calling to our prayers for the future.

    I understand your point about 'on the ground' practice, but surely the point of the Scriptural diaconate was to recognise that God-given ministries are not just preaching and teaching ones. The modern diaconate does precisely the opposite.

  21. Bishop Dominic Stockford (Evangelical Connexion)28 October 2011 at 15:51

    The Evangelical Connexion has presbyter/bishops as the NT did - why should we not all seek to have what the Bible sets out? Just because we haven't got that doesn't seem a very good argument not to try to have it...

  22. Interesting conversation. As Director of Deacons in the Diocese of British Columbia , Canada. As we continue to discern new vocations there is a clear upwelling of diaconal vocations. These are not necessarily people whoalready do a lot in church but often are people who feel called to bring the church into the community as both a symbol and an "activist". We find that the model of parish deacons is no longer the manifestation of this vocation. However if the topic of ordination is up for discussion it might be good to ask all four orders what does ordination really bring to the life of the church aside from a job and a position in the community? Is not the moment of baptism the greatest celebration the church has and the rest is tradition based on economic, political and social dynamics?