This year Exeter deacons and diaconal enquirers met at Buckfast Abbey for our annual day of reflection.
Our theme for the day was ‘The Praying Heart of the Deacon’. It was a very blessed time, not only because of our beautiful surroundings, but also because of the wisdom and grace that RC Deacon Ed Channing shared with us in his talks. We’re always enriched by our speakers, but I particularly wanted a deacon to address us this year, because nobody can speak to a deacon’s heart as another deacon can. Ed is from the RC diocese of Plymouth, where he is a spiritual director. He has kindly given me permission to share his talks with you. Take time to read and savour them.
DIOCESE OF EXETER
ANNUAL DEACONS’ DAY OF REFLECTION:
The Praying Heart of the Deacon 26 May 2018
Speaker: Rev Deacon Ed Channing, RC diocese of Plymouth
Called and empowered to serve: Talk one
Somewhere out there exists an ideal deacon, a platonic idea. That deacon lives in the pages of prayer books, canon laws, scripture, liturgies. I have yet to meet the person who totally fits this ideal, It’s certainly not me. But there is something beautiful in it, a call and an inner response, a desire, which comes to me from those words about him or her, that ideal deacon and which I do recognise. It’s something which illuminates patchily who I am, as a deacon. So I will engage with this ideal deacon before sharing the real one with you! The title of this day is “The praying heart of the deacon.” This does suggest that we have a shape, with a centre or heart, and that prayer is of the essence of it. But we are all different, unique, first-born beloved children of the Father, delighted in as we are. Holy Wisdom, the Christ, delights to be with us,” always at play with the children of men” as we hear in Proverbs 8. For each one of us, our prayer will also be our unique, different response to the living Spirit of love. Everything we do is really, or could be, ceaseless prayer: “rejoice always, pray without ceasing.” 1 Thess 5:16 …this is the will of God in Christ Jesus in you. Our prayer is the work of God, in Christ, in our hearts before it is our activity. God is always there first. Christ is “the ground of our beseeching” as Julian of Norwich wrote 600 years ago. We can only pray because the Spirit of Christ already prays in us to the Father. Our life as baptised disciples is really His life. “I am crucified with Christ and yet I live, or rather it is Christ lives in me.!” Gal 2:20
We can pray as deacons because Christ calls us to this life and mission, for which he has made us, from before time began. And also because the Church recognises and affirms that particular call. There is a common dimension to our prayer because of that Ecclesial dimension of our call. We are not exactly our own men or women. We belong to Christ in the Church. Jesus Emmanuel, God become incarnate, is sometimes called the sacrament of God … He shows and makes present among people the eternal God. The Church, in turn, is the sacrament of Christ, for by her words and deeds, prayer, proclamation and service she makes Christ present and available in the human world. The sacrament of the diaconate is to make visible among people the servant Christ.
The Sacrament of Orders is a special gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, which is the royal priesthood of the faithful, Christ’s body. “To serve this royal priesthood God has given a variety of ministries. Deacons are ordained so that the people of God may be better equipped to make Christ known. Theirs is a life of visible self-giving. Christ is the pattern of their calling and their commission. As He washed the feet of his disciples, so must they wash the feet of others.” Those words from the Common Worship ordinal of my tradition are the nub of the particular spirituality of deacons. You and I are given by God, to the royal priesthood of God’s people, to serve them, in visible self-giving, washing their sore and dirty feet, and so helping them to make Christ known where they are. We belong to God, we belong to each other, we belong to the whole people of God. Our spirituality will be most clearly shown in how our relationships as deacons, as clergy, as Christians, mirror and make present the love of Christ. The whole Christian life is summed up by the Lord as love of God and of neighbour, and it is love as shown by Christ, self-forgetting love.
From NT times the Church has recognised this call of Christ to servanthood in women such as Phoebe in Romans, and in the deacons described in 1 Timothy; people who are respectable, not double-tongued, moderate in drinking and not greedy for money, who hold the mystery of faith with a clear conscience, not prone to gossip and able to manage their affairs and duties well. And following Phil.2 the Church has tried to discern the call of Christ in people who will be moved by Christ’s love and fellowship, full of warmth and sympathy , of a single mind, one in love, one in mind who make their own the mind of Christ Jesus, who though in the form of God emptied himself taking the form of a slave, becoming in every way human, and humbler yet, even to accepting death on a cross.
You are the people the Church has discerned as exhibiting these dispositions of Christ. You are the people called and empowered to wash the feet of the poor, by accepting the new commandment of love given by Christ at the Last Supper table. You are the people described by the psalmist as having your eyes fixed on the hand of the Lord like a slave on the hand of master or mistress, and you are the people who are called to recognise the hand of the Lord when you touch the hand of any of the least of His brethren, and by serving them, serve Him.
Deacons see ourselves as successors to the Levites who served the liturgy in the tent of meeting, of the first covenant, but also needing to beware of a tendency of liturgical ministers to walk by on the other side, as did the priest and Levite in Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan. So we need also to be the Samaritan outsider who sees and helps the wounded. We look back, also, to the Seven commissioned by the apostles to deal with community dissension and ensure justice in the distribution of goods to the widows of the different communities. Notice how differently they actually turn out, since the Holy Spirit is involved. Stephen the protomartyr who died as Jesus had died in forgiveness of his executioners, helping to convert Saul to Paul by that. Philip who converted to and baptised in Christ the Ethiopian eunuch, and who evangelised new communities. We should gain vision and strength from the examples of the deacons before us. Deacon Athanasius, theologian; deacon Gregory who still in deacon’s orders was elected Pope and who, as Gregory the Great, evangelised this country by sending Augustine to us. And deacon Francis of Assisi who shows us how to re-build Christ’s church in poverty and respect for creation.
And we may be inspired by the Roman deacon Lawrence, who, when commanded to surrender the riches of the Church, brought the poor and the lame to the magistrate as the true riches of the Church, earning himself his martyrdom. And who was distressed because he had to wait a few days rather than being martyred WITH his Bishop, Pope Sixtus. (We should be bishop’s people, the heart, hands and eyes and ears of the bishop, even now.)
Traditionally deacons divide their ministry into three areas, which are three aspects of the mystery of the ministry of Christ himself. The ministry of the Word, the ministry of the altar and the ministry of Charity. These correspond to, and make present in the world, the prophetic, priestly and ruling offices of Christ. I will reflect more on the second of these in the next talk.
The ministry of the Word is about making the Word of God your own, by continually internalising it in prayer, so that what we do can be seen by all to issue from the Word. “You proclaim the gospel in word and deed as agents of God’s purposes of love” (Ordinal). It is in the scriptures that we meet Christ first. We need to be people who pray the scriptures. Unless we have met Christ in the pages of scripture in our prayer we won’t be able to proclaim his presence to others. Ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ (St Jerome). We do need to study scripture, and commentaries, but even more so we need to meet Christ for ourself in praying scripture. The model for this is the 2 disciples on the road to Emmaus who felt their hearts burning within them as the stranger who was Christ explained everything in the scriptures which was about himself. They were converted from depressed apathy to having burning hearts and boundless energy by hearing Christ in the scriptures. So are we! In particular, I think, the Gospel narratives of Christ are the privileged place of encounter. All the sick, disfigured, deaf, blind, lame, mad and even dead people Jesus meets are substitutes for ourselves. If we enter into their meetings with Christ, we will be transformed just as they were. As disciples of Christ we walk alongside the apostles who were first called by him. We are no better than they. Especially in Mark we find them totally failing to get the point time after time, as do we. In Mark 10 Jesus is trying to tell them of his coming crucifixion, and all they can do is argue about their own seats at his right hand. As professional disciples we are likely, too, to find ourselves ruefully with the rich young man who so wanted to follow, but who couldn’t give up his own stuff, to truly make Jesus the centre.
But in praying with Christ in the scriptures we may find ourselves with Peter too, whose despair at his cockcrow betrayals was obliterated by Christ’s three fold question “Do you love me” and who was given the care of Christ’s flock as a result. We may find ourselves with Thomas, who was so distraught and angry that he wasn’t even with the others on the morning of the resurrection when Christ brought them his greeting of peace, but then a week later found his angry refusal to believe transformed into his acclamation “My Lord and my God” on seeing Jesus’ wounds .
I believe that this repeated encounter with Jesus in praying the scriptures is what enlivens our preaching with the power of the Spirit, in a way no amount of academic study could begin to do.
The ministry of charity, of love, is the sacrament of the presence of Christ in us accompanying human need. “Deacons are to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the Church the needs and hopes of all people. They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, so that the love of God may be made visible.” (Ordinal) And the famous opening words to the 2nd Vatican Council on the Church in the modern world apply especially to deacons. “The joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the people of this age, especially of the poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed nothing truly human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”
Pope Francis has said he wants a church dirty and hurting with those who are dirty and hurting. A church which is like a field hospital bringing healing right in the middle of battle. He wants a church where everything, all our settled habits, timetables, priorities can be overturned in turning from being self satisfied, comfortable and respectable to being with and for those on the margins. It is the deacons who are supposed to be the shock troops of this revolution. We are to be the self-emptying service of Christ sacramentalised. We have been described as living icons of Christ the servant. The point is that our spirituality is to be co-operative, Trinitarian, with and for others. Icons are written in an authorised way, but each one is unique. They are made in fasting and prayer, they are received and blessed by a Bishop, signed with the name, not of themselves but of the mystery which they signify. As Living icons we are placed within our church as windows into the mystery of Christ the servant of all. But that only works if we have truly met Christ. If we have had a personal encounter with him, and if, like the written icon we are formed in prayer and fasting, according to the right pattern, but with our own uniqueness. And having been received and blessed by the Bishop, everyone should see the sign of Christ, in our way of living, serving and praying.
This is all a very big ask! and for all of us even the approaching of it is possible only as grace, as gift. We are “gloriously imperfect human beings” brought near by God out of love. In our praying we need to ask to be placed with Christ, God’s son, and we need to ask to truly desire to find him in serving the poorest and the most different from us.
To finish this talk I just refer to the giving of the gospel book to the new deacon at ordination by the Bishop. In the Roman rite the book is placed into his hands with the words “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe and practise what you teach.” It is all gift, all grace! No way can we make ourselves rightly believe, read teach and live. It is the Spirit’s work of grace.
May we, by this grace, imitate Jesus, God’s Son, who came, not to be served, but to serve, and so one day, come to reign with him in heaven.