Find out more about the exciting vocation and ministry which is the #distinctivediaconate.
Find out more about the exciting vocation and ministry which is the #distinctivediaconate.
This is such a #diaconal project and a pioneering way of ‘doing church’. I wonder how many #distinctivedeacons are already involved in this kind of outreach?
Like the rest of Europe, life for asylum seekers in Gloucester, England, is a ‘liminal space’ where they survive and wait, knowing they could be moved by the authorities at any time. “It is like living in an open prison without a status, charged of a crime without a name,” says ECM missionary Rita Rimkiene, who with her husband Vidas Rimkus, founded the World Café.
The World Café is not a ‘ministry’ however – it is a community where the emphasis is on hospitality, friendship and valuing everyone’s contribution. “My family in Lithuania was great at hosting parties and as a child, our flat was a place where people gathered and shared life. God brought that back to me when I met Him. Vidas and I have always been fond of having people join us for dinner, lunch and sometimes even breakfast”
As more people joined them, they began meeting in a church hall in central Gloucester, and the World Café Community was born.
Twice-monthly social events are held for between 80-150 people, sometimes even more. The asylum seekers and refugees cook meals from their own countries, with occasional British cuisine. “Everybody comes together to eat, share their joys and troubles, celebrate child birth and mourn, share joys when receive refugee status and be encouraged when they are refused. This is the night when friendships are formed,” says Rita.
While local people are encouraged to befriend the refugees and asylum seekers, “at the end of the day it does not matter who befriends who, we all just need to be encouraged and loved and experience unity despite of our religious, social or ethnic backgrounds. I love seeing people moving on in life and when it is really tough we can stand together.”
The World Café supports asylum seekers who have particular professions like GP’s where Home Office without a refugee status gives work permission. Generosity of local folk enables World Café to fund some of the exams. Recently, a Pakistani lady passed all the exams and is looking for a job.
Dalal was a Syrian 5 Star Hotel chef who recently arrived in Gloucester with his wife and three children. He has been volunteering at the World Café and using his amazing cooking skills around the city at various church events. The next step is to get Dalal into his own catering business with the help of local business people.
The café has also built relationships with other organisations, such as GARAS (Gloucestershire Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers) as well as with Fair Shares, a secular organisation, which helps to find volunteering jobs for all willing.
Rita sees the local involvement as two way: “we want to help local people to use their gifts,” she says “such as sewing, English language teaching, arts, anything really, that can help people to connect and find a new trade or help develop friendship by doing something together.” This has included a local English teacher who had young children, so couldn’t teach evening classes – but was available for the daytime English club, and even a local charitable trust who has been impressed by World Café’s self-sustainable model which meets both physical and spiritual needs.
And the spiritual side is important too. “The World Café is funded and runs on the compassion and love of local people and churches,” explains Rita. “It welcomes everybody, no matter of their faith and background and is a safe place for inter-religious dialogue. It is a place where Buddhists, atheists, Muslims and Christians feel equal, loved and nurtured.
“Muslims began to come to church on Sunday services. As a result of this, men’s Bible study group started. When people make friends, we hear stories of churches looking after a refugee or an asylum seeking family or an individual. People celebrate Christmas and Easter, take people on holidays, camps and have Sunday dinners. During Ramadan Christians fast together and break fast. People started to pray together and read Holy Books.”
“For example, a young Iranian came to the World Café for a meal. On Sunday he came to church to find out about Jesus, where he joined men’s Bible study group. He went to every housegroup during the week until one day he accepted Christ as his Saviour and got baptised shortly after that. Now he is active within a youth group and has become one of World Café leaders.”
So while asylum seekers and refugees are amongst the most marginalised in society, the vision of the World Café is to give them somewhere to belong through creating community.
As Rita explains: “The World Café has endless opportunities! ‘The table’ is the beginning of a journey together. As food sustains us physically, open conversation opens a door to our very being – our soul.”
A lively discussion has sprung up on our Facebook page about the indifference of the Church of England, by and large, to its deacons (an ongoing topic!) and the necessity of constantly explaining who we are.
I’m relieved that we now have several places where people can find out about ‘distinctive’ deacons, but what’s clear is that we deacons just have to toil on, constantly answering questions and making clear statements about our ministry in the hope that eventually our church will catch on.
So it’s uplifting to discover this explanation on the United Methodist site Deacons Hold the Bowl. It’s closely allied to our Anglican understanding. In fact, next time you find yourself in the middle of an annoying conversation on this topic, you could just refer people to this …
This was originally published in the April 2016 issue of the Virginia United Methodist Advocate. The focus of this issue was the 20th Anniversary of the Order of Deacon.
A group of church leaders had gathered for a meeting. The district superintendent mentioned the possibility of hiring a deacon to help the congregation reach beyond the church walls. A woman sitting across the table looked back at the DS with a quizzical expression. “Wait,” she said, “What’s a deacon?”
It’s not the first time that question has been asked. For twenty years, the United Methodist Church has been struggling to articulate the answer, “What’s a deacon?”
I welcome these questions. When I first experienced my call to ministry and I was told about the ministry of the deacon, that was my response. I had never heard of an ordained deacon. While I felt a strong call to ordained ministry, it did not look like the pastor of a church. But, I had no words to express what it did look like.
I felt called to be with those whom society had turned away. I felt a call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned. The call I was experiencing was to something beyond the church walls.
My mentor at the time, the Rev. Mary Sue Swann, and I spent a lot of time discussing this. She recommended to me the book A Deacon’s Heart. It would be a year before I would read the book. Once I did, the words of Margaret Ann Crain and Jack Seymour were telling me who I was in a way I had never experienced. I finished the book and knew that I was a deacon. These words affirmed my call to ordained ministry as a servant leader in the life of the church, being a bridge between the Word and the world and connecting the needs of the world to the resources of the church.
Mary Sue showed me that the image of clergy that I had – the solo pastor who preached every Sunday and “ran” the church – was not the only image the church had of the clergy. I learned that I have a deacon’s heart, longing for the healing of creation, plus mutual and connecting ministries that reach the poor and the hungry, the sick and the imprisoned, the lost and the lonely.
The Order of Deacon is a permanent order of persons ordained to a lifetime of ministry of Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice, drawing on a long tradition of deacons in the church. The earliest deacons were Stephen and the seven in Acts 6, who were commissioned to see the needs of those in the community who were without.
The Rev. Margaret Ann Crain, an ordained deacon, and professor of Christian Education at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, writes in her book The United Methodist Deacon, “The identity of a deacon, fundamentally, is that of one who has experienced a call to lead ministries of compassion and justice. Deacons are passionate about the particular area of service to which they are called. They seek to lead and equip the church for that service.”
Whether the deacon is serving in the local church or outside the church, the deacon equips, empowers and encourages the church in going beyond its own walls to connect the church to the world. They help the community identify its needs and the church to identify the resources it has to meet those needs.
This connecting effort is done in partnership with the elder and the laity. Even if a deacon’s primary appointment is outside the church, he or she has a secondary appointment in a local church. One of the ways in which this connection is made is through the worship leadership of the deacon. In assisting the elder in administering the sacraments, the deacon models what this connection looks like.
The work of the deacon is grounded in compassion and justice. It is more than just a Band-Aid fix for a problem. It is working with others to seek long-lasting solutions to racism, poverty, hunger, etc. A deacon whose work is centered around the compassionate care of children, for example, is also concerned with advocating for the rights of children. To show compassion is to offer hope and love to the marginalized among us. To show justice is to call attention to injustices in our society and world. This can be done through teaching and preaching, hands-on service, telling the stories of those on the margins and advocating for justice.
The ministry of the deacon calls to mind the compassionate and just acts of Jesus. From touching the lepers to healing them, to washing the disciples’ dirty, dusty feet, Jesus’ acts exemplified what servant leadership looks like. The deacon is called to extend those acts to the least of these among us; to extend the Table of hospitality and reconciliation in a way that builds community within our communities.
CCS staff Lori Stewart and David Lappano attended the International Anglican-Roman Catholic-Ukrainian Catholic Conference on the Diaconate, Regina, May 10 – 13.
Lori Stewart and I recently had the opportunity to travel to Regina to attend an ecumenical ‘Anglican – Roman Catholic – Ukrainian Catholic Conference on the Diaconate’. We knew this would be a great opportunity to connect with some of our Anglican colleagues across Canada but also internationally. I had great conversations with Episcopalians from the US, the Scottish Episcopalian Church, British Anglicans, and folks from Halifax to Vancouver.
It was also quite instructive to hear from Catholic deacons, to hear quite different articulations of ‘challenges’ and ‘controversies’ (such as, a transitional diaconate and issues of gender and sexuality in ordered ministry) from the UCC and ACC experience. More positively, I heard of their experience of the sacred continuity between their liturgical function at Mass and their social role in communities. The Catholic Deacon, Frederick Bauerschmidt, spoke of the Deacon as the one who holds care over all orders in the church – in other words, the deacon nurtures the ministry vocation of the priests and the laity.
Two themes I would like to mention relate to diaconal identity and formation and my learnings come primarily from the following Anglicans/Episcopalians: Maylanne Maybee, Phina Borgeson, and Susanne Watson Epting. Both Maylanne and Susanne offered sharp and nuanced assessment of the ‘prophetic’ role of the diaconate, which they grounded in history and theology. But it was the particularly Anglican emphasis on the baptismal vows as the basis of all ministry vocations that really gave me a new lens to see the relationship between different ministries in the church.
For Susanne Watson Epting baptism means that one is already in vocation, and what ministry formation does is facilitate the discernment and development of one particular social and liturgical expression of what is already initiated in baptism.
Maylanne reminded the room that attention to history and tradition is tremendously important, but they’re important because they show that deacons, under the influence of Spirit, respond to the needs of the moment, which means deacons need to be conversant and literate in discourses of the times. Case in point: on a panel discussing ‘Women and the Diaconate’, Maylanne was the only one with honesty and courage to name that embodiment, gender, and sexuality must be more openly discussed in any conversation about ministry leadership and sacramental practice.
Phina led a very practical discussion about formation, adult education, and goal setting – a topic I know students continually wrestle with. I’m sure my notes on this session will translate into useable strategies for CCS. And from Alison Peden of the Scottish Episcopal Church I learned that the formation of deacons is a residential program, much of which is done together with people who are training for the priesthood and with people training for lay ministry. I wondered how different the relationship between the orders of ministry in UCC and ACC would be if all candidates did portions of their formation together!
Of course, it wasn’t just two days of sitting through academic presentations – there were opportunities twice each day to worship together in the custom of each tradition. These were profound times because they also elicited the joys and pains of ecumenical dialogue. We experienced the richness and thoughtfulness of different liturgical styles but people also experienced the pain of exclusion from sacrament and full leadership participation based on historic ecclesial differences. What struck me, in room full of deacons and a couple bishops, was the visible expression of sadness from the people unable to receive communion and from the people unable to offer communion to their Christian neighbours. If I had to write a spiral reflection assignment I would reflect more on this experience!
I came away from the conference with a list of books to read, people to reconnect with, and an awareness of different approaches to diaconal formation. I’d call that a win!
David Lappano is on the Program Staff at CCS.
Article from the Centre for Christian Studies (CCS) at http://ccsonline.ca/2018/05/baptised-and-formed-ecumenical-conversations-on-the-diaconate/
We’re so excited that this is taking place on 27 October at Queen’s Foundation College in Birmingham! You’re warmly invited to attend, and bring any enquirers, ordinands, vocations advisers and DDOs with you! Please do circulate them all with these details.
Because we’ve moved to a bigger venue, more tickets are now available. Accommodation can also be booked at Queen’s: contact Queen’s directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s the programme for the day: conference-programme-deacons-on-the-move
and copied below:
DEACONS ON THE MOVE!
National Conference for the C of E Distinctive Diaconate
The Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham (Frances Young Centre)
27 October 2018
10.15 Welcome and Morning Worship with the Rt Revd David Urquhart, Bishop of Birmingham
10.30 The Revd Professor Paul Avis: A Flagship Ministry – Deacons and the Church’s Mission (Part 1)
11.00 Questions, pop-up deacons
11.15 Paul Avis: Part 2
12.00 Pop-up deacons, diaconal news: the Revd Canon Dr David Hewlett, Principal of Queen’s Foundation College
13.15 Pop-up deacon followed by discussion groups:
14.00 Pop-up deacon, followed by Panel: questions and insights
14.30 The way forward: discussion followed by plenary with the Revd David Mann, DDO, diocese of York
15.15 Pop-up deacon and closing worship, followed by tea
Deacon Phina Borgeson called on deacons to “exercise leadership in the church’s prophetic activity,… speaking out about injustices and inconsistencies” and protecting God’s created order.
In May this year there was an international and ecumenical conference on the diaconate, held at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Canon Deacon Michael Jackson, who acted as conference secretary, has offered us this excellent report. Other reports and papers can be found elsewhere on this blog.
How can it feed in to our English diaconate, I wonder?
Regina Hosts Ecumenical Conference on Diaconate By Canon Michael Jackson
Published in Saskatchewan Anglican September 2018
Close to 100 people gathered at Campion College, the Jesuit affiliated college at the University of Regina, for an international Anglican-Roman Catholic-Ukrainian Catholic conference on the diaconate. The conference, held May 10-13, was co-sponsored by the Diocese of Qu’Appelle and the Archdiocese of Regina. Believed to be the first of its kind, the conference attracted four bishops, eight priests, 55 deacons and a number of diaconal candidates and lay people, from seven Canadian provinces, six U.S. states, England, Scotland and New Zealand.
Bishop Rob Hardwick of Qu’Appelle and Archbishop Donald Bolen of Regina co-chaired the conference, while Bishop Bryan Bayda of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Saskatoon was a session chair. Anglican bishop Donald Phillips of Rupert’s Land also took part. The conference was an outcome of the covenant between the Diocese of Qu’Appelle and the Archdiocese of Regina, which has been in place since 2011. Said Archbishop Bolen, “This international conference is a new venture in our covenantal relationship, building on the fact that both our Churches have a threefold ministry including the diaconate, and that diaconal ministry is being explored in significant ways by both Churches, including our respective dioceses, at the present time.”
Three bishops involved in the ecumenical conference were photographed at Campion College. (l-r) Bishop Bryan Bayda of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Saskatoon, Bishop Rob Hardwick of the Anglican Diocese of Qu’Appelle, and Archbishop Donald Bolen of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina. (photo – Frank Flegel)
Entitled “The Ministry of the Deacon: Word and Sacrament, Charity and Justice,” the conference brought together 11 leading authorities on the diaconate from Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. They addressed nine topics:
- the Conundrum of the Transitional Diaconate
- the Theological Basis of the Diaconate
- Women and the Diaconate
- the Diaconate as Ecumenical Opportunity
- the Diaconate in the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches
- the Prophetic Ministry of the Deacon
- the Deacon in the Worshipping Community
- Diaconal Formation
- Diaconal Relationships.
Roman Catholic speakers were Deacon Frederick Bauerschmidt, professor of theology at Loyola University in Baltimore, Sister Gloria Marie Jones of the Dominican Sisters of St. Jose in California, Deacon George Newman of Newman Theological College in Edmonton, and Dr. Brett Salkeld, archdiocesan theologian of the Archdiocese of Regina. Sub-Deacon Brian Butcher of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, was the speaker from the Ukrainian Catholic Church.
From the Anglican Communion, speakers were Deacon Phina Borgeson of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California; Canon Rosalind Brown of Durham Cathedral, Church of England; Deacon Susanne Watson Epting of the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa; Deacon Canon Michael Jackson of Qu’Appelle, Deacon Maylanne Maybee,
formerly Principal of the Centre for Christian Studies in Winnipeg; and Canon Alison Peden, director of ordinands for the Scottish Episcopal Church.
The presentations and discussions showed considerable convergence and common ground on the diaconate among the participants despite their different faith traditions. For example, there was a majority consensus that the “transitional” diaconate – the practice of ordaining people deacons for a brief period before they become priests – was unnecessary and undesirable. Deacon Susanne Watson Epting described efforts in the American Episcopal Church to come to grips with this conundrum. As Roman Catholic deacon George Newman said, “one would be led to wonder, if [a candidate for the priesthood] is not going to engage in traditional deacon ministry, why ordain him as a deacon?” Anglican deacon Maylanne Maybee noted, “if we were to be consistent, we would resume the practice of direct ordination (i.e. ordination to the priesthood without passing through the diaconate first).” However, countering this, Roman Catholic deacon Frederick Bauerschmidt and Anglican canon Rosalind Brown defended “sequential” ordination as deacon, then priest, on the grounds that all orders of ministry incorporate the diaconate.
Several speakers commented on the welcome recovery of the permanent or vocational diaconate, especially since the Second Vatican Council, as a distinctive order of ministry. It is no longer the “inferior office” referred to in the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer, but a symbol and instrument of the New Testament idea of diakonia, or service, which is the vocation of every Christian through baptism. “Diaconal ministry,” said Canon Brown, “is a dynamic extension of Eucharistic celebration, as deacons are incarnational ministers of the Eucharist in the forgotten, awkward corners of the world.” The session on the prophetic ministry of the deacon explored in depth this role of incarnational minister. Deacon Phina Borgeson called on deacons to “exercise leadership in the church’s prophetic activity,… speaking out about injustices and inconsistencies” and protecting God’s created order. Sister Gloria Marie Jones emphasized that “the prophetic mission of Jesus, and therefore of the deacon, is about unity, inclusivity and forgiveness.”
The issue of women in the diaconate was of particular interest to the Roman Catholic participants: their Church does not admit women to ordained ministry, while the Anglican Communion ordained its first women deacons in the 1970s, soon to be followed by priests and more recently bishops. Sister Gloria spoke poignantly of her own experience as daughter of a deacon, whose wife actively supported him in his ministry. “It was truly a shared preparation and ministry….but one was ordained and the other was not.” She was present in Rome in 2016 at the meeting of women religious superiors where Pope Francis announced a commission to study the question of women deacons. “I have come to believe,” she said, “the ordination of women to the diaconate is important for the sake of the Church, much more than for the sake of women.”
Anglican and Roman Catholic speakers alike asserted the value of the deacon’s role in worship, despite a tendency in some areas of both Communions to downplay it. Deacon Bauerschmidt, who has published a book, The Deacon’s Ministry of the Liturgy, explained from the Roman Catholic perspective how the diaconal function in the Eucharist and other liturgies “points to the importance of the diakonia of the Church as a whole.” Canon Brown sees the deacon’s functions at the Eucharist – reading the Gospel, leading the intercessions, calling for the exchange of the Peace, setting the Table and clearing it, giving the Dismissal – as highly symbolic of the Church’s ministry of hospitality.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the conference, especially for the Anglicans, was the unique contribution of the Ukrainian Catholic participants. Brian Butcher gave a comprehensive overview of the diaconate in the Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic traditions, noting the presence of women deacons in the early church. SubDeacon Butcher, along with Bishop Bayda and Protodeacon David Kennedy of Toronto, led a moving choral celebration of Ukrainian Catholic vespers in Campion College Chapel. The conference participants also experienced Anglican compline and morning prayer and Roman Catholic morning prayer.
Highlights of the conference were the two eucharistic celebrations. While the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches are not in communion, Archbishop Bolen spoke of a real but incomplete unity. The bishops took part in each other’s liturgies for the Feast of the Transfiguration. Bishop Hardwick preached at the Roman Catholic Mass at Campion College Chapel on May 12 concelebrated by Archbishop Bolen and Bishop Bayda. In turn, Archbishop Bolen preached at the Sung Eucharist at St. Paul’s Cathedral on May 13, where Bishop Hardwick presided. All three bishops joined in giving the final blessing at both celebrations. And Bishop Bayda preached and gave the blessing at the May 13 joint prayer service of the Diocese of Qu’Appelle and Archdiocese of Regina – Solemn Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral – the final event in the conference.
A month later, Archbishop Bolen ordained nine permanent deacons – who had all attended the conference with their spouses – at Holy Rosary Cathedral. This was the first group to graduate from the diaconal formation program of the Archdiocese of Regina, directed by Dr. Salkeld.
As Roman Catholic journalist Frank Flegel reported,
In spite of the vigorous debate, organizers said it was a learning experience. “We learned so much from each other, experienced each other’s worship and theology and came closer together, which is really what the ecumenical movement is all about,” said conference secretary Deacon Michael Jackson, who has served 41 years in the Anglican Diocese of Qu’Appelle. Joe Lang, a Roman Catholic deacon for 20 years, felt reaffirmed in his ministry after listening and taking part in the discussions, and said he found it interesting to hear about the variety of ministries in all the faith communities.
Conference organizers expressed appreciation to the Faith, Worship and Ministry Department of the Anglican Church of Canada and to the Archdiocese of Regina for grants which made the conference possible, to both sponsoring dioceses and the Regina Catholic School Board for providing resources, and to Campion College for hosting the event.
Canon Michael Jackson is deacon at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Regina, and was secretary of the 2018 conference on the diaconate.
Roman Catholic deacon Bill Ditewig agonises over the current state of the Catholic Church, and calls for diaconal ways forward.
The reforms we need right now start from that perspective of humility, compassion, and service, and the Church must be one which is in a constant state of reform, renewal and conversion.
The news about the institutional dimension of the Catholic Church has been persistent and devastating. Crimes, cover-ups, accusations, bizarre and power-hungry behavior on the part of so many in positions of authority: it’s all been too much for so many. For people around the world, the Church has lost all credibility and moral authority. Why should anyone care what we have to say about anything? As Paulist Father Frank DeSiano observed in a recent column, we still have a mission “to evangelize in difficult times.” But who will listen?
People are done with words. Words have too often proven to be false. Words have too often proven to be hollow. Words have too often proven to be shadowy caverns of deceit.
It’s past time for action. Our collective examination of conscience must include thorough investigation, honest analysis, and concrete plans of action and reform. Pope Francis reminds us that all of our institutions, from parishes through the papacy, need to be reformed constantly so that our mission of spreading the “Joy of the Gospel” may be effective in our own day. Never has this call for radical reform been more obvious. Where to start?
Certainly, all of this must be done, and done immediately. We can’t go on like this.
We must get back to basics.
1. “Master, to whom shall we go?”
Last weekend’s scriptures focus on the fundamental relationship of the Christian with the Lord God. Joshua challenges the people to “decide today” which God they will follow, and a forlorn Jesus asks his own followers if they too will walk away from him, joining those who found his teaching on the bread of life “too hard to accept”. Peter, speaking for the rest of us, responds, “Master to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life!”
Today, we must concentrate on that fundamental relationship. The Profession of Faith states it unequivocally. “Credo” refers to the giving of one’s heart. “I give my heart to God, the Father Almighty. . . I give my heart to Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord. . . I give my heart to the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life. . . .” Everything else builds on that; without it nothing else matters.
2. Build From the Bottom: The View of One Who Serves
We claim to follow Christ – and Christ emptied himself for others, challenging us to do the same. If our Lord came “not to be served but to serve” how can we do otherwise? St. Paul reminds the Philippians that they should “in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3) In Jewish theology, “humility” is the opposite of “pride”: the truly humble person would never exert abusive power over another. The Christian looks up from washing the feet of others into the eyes of Christ on the cross gazing back.
The reforms we need right now start from that perspective of humility, compassion, and service, and the Church must be one which is in a constant state of reform, renewal and conversion. The world’s bishops assembled at the Second Vatican Council taught:
Christ summons the Church to continual reformation as she sojourns here on earth. The Church is always in need of this, in so far as she is an institution of human beings here on earth. Thus if, in various times and circumstances, there have been deficiencies in moral conduct or in church discipline, or even in the way that church teaching has been formulated — to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself — these can and should be set right at the opportune moment.
— Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio, #6
Now is the “opportune moment.” More than that: this is the essential moment.
3. Religion: Binding Ourselves to God
The word “religion” refers to binding ourselves to God. And the letter of James read this weekend should inspire us all in our reform: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Our religion should be known first and foremost for how we care for those most in need, not by our vestments, our grand churches, our rituals or the brilliance of our teaching. When people think of Christianity, may they come to think first of the thousands upon thousands of selfless people – laity, religious, and clergy – who pour their lives out in service at home and around the world. I have a dream that someday when a person googles images of “the Catholic Church” the first pictures shown will not be of St. Peter’s and the Vatican, but of advocates working humbly, tirelessly and fearlessly to meet the needs of others: teachers, medical professionals, volunteers, and yes, spouses and parents giving their all for each other and their children.
Christianity should be about the way we love God and others, about being a “sign and instrument” of intimate communion with God and with the whole human race (Lumen gentium 1). Clergy exist only to support, encourage, and serve the rest in doing that. As Bishop Augustine of Hippo preached so long ago, “For you I am a bishop, with you, after all, I am a Christian. The first is the name of an office undertaken, the second a name of grace; that one means danger, this one salvation.”
This is a “crisis” point for our Church: a turning point. Who are we as the People of God, the Mystical Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit? The choices we make now are as critical as those made by those holy women and men before us who faced their own challenges to reform the Church to respond the needs of their time.
What are you and I prepared to do about all of this? This isn’t about bishops, cardinals or even the Pope: we the Church are a communion of disciples, and our response must involve all of us.
From a talk by Philip North, Bishop of Burnley at New Wine United 2017
In his talk at New Wine, entitled, “Hope for the Poor”, Philip North, Bishop of Burnley, pointed out that we are seeing the slow and steady withdrawal of church life from those communities where the poorest people in our nation live. Despite a renewed passion for evangelism, dioceses having growth strategies, church planting and money released for mission over the past 20 years, the impact has been decline. Whilst acknowledging the effort that is going in, he suggests the answer to such decline is a straightforward one. It’s because we have forgotten the poor.
He continues as follows:
“Every effective renewal movement in the whole history of the Church has begun not with the richest and most influential, but with the poor and the marginalised. ‘I have come to proclaim good news to the poor’ Jesus said in the synagogue at Nazareth. How often have you seen those last three words ‘to the poor’ omitted or re-interpreted or spiritualised? But when Jesus said ‘poor’ he meant ‘poor, and he demonstrated that in the way he lived the rest of his life.”
The early church was an example of the church for the poor and Philip then gives other examples – 3 of which are as follows:
“When the Roman soldiers came to arrest St Lawrence during the persecution of Diocletian in 304AD and demanded to see the riches of the Church, he took them out into the streets and showed them the poor and the crippled and the lame. ‘Here is our gold’ he told them. A great line, but it got him cooked on a griddle. Church for the poor.
“When St Francis heard his call to rebuild the church which had fallen into corruption he called into community the illiterate and the uneducated, he gave them clothes to wear and food to eat and urged them, through their simplicity, to model the way of Christ and they began a potent movement of reform that left monarchs quaking and powerless. Church for the poor.
“When Vincent de Paul wanted to renew a wholly decadent and derelict French church in the seventeenth century, he bypassed his aristocratic connections and went instead to the galley slaves and the prisoners and the destitute and unchurched citizens of the new cities. He organised communities of priests and sisters to serve and proclaim and the result was a renewal which swept across France and overseas and was one of the great inspirations behind the Catholic renewal in this country in the nineteenth century. Church for the poor.
“A church that abandons the poor might well be financially viable. It’s just that it would no longer be the Church of Jesus Christ. If we abandon the poor, we abandon God. If we fail to proclaim the good news to the poor, we lose the right and the authority to proclaim the good news to anyone, anywhere.”
Philip then suggests seven steps that will help us to become a Church of and for the poor that the world might believe. These are summarised as follows:
1. The content of our proclamation.
If you turn up on an estate with nice, tidy complacent answers to questions no one is asking, they will tear you to shreds. Successful evangelism begins with intense listening, with a profound desire to hear the issues on people’s minds and a genuine open heart to discern how Jesus speaks into them. If you’re in debt, what is the good news? If you’re dependent on a foodbank to feed your children, what is the good news? If you’re cripplingly lonely and can’t afford the bus into town, what is the good news? Simple formulae, or trite clichés about God’s love won’t do as answers to these questions.
We need to raise up leaders in, for and from the urban church. The best person to speak the Gospel into an urban estate is someone who has grown up there, so we need to be courageous and take risks in raising up a local leadership. Catapulting in white, well-educated, beautiful people from the nice bit of town will dispossess and disempower local residents. The impact will be to take their church away from them such that the church will become just another service provided on their behalf by patronising outsiders. And to raise up this new generation of leaders, we need our best clergy to commit significant periods of their ministries to the poorest areas.
3. The church-planting movement needs to put the poor first rather than last.
Too many church planting strategies are aimed at the low-hanging fruit in fast regenerating urban areas or university towns. Renewal comes from courageous mission to the places where it’s toughest. If you feel called to plant, we need you on the outer estates, we need you in our northern towns, we need you in areas where a majority of people come from other world faiths, we need you in those areas where the trendy coffee shops and artisanal bakers are hard to find.
4. Marry together service with proclamation.
If all we do is proclaim and ignore the hard reality of people’s lives, if all we offer is Jesus the living bread when they need real bread to put in their stomachs, no one will listen. On the other hand if all we do is serve and not proclaim, as many churches do, we are subjecting people to the greatest deprivation of all which is to be deprived of ever hearing the saving news of Jesus Christ. A feature of all growing urban churches is an intentional marriage of service and proclamation.
5. Patient presence.
We have become obsessed with the quick win. Urban and estates ministry is hard work and slow going. It takes years to become established, to win trust, to learn the questions, to form leaders, to work out how best to serve, to discern accessible ways of proclaiming, to win souls for Christ. And there will be many setbacks along the way, many leaders we form who move away, many families we work with who for no good reason disappear, many projects and initiatives we attempt that won’t get off the ground. That can be hard. But it’s real and it’s true and it’s the Gospel. Think of St Paul. He endured countless setbacks, there were arguments, there were places he could not enter. At one point he speaks about being ‘unbearably crushed.’ This is real Christian ministry. It is cross-shaped, it hurts, it’s sacrificial.
6. Everyone’s concern and everyone’s problem.
If the Church wants to be present in places of poverty, it is no good to leave it up to a few heroic church leaders whilst the rest of us get on with our ordinary lives. The wider Church must support the church in urban areas, and do so in genuine and concrete ways. That means financial subsidy, it means letting go of its best leaders for urban ministry, it means support and prayer and encouragement, it means a willingness to listen to the urban church and amend its own life and structures accordingly.
We need sincere, disciplined, authentic prayer because it is only through prayer that the Lord will soften our hearts and open our ears to the cry of the poor. Pray for the church in areas where it is hard to be the church. Pray for yourself so that you can discern how God is calling you to proclaim Good News to the poor.
Philip concludes by saying, “I believe there is change, there is a new openness to being a Church of and for the poor. There are a number of new and interesting initiatives and ideas, some significant books are starting to appear such as ‘A Church for the Poor’ by Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams. Pope Francis has reawakened many to centrality of this area of Christian ministry. But it is not enough. And it is not fast enough. We know the stats. Within 10 years we will have all but lost the Church in the poorest areas. We will have become a complacent, smug church of and for the rich.”
Download the full talk here.