Methodist deacon David Clark shares his vision of a renewed diaconal movement serving the world. He would welcome your comments.
Becoming a diaconal church
Over the week-end of March 22nd to 24th this year, I was privileged, as a Methodist deacon, to be invited to lead the annual conference of some two dozen distinctive deacons from the Diocese of York, together with a number of participants from other dioceses. The theme of the week-end was ‘Becoming a diaconal church – broadening the vision’, about which I have written at some length over the past few years. This short article is my response to being asked to offer a few thoughts on that theme for a wider Anglican audience.
A world at risk
We are living in a hugely exciting but extremely precarious world. The potential opportunities ahead are immense – a new era of health and healing, excursions into outer space, a world in which wealth creation lifts everyone out of poverty, the fulfilment of billions through universal educational provision, a planet whose resources are fully used but carefully preserved, and a diversity of cultures all contributing to an enrichment of what it means to be human.
However, over this potentially amazing future for humankind is cast a shadow which could eventually destroy life on earth as we know it. As we have been reminded by the demonstration of thousands of school children worldwide, and Extinction Rebellion more recently, human life on our planet is living on borrowed time. Epidemics of infectious diseases threaten to outlast the ability of anti-biotics to contain them. Weapons of mass destruction are no less a challenge to life on earth than they were in the heady days of ban-the-bomb marches. And economic globalization continues to make the rich richer and poor poorer.
The stark truth is that the forces of destruction will obliterate the hope of a long and fulfilling human era unless we get our act together. We have to learn, and learn fast how to create a world which is a global community of communities or humankind will self-destruct. As Parker Palmer, an American Quaker, puts it: ‘Community means more than the comfort of souls. It means, and has always meant, the survival of the species.’ So where do we look for the message and the means to enable us achieve this communal imperative?
A church fit for purpose?
Over the centuries, many religious and secular creeds have offered us a vision of the common good. In the forefront of these has been Christianity. Christian faith, and its institutional expression through the church, has at best provided the world with a transforming and inspirational vision of what life at its most human is all about. Even a secular society can still mourn at the destruction of a great cathedral like Notre Dame.
Yet, as Christians, we are slowly having to accept that the church which Christendom bequeathed us is no longer fit for purpose. The evidence is not just in its numerical decline – at least in the West. It is brought home by the fact that the church as we have it – from the tired old institutions of Europe to the burgeoning Pentecostal churches of the South – remains captive to clericalism, paternalism, fundamentalism and, above all, sectarianism. The ecumenical vision of the past century has faded and we are left with a church – Orthodox, Episcopal and Pentecostal – still fragmenting. To make matters worse, the legacy of child abuse within so many churches undermines the last vestiges of credibility for a good number within wider society.
A new narrative
A renewed Christian narrative to inform and empower the universal quest for community is now imperative. At its heart is the good news of the kingdom. To be meaningful to our age, it is a narrative which must focus not only on the sovereignty of God, but also the call to the whole of humankind to become ‘a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that (we) may declare the praises of him who called (us) out of darkness into his wonderful light.’ In short, the new narrative is about God’s promise that our world can and must become a universal and inclusive community – a kingdom community. As I have described elsewhere, the gifts of that community include life to the full, liberation from the destructiveness of evil and for justice and peace, love of neighbour and care for stranger, and an openness to learning what it means to be one world.
A diaconal church
If we as Christians are to communicate the amazing offer of the gifts of the kingdom community to a world in crisis, then we have to discover a new way of being church. The foundational hall-mark of such a church must be servanthood. As the people of God, we have to become servants of the kingdom community and servants of humankind. Such a church is first and foremost ‘a diaconal church’.
The diaconal church as a new form of institution
A diaconal church must not ignore its heritage. The necessity of continuity means that it must embrace the features of the church as institution. Since the days of the early church, there have been many Christians who have kept ‘the wonderful light’ of the gospel shining during some pretty dark times. Faithfulness to such a past is a hall-mark of the diaconal church.
However, as the servant of the kingdom community, the diaconal church is a new form of institution. Its calling is to manifest the gifts of that community – through worship, education, pastoral care, organization and leadership – in new and credible ways.
The diaconal church as a new form of movement
A diaconal church is not only a new form of institution. It is a new form of Christian movement. As the latter, its mission is to enable human groups and associations of all kinds – concerned with the family, education, health and healing, welfare, leisure, business and commerce, law and order and government – to manifest the gifts of the kingdom community. It is a movement, first and foremost, about radical transformation – of that which inhibits life, liberation, love and learning into that which facilitates their flowering and bearing fruit.
The primary resource of the diaconal church as new movement is the people of God in the world. Their calling to be the church in the world also entails their working alongside those I have called ‘friends of the kingdom’, fellow travellers of other faiths and convictions.
The type of leadership needed to give impetus and shape to this new form of movement is a renewed diaconate. For many centuries dormant, it is now coming to the fore worldwide as a divine gift to enable the people of God, and all fellow travellers, to respond to the quest for community, local, national and global, on which the future of humankind depends.
Signs of a renewed diaconate
Every denomination within a fragmented Christendom faces its own particular challenges in seeking to bring the servant church, the diaconal church into being. It is a daunting but exhilarating task which will take many generations to accomplish. However, we have to begin where we are. This means welcoming those still faint signs foreshadowing the coming into being of the diaconal church and a renewed diaconate.
As a Methodist deacon, I observe such signs within my own church – a diaconal order of men as well as well as women, one which seeks to use the features of being an informal religious order to model the nature of the kingdom community, an order which is beginning to recognise the priority of equipping the people of God for their transformational mission in the world.
Where next for the distinctive diaconate in the Church of England?
So where is the Church of England in its journey to become a diaconal church and re-instate the distinctive diaconate, for the two are inseparable? The Church of England now has a significant number of its leaders, including diocesan bishops, who recognize that a renewed diaconate is what Paul Avis calls ‘a flagship ministry’. Just as encouraging is the growing awareness amongst such leaders that the transitional diaconate is not just an anachronism. It is a major road block in the way of bringing the diaconal church as a new form of institution, and the distinctive diaconate as ‘a full and equal order’ alongside the priesthood, into being.
Nevertheless, I do not think such ‘top-down’ developments will prove the most decisive steps on the way to radical change. First and foremost, as distinctive deacons (in every denomination), I believe we have to widen our own vision. We have to hammer out, own and communicate a new narrative in the form of a theology (of the kingdom) and ecclesiology (of the diaconal church) which is paramount for the communal salvation of a world on life-support.
As distinctive deacons we also need to grasp that diaconal ministry is very different from ‘witness through service’ (which is the calling of all God’s people). It means us becoming passionate about the creation of a new form of Christian leadership as enablers and change-agents. The vocation of a renewed diaconate is to inspire, energize and equip the whole church, in partnership with fellow travellers wherever they exist, to become a movement for the communal transformation of society and world. I am convinced such a movement is a divine calling and imperative for our day and age.
David’s blog http://www.diaconalchurch.com/