DYNAMIC OF THE DIACONATE: report on York conference


Deacons in York 17th November 2019

Thirty of us met at St Edwards Church for a reflection on ‘The Dynamic of the Diaconate’ in what has become an annual meeting of distinctive deacons and enquirers from the diocese of York and beyond. We were led by the Rt. Rev Alison White, Bishop of Hull. Before she spoke, David Mann, Diocesan Director of Ordinands, whose steady encouragement has meant a growth in this ministry witnessed by the size of this group, interviewed Abi Davison and Dave Hobman.

Abi spoke about her curacy at York Minster and how her liturgical role inspired her work in the community.”I read the gospel and the gospel goes with me all week”.  Abi is involved with young people  in the Scouting movement and has become its first Faith Adviser.

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Abi in a wet field with the scouts

Dave worked with alcoholics and the homeless. He raised £2,000 to rent the Spurriergate  Centre in York on Sundays where he served 50 to 60 breakfasts and this has led to his work in combating loneliness amongst older people. Hospitality soon leads to questions of spiritual welfare. Dave provides a ministry of listening and presence in the city’s coffee shops.

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Dave as chaplain to the punk community

Bishop Alison centred her talks on the Christ of the margins, the servant Lord, the ministry of the threshold and the Christ who said “As the Father sent me, so I send you”. The word ‘as’ here means   not ‘because’ but ‘in the same way’, in the pattern of Jesus.  She paused to let these awesome words sink in. Disciples of Jesus are called to responsibility, totality, vulnerability, and authority through the breath of the Holy Spirit. Bishop Alison asked “Whose language do you use; that of the church or the language of life?”

She characterised the diaconate as a ‘well worn path of ministry’ and deacons as those who strike a balance between reacting to need and proactively supporting and encouraging the release of gifts in others. As a result communities should look more diaconal.

There was time to reflect on questions such as  “Who am I and what am I for? What is going on inside of me and how do I express it? Where do I seek and choose to spend time?” For deacons the answer is often ‘on the edge’ where the gospel is most clearly 3D. How can we be transformative at the centre, she asked us, as we live on the growing edges. The centre moves more slowly.

Insisting on a horizontal and a vertical model of ministry (not always the reality in practice) she won us over by her personal warmth and stirring message and left us with a suggestion. Put a text in your pocket, sit somewhere unusual, and wait and see what happens.

With many thanks to Deacon Liz Carrington and Methodist deacon Cedric May

It’s worth reporting that, as a result of this day, at least one person is now seriously considering a vocation to the distinctive diaconate!


THE GOD WHO SPEAKS: Deacon Corinne Smith reports on RC Deacons’ Conference

Deacon Corinne Smith (CofE deanery deacon on the Isle of Wight, diocese of Portsmouth) reflects on her attendance at the Annual RC Deacons and Deacon-Directors’ Conference at Hinsley Hall, Leeds, Nov 5-6 November.  I have put some points in bold.


Corinne unveiling a statue in her church’s new tranquillity garden

It was a great joy and privilege to be invited, once again, to the Annual RC Deacons and Deacon-Directors’ Conference at Hinsley Hall, Leeds, Nov 5-6 November.

As usual – I have been a delegate at the Conference three times now – I was warmly welcomed and immediately felt at home among my “tribe” of Deacons.

The topic for the Conference was primarily about the launch of Cardinal Vincent Nichols’ initiative, “The God who speaks: The Year of the Word”.

As the Cardinal says in his introduction to the brochure, “In partnership with the Bible Society, this initiative focuses on celebrating, living and sharing God’s word throughout the Catholic Church in England and Wales from 30th September until the end of December 2020”.

The vision is “to create new and renewed encounters with Christ through the scriptures. The intention is to achieve transformation in the faith and life of the Church and in the public area, through evangelisation, education, creative arts and social action”.

We were fortunate to have Fleur Dorrell,

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who is a Catholic working for the Bible Society, to take us through the main points.  She said Deacons are “heralds of the Gospel” and, as such, should be proclaiming the Gospel and enabling others to hear it, by making sense of it, living it and sharing it.

As the Gospel for the Year is Matthew, NRSV copies of the Gospel will be sent to all RC Dioceses for distribution among the parishes; and there will be copies of the Good News version of the Gospel sent to all prisons, as well as official prayer cards, online ideas, downloads and articles.

In addition, there will be “Tents of Encounter” in a number of locations around the country, including Brighton, Birmingham, Exeter, Hull, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Swansea. These will be Bible “Domes”, in which people can engage in an immersive Bible experience.  The aim is to create scripture-filled events across the UK, with speakers, art, music, worship, food and fun!

The questions the deacons were then given to consider were

  • “What is your distinctive role as a deacon?
  • How can you be creative and inspirational?
  • What support do you need for this now, and beyond 2020?”

Fleur suggested creative ways of helping people to engage with scripture, such as House Masses, where the congregation could be asked to comment on the gospel reading, encouraging them to “listen to God in the present tense, so people can hear Him in their hearts”.

She spoke about deacons as being “accessible bridge-builders” and how, in our language, posture and dress we should be communicating in an appropriate way.  As Fleur said, “We don’t learn anything if we feel threatened”.  There is a need for authenticity and good quality in preaching, saying we should be asking ourselves, “where is the transformative grace in this Bible passage?”, so that our real-life experience as a deacon comes through.

Fleur spoke too about non-mass, seasonal things, such as the rosary, which can also be used creatively, by extending and developing the ways in which we would normally approach it. She stressed the need for creativity in communicating the message of the Gospel; recognising that we live in a very visual world now, with varying literacy levels. It is also hoped that “The God who speaks” could be used ecumenically; and that would certainly be my hope.

The other significant speaker was Mgr Peter Fleetwood,

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who gave a report on the   German Symposium which he’d attended recently. I had met him in a corridor before his talk and he warned me that some of what he would be saying would, “blow their socks off”!! He didn’t disappoint! The German Symposium had had some very radical things to say.

Fr Peter began by telling us what he had told the symposium. First he posed the question, “Where do you fit in the Catholic Church?’ He said there are some who belong without believing; others who believe, but don’t belong. A few both belong and believe, but there are others for whom neither statement is true. It was important for Deacons to be able to reflect on our own story in this regard and, compassionately, to enable ourselves and others learn to deal with difference.

The Deacon is key to understanding the function of the Church in the world, and said, “You can’t serve from above”, meaning that Deacons must not see their role as being about having “power” in the Church. “Asymmetrical relationships” exist between priests, deacons and bishops and he spoke movingly about the danger of the abuse of power in the Church.

He noted that the question of women as deacons had come up at the Amazon Synod recently, with Pope Francis “pushing the boundaries”. Fr Peter commented that there are many women in roles in the Church which would have been unthinkable years ago. The Church is servant to the world, and he stressed the link between servant and those being served. He quoted 1Cor 12, saying that the gifts given are not “MY gifts/ MY parish”; and we need to remember that.

Should foot-washing  be a sacrament of the Church?  No decision was taken, but he said, “When sacred rites are linked to clericalism there can be problems….” There is a risk in the sacralisation of power which must be distinguished from sacramentality; and he asked where Kenosis (Phil 2) would fit in such a power dynamic. He said we need to remember that our baptism is the base for our calling…and to imagine the Church as the “sacrament of justice”.

He ended by saying that women Deacons are not discussed much in most of the churches in UK but, as a result of the silence and invisibility of women, many women have walked away from Catholic life.

It was an extremely stimulating and enjoyable couple of days and I came away feeling energised, by having been in the company of other deacons, and inspired to see whether there is an appetite  for taking forward “The God who Speaks” in my area.

Anyone wanting more information about The God who Speaks can go to the website: godwhospeaks.uk


Discerning vocation to the distinctive diaconate: Canon Rebecca Swyer

The Revd Canon Rebecca Swyer writes on the distinctive diaconate. She is a distinctive deacon and Director for Apostolic Life in the Diocese of Chichester. Rebecca has kindly given her permission for her article to be posted here.

There are two scenarios regularly experienced by distinctive deacons. First, a priest helps put some chairs away or does a bit of washing up, and with a smile says, “once a deacon, always a deacon”. Second, a deacon will be asked “when are you going on to full ordination?”.

Both scenarios distort the nature of the diaconate and demonstrate the rather negative and limited understanding in the Church of England about this ancient order of ministry. The first identifies the diaconate as a ministry focussed on menial tasks. The second scenario suggests the diaconate isn’t a full and equal order of ministry, but at the bottom of a ministerial hierarchy from which you move onto a more important ministry. Both scenarios reinforce the prevalent mindset in western culture that demeans certain tasks or roles and views self-improvement and ambition as key.

The diaconate witnesses to a counter-cultural way of life, following Jesus Christ who came not “to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:43-45) and commanded his followers to do the same.  John 13 is often referred to as defining the role of the deacon, with Jesus kneeling to wash the feet of his disciples, but his command is that everyone should wash one another’s feet: “If I, then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you must also wash one another’s feet.”

Both these New Testament passages take us to the heart of understanding the diaconate: the call of all Christians at their baptism. Unlike some religions which you are born into, Christians have to be “made”. In baptism, a person isn’t just making an individual commitment, but is being grafted into the body of Christ and called to a life of Christian witness and service. At the end of the Common Worship (CW) baptismal rite the candidate is given a lit candle with the words: “You have received the light of Christ; walk in this light all the days of your life…Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father.”

Call to service is part of the indelible nature of being a disciple of Christ, however important you might be in worldly terms. To cite a rather spectacular example, in her coronation service, Queen Elizabeth was frequently called a “servant of God”: indeed, she wore a special dalmatic for the occasion, the proper vestment of a deacon.


Coronation dalmatic worn by King George V and Queen Elizabeth II.

Coronation dalmatic worn by King George V and Queen Elizabeth II.


In baptism, the candidate is given godparents to support them in their early Christian growth and nurture. The diaconate is a visible sign and reminder of this baptismal calling (rather like a post-it note for the Church) and deacons encourage, enable and equip people to live it out.


The word diakonos is the NT Greek word for “minister/servant/deacon and diakonia is the word for service/ministry. Diakonia is a very open and general term that is used multiple times in the New Testament to describe Christian life and ministry. It does not neatly translate into English; not helped by the vague way the word “ministry” tends to be used today. Diakonia is often translated in different ways so it is not always clear what may be referring to a specific office or ministry as opposed to more general Christian calling. Particularly close are the words “ministry” and “service”. Diakonia often has another word attached to it to define what sort of ministry is being referred to – indicating that it is a very familiar/general word, e.g., in Paul we find “ministry of the spirit” or “ministry of letters” (2 Corinthians 3).

Key here has been the work of John Collins and others such as Paula Gooder, summarised clearly and succinctly in the 2007 Church of England document The Mission and Ministry of the Whole ChurchCollins and others explore how the group of words diakon- are used in terms of context and meaning. This exploration does not remove the concept of servanthood, but says that this is not the only aspect of diaconal ministry.

Being and Doing

We like to define something by what makes it unique. However, this is not possible with the diaconate because there is no one thing that only deacons can do. One of Collins’s key points is that the deacon is defined not by what they do, but who has sent them to do what they do. A doulos, or slave is owned by the master, but a diakonos, a servant is paid by the master. The diakonos therefore has a particular authority from the master. This shifts the focus from function to authority.

Because it is not defined by function, diaconal ministry has a certain fluidity and potential vagueness about it, but at the heart of a deacon’s call is being sent by God through the Church to be a servant of God and a herald of the Gospel in a particular place. That is true for all the baptised to some degree, but deacons have this calling in a magnified way.

Deacons minister in diverse roles within the Church of England and some will have exercised their ministry in varied contexts. Many deacons work in parishes, particularly with people on the margins of the church and society, but others work in diverse roles such as chaplaincies.

Part of the three-fold order of ministry

The Church of England has a three-fold order of bishops, priests and deacons. Some churches (such as Methodists) practice direct ordination in which a candidate is ordained straight to a particular ministry. The Church of England has sequential ordination: all are ordained deacon first, then some are later priested and later still a few are ordained to the episcopate to serve as bishops. However, the diaconate remains at the foundation of their ministry. Those that are later to be priested are often called ‘transitional’ deacons, but this is an unhelpful term because the diaconate is permanent for bishops and priests. No one ordained to an order of ministry can be subsequently “divested of the character” of that order (Canon C12). However, the role and functions of that order can be laid aside, either voluntarily or for disciplinary reasons.

Because those called to priesthood are rarely deacons for longer than a year, they do not have the opportunity to deeply inhabit their diaconal orders and so the character of the diaconate for them can become neglected after priestly ordination. Sometimes bishops vest in a pontifical dalmatic under their chasuble as a reminder of their diaconate and priests kneel and wash the feet of parishioners on Maundy Thursday. However, the danger is that such sacramental signs can end up as a token occasional nod to diaconal ministry, rather than being something deeply held and underpinning their priestly and episcopal ministry.

The Church of England has a separate set of selection criteria for distinctive deacons, which can be helpful when discerning vocations. The danger is that this moves towards separating the orders in an unhelpful way. The same set of criteria are equally relevant for those called to be deacons and priests, but you would expect slightly different emphases or giftings within each of the criterion.

How we understand authority and leadership in relation to deacons is related to their place in the three-fold order of ministry. The CW Ordinal says:

Deacons are called to work with the Bishop and the priests with whom they serve as heralds of Christ’s kingdom…They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless…Deacons share in the pastoral ministry of the Church and in leading God’s people in worship.

Theologically, a priest’s ministry is an extension of the bishop’s, but in reality, he or she can function and preside at sacraments on their own. In contrast, a deacon cannot preside at the Eucharist on their own, just as one cannot be a practicing Christian on one’s own outside of the church.

In formal liturgical traditions the deacon stands on the right of the bishop (or priest), a position which reflects their relationship. The term “right-hand man” (or woman) indicates someone who works closely with the person in overall charge; someone who is trusted and given a share in their authority. Deacons will tend to speak about the authority and leadership they exercise as an extension of episcopal or priestly ministry – it is collaborative.

Diaconal leadership expresses something important about the foundations of apostolic leadership. All bishops, priests and deacons should

embody and proclaim for all to see what is true of the whole body…All the faithful are marked by baptism and share in the messianic identity of Jesus as Prophet, Priest and King, an identity he imparts to his Church because it is his Body and one with him.

(The Mission and Ministry of the Whole Church, p.72)

In a very real theological sense therefore the authority bishops, priests and deacons exercise is not their own and must not get confused with power as the world understand it.

Images of diaconate

Certain images can help our understanding of the diaconate and particularly so for people discerning a possible vocation to this ministry.


The image of deacon as servant focuses on being sent by God with his authority, serving as ‘heralds of Christ’s kingdom’ in a way appropriate for a given context. The deacon can be seen as an icon of the servant Jesus. Owen Cummings says:

there is no one way to be a deacon, but every way must be identifiable and recognizable as a form of service, inviting and empowering others to serve in such a way that communion with God and communion among people is advanced. [1]

This image has a strong apostolic dimension – potentially being sent from community to community, task to task. Useful biblical passages to reflect on are: Acts 6: 1-4; John 13 and Romans 16:1-2.


In the OT the word for servant (particularly used by Isaiah) is the one sent to follow out God’s mission in the world and bring light to the nations. The Ordinal draws out the prophetic dimension to the deacon’s ministry: ‘They are to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, as agents of God’s purposes of love…searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible.’

Deacons are often a voice for the voiceless, a “herald of the kingdom” speaking out where there is injustice and calling and equipping others to respond. This prophetic dimension to diaconal ministry can speak also within the church, echoing Jesus turning over tables in the temple. Useful biblical passages are: Stephen in Acts 6; Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-3; Acts 2:18.


St Stephen, patron saint of deacons.

St Stephen, patron saint of deacons.



Deacons have sometimes been described as a bridge between the church and world. Their ministry is often at the margins; one of the liberating aspects of a ministry not tied to particular tasks is freedom to adapt. However, deacons are not free-agents, but go in the authority of the church, proclaim the gospel and not themselves and seek to bring others into the church. Deacons are often self-supporting ministers, which emphasises this bridge role. Useful biblical passages are: Isaiah 49:13-18; Matthew11: 25-30; Romans 10.11-17


A common image for a deacon in Orthodox churches is an angel. In iconography, angels will sometimes be wearing deacon’s stoles. Angels are sent by God for a reason and with a message, e.g. Gabriel’s message ‘hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.’ Angels also have a role as guardians and protectors. This reflects the diaconal role of proclaiming God’s love to the poor, unloved and forgotten, protecting and being an advocate for the vulnerable and reflecting the authority coming from standing at the right hand. Useful biblical passages are: Psalm 91:11; Luke 1:26-38; Hebrews 1:1-14


Being called to the diaconate means being called to a ministry that is challenging, exciting and often unexpected, but which is also often misunderstood and underestimated. It requires people who are secure in their faith and calling and willing to say, “Here am I Lord, send me.”


[1] Cummings, O., Ditewig, W., and Gaillardetz, R. (2005). Theology of the Diaconate: The State of the Question. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press. p. 28-29.

Original article, for the St Mary Magdalen School of Theology:  https://www.theschooloftheology.org/posts/essay/discerning-vocation-permanent-deacon






Please note that this post is also a permanent page and so will remain in the ‘Pages’ column (right hand side of the screen) until booking closes next May.

With many thanks to Deacon Gill Newman (London) who is handling the bookings.



“A magnificent conference!” “Wonderful!”

“Congratulations on a very good day.”

“An incredible success.”

“Fantastic day, I really feel excited about the future!”

“An excellent gathering – inspiring!”

Just some of the comments following our 2018 conference! Building on this success, booking is now open for the second National Conference of Distinctive Deacons in the Church of England, ‘Deacons on the Move 2020’.

We are particularly delighted that our speaker is the Rt Rev Dr Martin Seeley, Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. Bishop Martin is Chair of the Church of England Ministry Council and his theme will be, ‘Towards a Flourishing Diaconate: Theological, Pastoral and Formational Perspectives’.

Bishop Martin brings a wealth of vocational experience with him. He is addressing all the major elements of the diaconate and promises to be stimulating, challenging and exciting!

The day will include opportunities to hear from and be inspired by

  • the work and ministry of other Distinctive Deacons
  • meeting other Distinctive Deacons and discovering who else is working in your region
  • considering the setting up of regional groups
  • hearing about launch plans for an exciting new national network for Distinctive Deacons
  • sharing in worship together.

Anyone staying overnight on the previous evening, Friday May 15th, is also welcome to meet up for an evening meal at a local restaurant and join in with a service of Compline with Queens’ students.

This conference is a unique opportunity for Distinctive Deacons in the UK and beyond, many of whom work in isolation, to come together for fellowship, teaching and encouragement in the rich vocation to which they have been called. Others interested in learning more about the distinctive diaconate, including those exploring a possible calling of their own, are also most welcome to attend. Deacons, deacon ordinands, deacon enquirers, vocations advisers and DDOs are all invited.

The conference is being held on Saturday May 16th 2020 in the Frances Young Centre at The Queen’s Foundation, Edgbaston, Birmingham. It is easily accessible by public transport and has good parking. Further details about the venue along with travel directions can be found on their website at www.queens.ac.uk. For details about accommodation see FAQ below.

With little or no diaconal training generally available to distinctive deacons at a diocesan level, one of the aims of this conference is to help equip deacons in their ministry. Delegates are therefore encouraged to talk to their Dioceses about claiming the conference costs from Ministerial Training budgets. Unlimited tea and coffee, freshly baked cakes and biscuits, and a hot lunch are included in the ticket price.

*If you have any special dietary requirements please let us know in advance by emailing Deaconsonthemove@gmail.com.

**A small number of bursaries may be available to help with the cost of the conference – please contact the organisers for further information.


Q. How can I contact the organisers?

A. You can contact the organisers by emailing deaconsonthemove@gmail.com

Q. I want to stay overnight – can you recommend any accommodation?

A. There are a number of options if you require overnight accommodation:

  • A very limited number of non ensuite rooms are available at the Queens Foundation from £15-20. Breakfast is an additional £3.50. Please book directly with Queen’s at hospitality@queens.ac.uk.
  • The Lucas House Hotel offers comfortable, low cost B & B just 5 minutes walk away from the Frances Young Centre. Please book directly. https://www.lucashousehotel.com/
  • The International Mission Centre also offers excellent rates for B & B and is about 10-15 minutes drive away from the Francis Young Centre. Please book directly. https://www.bmsworldmission.org 
  • Q. I would like to meet up with others for a meal the previous evening, Friday May 15th – how can I book?

A. Please email the organisers at Deaconsonthemove@gmail.com and we will send you details.

Q. Can I get a refund if I book and then discover nearer the time that I can’t attend?

A. Unfortunately tickets cannot be refunded once purchased. Please contact the organisers if you find yourself in this situation.

Q. Where can I discover more about the Distinctive Diaconate?

A. A wealth of useful information and articles about the Distinctive Diaconate can be found on the blog ‘Deacon’  https://deaconstories.wordpress.com



My book Deacon by Design – the Ups and Downs of an Anglican Deacon

You can order from me directly using Paypal, bank transfer or cheque:  £6.50 + £1.50 P&P  (please add £1 if using Paypal) Email me for more information at deacons@tutanota.com

This is the story of my extraordinary call to the distinctive diaconate and the challenges and joys over the years of being a deacon in the Church of England today, both here and in Europe. I wrote it to encourage deacons and those interested in the diaconate, and to say to the Church of England that this is a true and profound calling by God and needs to be taken seriously as a valuable contributor to mission and ministry, and so should be given space and support to flourish.

Foreword by the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome

‘Honest, personal, determined, Gill recounts a lifetime of adventures with God to help us rediscover the ministry of the diaconate.’ The Rt Rev Nick McKinnel, Bishop of Plymouth

‘Ordinands should take note and learn from this story, as should those who continue to hurl the insult ‘when are they going to become proper priests?’  Even more, this is for DDOs who are still baffled by diaconal enquirers who do not fit another ministry mould.’ The Revd David Mann, Diocesan Director of Ordinands, diocese of York

‘Gill Kimber’s honest and vivid memoir illustrates the opportunities, joys and demands of diaconal life’  The Revd Canon Rosalind Brown, Canon Emerita, Durham Cathedral and author of ‘Being a Deacon Today’.