Author: deacongill

BISHOP’S DEACON: Ben Bradshaw considers the origins and potential of the diaconate

Deacon Ben Bradshaw has recently had this excellent article published in New Directions.  I am very grateful to him for permission to post it here.  I have put some of his points in bold type.

Exploring the origins of the diaconate and considering its future

By Fr Ben Bradshaw

Deacon and Chaplain to the Bishop of Sodor and Man

Ben  at his licensing as chaplain in January this year

For nearly 2000 years theologians have been defining the ministry of deacons, specifically trying to describe the unique differences between the role of a deacon and that of a priest. This has been a great gift to the Church as it has enabled the ministry of deacons to be developed and to flourish into a number of different areas; deacon as humble servant, deacon as missionary to the poor and marginalised, deacon proclaiming the Gospel, deacon as bridge-builder, deacon as bishop’s assistant. Yet despite being blessed with a variety of traditions and studies on the diaconate, large parts of the Church of England continue to struggle to fully understand or embrace the ministry of deacons.

John Collins in his ground-breaking book, Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources (OUP, 2009) suggested that in the early church a deacon was not simply seen as a humble servant but rather a ‘commissioned agent’ ready to perform a duty on behalf of the bishop. To begin with the Church commissioned deacons to serve as the bishop’s assistants and administrators; deacons made up his staff team, as opposed to priests, who would represent the bishop in churches with delegated episcopal authority.

Deacons worked for the bishop, priests represented him.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch writing to the Magnesians less than 70 years after Christ’s death provides evidence and a helpful insight into the different relationships, take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ’.

The Bishop as the head of a diocese takes the central role in the leadership and mission of the Church.  To support the Bishop in this vast ministry he ordains priests to represent him to congregations and to share in the cure of souls. Deacons have a different relationship to the bishop as they do not represent him and they do not share in the cure of souls, rather a deacon works for the bishop and this important difference can be evidenced most clearly in two ways:

The first indication is found at a diaconal ordination; specifically that the bishop ordains deacons alone, unlike at the ordination of priests when clergy colleagues assist. This important difference symbolises the personal relationship that a deacon shares with a bishop.

The second indication is in the title of the senior clergymen that the Bishop appoints to support him in his mission and oversight of the diocese; these senior clergy are of course called archdeacons.  From the earliest days of the Church it was the deacons who supported bishops in the work and administration of the Church. Priests would be with their congregations and it was left to the deacons to serve and assist the bishop. Indeed, it was only in 1662 that canon law was changed to stipulate that all archdeacons must be priests.

It is regrettable that many in the Church of England have forgotten the historical relationship between a deacon and a bishop. I am grateful that I am able to serve my diaconal ministry in my work as the chaplain to the Bishop of Sodor and Man. It is however a great shame that I am currently the only deacon serving as chaplain to a diocesan bishop. How wonderful and appropriate it would be if more bishops were to appoint deacons to serve as their chaplains, such a move would breathe new life into the diaconate and would bring the Church back into line with the traditional understanding and deployment of deacons. The only way that more deacons would be able to serve as bishop’s chaplains is if there was a change in the selection process; unfortunately the majority of bishops continue to stipulate that candidates applying for a post of bishop’s chaplain must be priests, but why?

My ministry as chaplain to a bishop is one of service and support. As chaplain, I support and assist the bishop to carry out his important ministry throughout the diocese. Deacons, like bishop’s chaplains, need to be content to work behind the scenes, facilitating the public ministry of the bishop in a quiet and unobtrusive way. A bishop’s chaplain does not just offer administrative support, although that is of course an important part of the job; chaplains also offer spiritual support by praying the Daily Office with their bishop. Chaplains also provide liturgical support for bishops, not just at major occasions but also on a week-by-week basis when the bishop visits different churches to celebrate the Mass. As a deacon and a bishop’s chaplain I quite appropriately assist the bishop every Sunday by fulfilling my liturgical diaconal duties.

Every aspect of my work as a bishop’s chaplain is diaconal in its nature, which makes it all the more surprising and a little disappointing that the majority of bishops fail to consider appointing a deacon to serve as their chaplain. Of course, those who are ordained as priests forever remain deacons and can without question fulfil the role of a bishop’s chaplain. I would however suggest that it is challenging to live out and fulfil a priestly ministry when serving as a bishop’s chaplain. The distinctly priestly responsibilities are not required; there is no cure of souls, no flock to be the shepherd of and no congregation to administer the sacraments.

So far I have focussed on just one specific area of diaconal ministry, that of the deacon serving the bishop. There are of course many other distinctly diaconal ministries that have developed and evolved throughout the life of the Church. These can be summarised as the diaconal commission to work as missionaries in the world, to proclaim the Gospel to those outside the life of the Church, reaching out to the poor and marginalised and bridging the gap between the Church and the world. The deacon can provide such a ministry as their very orders free them from many of the responsibilities that are required of priests.

It would be brilliant if the Church could offer a renewed vision that included supporting and discerning more vocations to the diaconate. I suggest that for this to happen a number of changes are required. Bishops, dioceses and parishes need to be much more open to the idea of appointing deacons to appropriate stipendiary positions.

It is not just in the appointment of bishop’s chaplains that deacons are normally overlooked, but also in numerous other stipendiary roles. For example, the majority of advertisements for DDOs often stipulate that any potential candidate must be a priest; yet a deacon could equally serve in that role. The work of seeking out, developing and supporting candidates for various forms of ministry falls within the boundaries of diaconal ministry. Such an appointment would also fit well with the tradition of deacons serving on bishop’s staff teams.

A recent edition of the Church Times listed three vacancies for residentiary canons, but sadly none were open to deacons. This is despite the fact that Canon C21 clearly states that deacons can be appointed as residentiary canons once they have been ordained for six years. One could argue that every cathedral should have a resident deacon to enable the important and distinctively diaconal ministry to flourish in the life, work and mission of a cathedral. Perhaps the strict requirement for a priest is about easing the pressures on the Mass rota? However, by automatically excluding deacons we risk failing to seriously acknowledge and appreciate the three-fold order of ministry that we have been entrusted with.

The most regrettable exclusion of deacons in the recent history of the Church has been in the modern day development of new pioneer ministries; with the majority of stipendiary positions only open to priests, yet the job description nearly always describes the work that the Church has historically commissioned deacons to do. Deacons are the original pioneer ministers! Deacons from the earliest times have been tasked with reaching out to those members of society with whom the Church has struggled to connect with, becoming a bridge between the Church and community. Deacons have the freedom to engage with those on the margins of the world as they are released from the demanding requirements of leading a parish; they are set loose to proclaim the Gospel in new places to new people.

If we are to attract younger candidates into a renewed distinctive diaconate then the Church needs to welcome them into its life and mission. It is an unfortunate reality that the vast majority of deacons are forced to find a fulfilment of their ministry through secular employment as chaplains in schools, prisons or hospitals. How have we reached a position where the NHS is more supportive of diaconal ministry than the Church of Christ? A lack of opportunities to minister and serve the Church undoubtedly steers candidates towards ordination to the priesthood when perhaps their gifts and talents would be better served as deacons; such a consideration is rarely explored.

One way in which all Christians can help to encourage and establish a new and younger generation of distinctive deacons is for us to concentrate our conversations around the ministry that a deacon CAN do, rather than defining diaconal ministry by what they CANNOT do.

We must also make sure that we do not copy the mistake that Thomas Cranmer made by labelling the diaconate as an ‘inferior office’. Priests do not hold a superior vocation to deacons; all vocations whilst different are always equal, whether lay or ordained. The Church however must not use any renewed diaconate as a way to save money by reducing the level of training a deacon needs compared to a priest; deacons, just like priests are ordained into holy orders and should be formed and training accordingly.

We can also help to shape the future of the diaconate by refining the language that we use. It is unfortunate that there is pressure to put a word in front of ‘deacon’ to define the ministry. There is and can only ever be one diaconate; It makes absolutely no difference if a deacon hopes to be ordained into the priesthood or not.

Whilst there remains a demand to differentiate between those deacons who hope to be ordained priest and those who do not, I would suggest that the best phrase to use is ‘distinctive deacon’. Previously the Church has used ‘permanent deacon’ which is unhelpful, not simply because only God can know what is permanent, but also because every priest remains a permanent deacon! The worst phrase that we can use for a potential priest ordained into diaconal orders is ‘transitional deacon’ which by its very implication reduces the diaconate to little more than a priestly apprenticeship.

In conclusion, for the Church to foster an environment that would enable a renewed diaconate it first needs to open up more stipendiary positions to deacons; to do so would be to follow the structures and teaching of the early Church. As Christians we can also play our part by speaking positively of diaconal ministry and focusing on the many distinctive gifts that deacons can offer. Most importantly we can pray, pray for an increase in vocations to the diaconate and pray also that the Church of Christ will fully embrace the three-fold historic ministry that has been passed on from the Apostles; deacons, priests and bishops.





Diaconal Ministries Canada has an excellent website with many good resources for their deacons.  Although it’s not an Anglican church, they have a very well-worked-out understanding of diaconal ministry under 4 headings:  compassion, justice, stewardship and community ministry.

The following comes from their series of 12 devotions for deacons,  concerning the nuts and bolts of community ministry.  This devotion focuses on partnership.

Scripture Reading: Philippians 1:1-11

Scripture Reading: Philippians 1:1-11

In Acts 16, Paul is on a journey visiting churches he has established and firing people up for the gospel. He has probably mapped out a route already and set his course –until the Spirit of the Lord tells him differently, that is. Paul wants to go to Asia. The Spirit says no. Paul wants to go to Bithynia. The Spirit says no again. And then Paul receives a vision, sending him to the outer reaches of where the Jews had scattered: a Roman colony with no temple, no place of worship or gathering. Yet Paul obeys.


Without a temple in which to preach, Paul goes down to the river to speak to the Gentile women there. This isn’t necessarily a promising start, by the standards of the day. But, because he listens to the Spirit, Paul’s conversation with the women by the river eventually leads to a church plant – the Philippian church, a church that becomes Paul’s “partner in the gospel” (Phil. 1:5).


Partnerships are important for ministry. At its heart, ministry is relational. Paul understood this and depended on the blessings of partnership to help and encourage him.

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Partnerships are Spirit-given: before arriving in Philippi and establishing the church, Paul is redirected by the Spirit away from other places of ministry. He is given a vision that will lead him to Philippi. The Spirit guides Paul into this important partnership.


Partnerships begin with commonality: partnerships work well when there is a fundamental understanding of what is shared. For Paul and the church in Philippi, they “share in God’s grace” (vs. 7). It is a basic place to start. Sin is a great equalizer; everyone is equally in need of grace and each person is equally made in God’s image.


Partnerships focus on strengths: in strong partnerships, each partner has something important to contribute. Paul knows that the church in Philippi supports him through prayer (vs. 19), and will also “stand firm” (vs. 27) for the gospel. Paul realizes that his encouragement and teaching are also important to the church (vs. 24). Together, as partners, Paul and the church encourage and pray for each other and work from their strengths to advance the gospel together.


Partnerships give joy: encouragement is critical to ministry and to partnership. Paul is writing the letter to the Philippians from prison, and, as he prays for the church in Philippi and is being prayed for, God gives him joy.  Joy transcends experience and energizes mission.


Deacons, you need partners, like Paul, who will serve with you in your church and community. By the grace of God, however, you will form many partnerships as you live out God’s call on your life. Your partners may be members of your church who are equipped and called to serve with you. Your partners may also be your neighbours whom you serve and through whom you receive blessing. There are others such as community agencies and churches.


Seek out the Spirit’s leading as you seek out partnerships. Pray! Allow God’s Spirit to humble you and work through you. Open your heart as you partner and serve alongside those to whom the Spirit will lead you. Look for, and be blessed by each others’ strengths. Never lose sight of the fact that we are all in need of grace: from the deacon sitting next to you to the members of your congregation, to your neighbour in need who might just bless you in surprising ways.


And, last of all, expect joy.

(image from


Advent Sunday  Christian Rossetti

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BEHOLD, the Bridegroom cometh: go ye out

With lighted lamps and garlands round about

To meet Him in a rapture with a shout.

It may be at the midnight, black as pitch,

Earth shall cast up her poor, cast up her rich.

It may be at the crowing of the cock

Earth shall upheave her depth, uproot her rock.

For lo, the Bridegroom fetcheth home the Bride:

His Hands are Hands she knows, she knows His Side.

Like pure Rebekah at the appointed place,

Veiled, she unveils her face to meet His Face.

Like great Queen Esther in her triumphing,

She triumphs in the Presence of her King.

His Eyes are as a Dove’s, and she’s Dove-eyed;

He knows His lovely mirror, sister, Bride.

He speaks with Dove-voice of exceeding love,

And she with love-voice of an answering Dove.

Behold, the Bridegroom cometh: go we out

With lamps ablaze and garlands round about

To meet Him in a rapture with a shout.


(Art by Amy Grigg)


Methodist deacon David Clark has asked me to feature this flyer for his new book.

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David has a clear prophetic vision for a renewed diaconal church, and will be the keynote speaker at the York deacons’ conference in March (scroll down for details).  His latest publication provides much food for thought.  You can follow David’s blog here:

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Christ The King

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Mathew 25: 31-46

Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.

A sonnet by priest-poet Malcolm Guite:  full details here

Hear again the call to peace – a sermon of remembrance for the people of Bosnia.

#distinctivedeacon Jess Foster specialises in inter-faith work, both through her parish and wider ministry and by teaching at the Queens Foundation College in Birmingham.  Recently she went to Bosnia, and reflected on the visit in this sermon.

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Shell-shocked. A war without weapons. Pock-marked. Scarred. Raw open wounds. Brokenness. Injustice.  My clearest memories of three days in Bosnia are abstract but vivid.

There is no doubt, Bosnia remains shattered by the war. Its politics, economy, the social fabric, cities and towns and individual lives remain in tatters nearly 23 years after the war ended. Perpetrators and victims meet in shops and libraries but justice has not been done and acts of denial continue the cycle of violation. Three presidents, representing different religious and ethnic identities take it in turns to lead the country but without real power or collaboration the economy is stagnant – only in the Democratic Republic of  Congo are more people unemployed than in Bosnia.  Many who can, leave.  Sarajevo, the capital city, is broken. The city bears physical scars of shooting and siege.  The river running through the centre of the city is a reminder of the fierce front line and schools, neighbourhoods and lives are divided by the legacy of the war. A city of co-existence and tolerance is now living with an uneasy truce.

But this beautiful country has another dimension. Survivors who have witnessed horrors and grieved and mourned seek to live without hatred and revenge. In Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 people were massacred, I saw the tenderness of a younger man, translating for an older woman – his hands resting lightly on her shoulders, he kisses the top of her head with affection and respect like the son she has lost.  The Mufti of Sarajevo, a senior Iman, brings young faith leaders together to train for peace, inspired by his Muslim faith he reaches out to those belonging to the same faiths as those who have killed and persecuted his family to offer a new way forward.  The city is permeated with time honoured traditions, coffee that can never be rushed, hospitality offered generously, good wine, great food, beautiful scenery, history and the fascinating mix of cultures – a line on the main road where east meets west – the Ottoman empire and the Austro-hungarian empire colliding.

Reading a travel book on the flight out – these words leap out  – the passage from coercion to co-operation, of people coming together because they choose to and not because they are forced to, is one of the greatest human journeys. My encounters in Bosnia bought home how different countries are in different places on that journey –  asserts the author.

But am I different? Are we different? What choices do we make about education, housing, socialising, worship, work and leisure?  Christians in Bosnia were perpetrators of horrific identity based violence. They waited to commit the Srebrenica genocide until July 11th so it could be an offering to St Benedict. They prayed the same prayers us as, read the same scriptures and worshipped the same God yet in a harrowing piece of film we watch them stop a brutal execution because the batteries on the video camera ran out and they wanted to go back to base for some more before finishing off the massacre.

How do we as Christians, as people who follow Jesus, make peace-making, reconciliation, love-building and boundary breaking central to our faith and practice? How are we formed and how are we forming others so that fear, greed and identity politics cannot turn friend against friend, neighbour against neighbour in an ‘intimate’ war like the one in Bosnia. Are we happy with an uneasy truce when we meet someone who threatens our beliefs, challenges our privilege or competes with us for resources we perceive as scarce?

I pray that the church will be seen and known as a community of people who live out the call to love our enemies, to embrace the other, to recognise that we are intimately connected and that every single human being carries the spark of the divine and is loved by the one we seek to worship. We remember today the terrible dangers of division, the carnage of hatred unleashed and the futility of violence but we listen too for the call of Christ, who embodied the way of peace, who gives us peace, who died for peace and we pray today for the grace to follow where Christ leads us. Amen.



At our recent national conference ‘Deacons on the Move’, Deacon Alison Handcock (Bath and Wells)

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led our final worship which included this reflection, read by different voices, which she calls simply ‘With‘.  A number of people were very struck by it and have asked for a copy:  Alison is happy for you to use it.

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In the ordination service for deacons the word ‘with’ appears several times.  Deacons are called to work with priest and bishops as ambassadors of the kingdom;  to study the scriptures with the people of God.

Deacons are ordained to an outward-focussed sacramental and representative role, and called to model collaborative ways of working and empower all the people of God in their own diaconal ministry.  Some deacons work and connect between other agencies and churches as a bridge or stepping stone, linking the church with the world.

In the process of this pondering I looked up the word ‘with’ in the Gospels and was fascinated to see when it showed up. There were lots of occurrences when Jesus is with his disciples, but several too when he catches them arguing with one another. . . a stumbling block to working with.

(Different Voices)

  1. There’s 72 of us – how on earth does he expect us to work together? We’re all different, all passionate about our cause . . . and about our way of doing things. It would be so much easier to go alone to do things my way! It’s simpler, less complicated.
  1. But we are called to go together. ‘be’ and to ‘go’ WITH Him and WITH others to places beyond our boundaries.
  1. But both prove difficult at times;  for ‘WITH’ requires us to listen. . . to truly listen, to him and to others.
  1. WITH’ forces us to let go of control and our preconceived ideas.
  1. WITH’ confronts the language of comparison and coercion by respecting and rejoicing in difference.
  1. WITH’ challenges us to walk slower and more intentionally, to carefully navigate choppy waters in order to see a different view.
  1. But ‘WITH’ also gives us companionship, friends to party with and a box full of gifts, which when shared, open doors to a new future.
  1. ‘WITH’ opens up new ways of working, of hearing, of living together –where no-one is greater than the other and all are called to serve a world beyond ourselves.
  1. WITH’ is counter cultural, it goes against the grain . . . take no sandals, no purse, no attitude that will hinder what Jesus says.
  1. To ‘GO WITH’, in body or in mind, is to go beyond what we know – to discover a new shape, a new language, a new hope  . . . together.
  1. ‘WITH’, calls us to represent Christ, WITH his power and authority among the least, the lost and the lonely, and to join in WITH what God is doing, among a people who have not yet learnt the language of ‘WITH’.

Deacon Alison Handcock (Deacons’ conference 2018)


(Twitter image With Winner)

('With' is slightly edited for length and for ease of use)

FOR REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY: Coventry Litany of Reconciliation


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Coventry Litany of Reconciliation

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,
Father Forgive.

The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,
Father Forgive.

The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,
Father Forgive.

Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,
Father Forgive.

Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,
Father Forgive.

The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children,
Father Forgive.

The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
Father Forgive.

Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.