A short paper from Canon Rosalind Brown

Formation, training and CMD for vocational deacons

Threefold ordained ministry – deacon, priest, bishop. Russian dolls analogy.  Diaconal ministry is foundational for all ordained ministry; priests and bishops remain deacons but overlay further ministry on that foundation.

David Stancliffe, the former Bishop of Salisbury, wrote this,

The incarnation is the foundation of God’s redeeming activity. It comes first. ‘That which God did not assume, he did not redeem’ says Gregory of Nazianzus, making it clear that for God to change people, he needed first to engage with us and share human life. In the same way, the ministry of the deacon is the foundation of all ordained ministry. …  The deacon focuses this sense of God sharing our life and engaging with us directly by making God’s incarnation, his being rooted in human life, central to the Church.

He went on to argue that, just as there cannot be resurrection and new life without first there being incarnation, so there cannot be transformative ministry in the world unless there is first engagement with the world. Deacons provide that engaged ministry, as they do in other branches of the Church.

Although most deacons are later ordained priest, the distinctive or vocational diaconate has always been part of the Anglican understanding. At times it has been more evident than others, not always for the right reasons and it has a messy track record. The recovery of distinctive diaconal ministry in the last thirty years has been accompanied by ecumenical discussions and theological inquiry with the Nordic Lutheran Porvoo churches which have slightly different perspectives on the diaconal vocation. Other parts of the Anglican Communion have ordained many more deacons, notably ECUSA.

The church’s understanding of diaconal ministry has evolved rapidly recently, but it is good to be reminded of some early second century insights from Ignatius:

And those likewise who are deacons of the mysteries of Jesus Christ must please all men in all ways. For they are not deacons of meats and drinks but servants of the Church of God. It is right therefore that they should beware of blame as of fire. In like manner let all men respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, even as they should respect the bishop as being a type of the Father and the presbyters as the council of God and as the college of Apostles. Apart from these there is not even the name of a church. (Ignatius, Epistle to the Trallians 2.3-3.1)

Ignatius also wrote to the Magnesians,

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, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest.  (Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians  6:1)

The phrases that stand out to me are that deacons are deacons of the mysteries of Jesus Christ, they are entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, and they should be respected as Jesus Christ. Over the centuries some of this has been lost, particularly when priests, not deacons, began to be seen as representing Jesus Christ, leaving the deacons in limbo. Since the 1990s John Collins, from the RC Church in Australia, has helped us to recover the insight that deacons are not just servants in order to spare the rest of the church from serving, but have an ambassadorial and representative role, they are agents.

The 2001 report to General Synod, For Such a Time as This was enthusiastic about the ministry of deacons but it met opposition and misunderstanding at Synod, largely from Readers who, reading between the lines, felt their own ministry was being undervalued or threatened. I am not alone in suggesting this confusion was a legacy of the C of E’s inadequate theological and ecclesiological understanding of Reader ministry ever since it was created in C19 as a way to utilise the gifts of lay men in leading worship. FSTT was effectively side-lined and at that point the Bishop of Salisbury, David Stancliffe, commissioned a diocesan report and asked me to chair a working party. He charged us with reporting on how the diocese might recover the ministry of distinctive deacons and in particular to address the relationship of Deacons to Readers. That report was published in 2003 entitled The Distinctive Diaconate.

In that report and my own book, both written over ten years ago, I described diaconal ministry as being in the church and the world and especially on boundaries or thresholds between church and world – the church door (literal or metaphorical) and on the boundaries of the world where many Christians do not venture. In other words, deacons take an active role in the liturgy and pastoral care of church members, and are also comfortable out in the world, engaging with people in need, helping them to make connections with the church as well as helping Christians to cross the church threshold in mission, leading them by example.  In Salisbury, we suggested that deacons will not preach regularly in Sunday worship, unless they are particularly gifted that way, but will preach at pastoral services especially services where they have been pastorally engaged with the families concerned so can help them cross the threshold into church.

My recent thinking on the theological and ecclesiological underpinning of diaconal ministry leads me to propose that we should have a stronger sense of the Trinitarian underpinning of diaconal ministry, recognising it is inspired by the Holy Spirit who empowered the ministry of Jesus. That gives it much more of a mission impetus which is important as the Church seeks to express the five marks of mission.

A significant factor since I first wrote is that the Church of England has approved the Common Worship Ordinal. If we believe what we now say when we ordain deacons, we should be asking ourselves why we are not ordaining more people for whom this is a distinctive vocation. Priests have many additional responsibilities for which they need a diaconal grounding but these duties inevitably mean they do not have as much time for specifically diaconal ministry. So we need more deacons to fulfil diaconal ministry, working with priests.

In 2006, Joe Cassidy put this more bluntly when commenting on Acts 6:

[T]the diaconate is clearly not an afterthought. If deacons don’t do what deacons need to do, then the Word won’t get preached. … It’s not optional. It’s not a side-issue. It’s really that important. If the widows are not treated justly, if other key tasks aren’t done, then the community won’t work properly, and the mission of the Church will be subverted. But why ordain? … why make such a formal fuss?

… It seems to me that [the early church] formalised it because such service cuts to the heart of the Gospel, to the heart of what it means to be Church. It really is that important. … They evidently saw this sort of service as being central to the life of the emerging community. Hence the emphasis on the ‘deacons’ being filled with the Holy Spirit. The work of service was central to what the Holy Spirit was doing in that community.

So what does the Church of England now think it is doing when ordaining deacons? If we know that, we can then ask how we identify vocations and train deacons. Paraphrasing what the bishop says at an ordination, deacons:

  • Are ordained so that the people of God may be better equipped to make Christ known.
  • Serve as heralds of Christ’s kingdom (unfortunately we lost the word ‘ambassador’ which had been in the trial liturgy) and proclaim the gospel in word and deed, as agents of God’s purposes of love, they make the love of God visible.
  • Are incarnationally focused, they serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the Church the needs and hopes of all the people, searching people in need and reaching into the forgotten corners of the world and they accompany those searching for faith and bring them to baptism.
  • Are collaborative, they work with their fellow members in doing this, share in pastoral ministry and in leading God’s people in worship, they seek nourishment from the Scriptures and study them with God’s people, that the whole Church may be equipped to live out the gospel in the world.
  • Are to be faithful in prayer, expectant and watchful for the signs of God’s presence, as he reveals his kingdom among us.

That sounds to me like a much broader, mission focused emphasis than we have assumed for diaconal ministry in the past. So what are the implications for diaconal vocations, training and formation? Here are some headline thoughts which might prompt discussion later on.

On vocation:  first of all, we must recover and encourage the distinctive ministry of deacons. We need deacons who are not encumbered with priestly responsibilities. This is a different ministry to that of Readers so there should be no confusion or misguided suggestion we simply ordain all Readers as Deacons. As we said in the Salisbury report, Readers are lay people with a ministry of worship leadership, preaching and teaching, exercised under the direction of a priest but often in the absence of the priest (think of the faithful Readers who Sunday by Sunday take services of the Word in village parishes). Deacons are called to ordained ministry, they take a distinctive role alongside the priest in worship (so are rarely on their own in liturgical leadership) and spearhead the church’s mission and outreach to people in need in and beyond the church doors. Because there is a strong pastoral element to this ministry, we might look among Authorised Pastoral Assistants for leadership qualities and potential diaconal vocations and, because of the strong mission impetus on the edges of society, we might look among people who are active in mission providing for people in need through foodbanks, centres for with the homeless, single parents, the lonely elderly, or out on the streets among partygoers on Saturday nights.

Having identified these people, their training and formation needs some particular diaconal emphases. I know from experience that there is already too much to fit in so something has to give. Maybe we can ask what all ordained people need and thus is the core of training for all ordained ministry, what priests need but perhaps not deacons, and what deacons need but perhaps not priests.

For starters, all deacons need to be formed as ordained ministers in the church tradition of which they are a member so need to understand its ecclesiology and theology of ordination. If they are to seek nourishment from the scriptures and study them with God’s people and if they are to know and speak of God, then they need basic grounding in biblical studies and theology. Deacons accompanying people searching for faith and out on boundaries and in the forgotten corners of God’s world will be asked hard questions about God, the bible and life so training must equip them to answer them well. But if deacons work with priests who can act as theological resources for them and if teaching is not central to their calling, while they certainly need training in preaching, I wonder if they need all the biblical and theological training that we rightly expect of future priests and Readers.

Deacons who are agents of God’s love and sharing in pastoral ministry need to be thoroughly grounded in pastoral skills and, having discovered the excellent Salisbury training course for Lay Pastoral Assistants, I suggested to that diocese that all deacons – including the transitional ones – should complete it because it is superior to anything we provided when I trained ordinands there. This could be a pre-requisite for beginning training, perhaps filling the gap while people wait for a BAP (selection conference) or between selection and beginning training, or it could be built into the initial training. It would also be helpful to help deacons to work closely and effectively with statutory and voluntary agencies, so that they understand the language and processes of other organisations. Learning from the Nordic Churches, some of which require diaconal ordinands to train in social work or a near equivalent with secular authorities, a short additional placement for distinctive deacons perhaps with Social Services, the Probation Service or at a drug and alcohol rehab unit could be very beneficial and is something priests would not have. Deacons could also be trained to facilitate the pastoral ministry of lay people – that is one thing that distinguishes their ordained ministry from that of Lay Pastoral Assistants.

If deacons are enables of mission on the margins, then they must understand and think theologically about mission and evangelism as well as learn its skills. Given their incarnational ministry serving the community in which they are set, they must be able to read their contexts: the church, the neighbourhood, and think sociologically and theologically about them. Maybe the Church Army can help here? Work with children and young people, both the nurture of church children and evangelism among the unchurched to help them cross the threshold into church, can be part of diaconal ministry. Deacons can be great holiday club leaders as well as youth group workers in an out of the church. Ethical issues that will be encountered out on the forgotten margins need to be understood from a theological perspective, so training is needed in personal and medical ethics and the increasingly important ethical issues surrounding our stewardship of God’s creation. With the increasing number of refugees and asylum seekers seeking shelter in this country, this could be a growing arena for diaconal ministry and deacons need not only to be able to provide the practical support but should be equipped to speak truth to power at times.

Throwing out more ideas for reaction, deacons who share in leading worship and bring the needs of the world to the church in intercession need a good grounding in liturgy but, once that is in place, a thorough grasp of pastoral liturgy might be more helpful than an intensive knowledge of liturgical history. Similarly, while a good sense of the history of the church through the ages is needed if we are to understand ourselves in the bigger picture, do deacons need the depth of historical knowledge that we rightly expect of priests?

Putting these things together, I hope that some time can be freed up to enable focus on what is distinctively diaconal.

I could go on but hope I’ve prompted some reaction. I go back to the five marks of mission which frame the ministry of the church. In case you have forgotten, they are:

To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom

To teach, baptise and nurture new believers

To respond to human need by loving service

To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation

To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

Deacons have a part to play in all of these and we are responsible for training them to fulfil their role. But to help us to fit the quart of ideals into the pint pot of what is realistic in the time available, maybe our basic questions are

  • how and where deacons will be working
  • Who their colleagues will be and what specific skills these people will bring which deacons do not need to have.
  • What only deacons will bring to the ministry team and thus others rely on them to have and we need to find a way to provide.

Then we can begin by asking what is basic and foundational to all ministries, what is good and lovely but not essential for deacons if they are working with others who do have that knowledge or skill, and what others will need deacons to bring to the shared ministry that they might not be so equipped to provide. If we can disentangle what is needed, how we provide it is, of course, the next question. But I will stop here.


Rosalind Brown

May 2016