DISCERNING VOCATION TO THE DISTINCTIVE DIACONATE: Rebecca Swyer

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.

Terminology

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.

Servant

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.

Prophet

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.

 

Bridge 

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

Angel 

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

Conclusion

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.”


Notes

[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