RC Deacon Ed Channing, the speaker for our inspirational Deacons’ Day of Reflection, also offers his ‘take’ on this teaching document from Pope Francis.  Relevant to all ministers, whatever denomination, whatever ministry!

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Rev Deacon Ed Channing

I want to mention the teaching document “The Joy of the Gospel” of Pope Francis. Francis really understands the servant church and the pilgrim church, and everything he says applies to our diaconal ministry. One section is on temptations affecting pastoral ministers. (You can download the whole thing free from the Holy See’s website https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html#II.%E2%80%82Temptations_faced_by_pastoral_workers ).

I want just to summarise what he says about this. They are factors which may limit or harm us and our ministry.

  1. We need to be cared for spiritually ourselves. We must have regular personal prayer, regular spiritual direction and regular retreats. We must reflect on how our ministerial work impacts on our family life. Often we claim to be too busy, but what we have not received we cannot give to others.
  2. Inordinate concern for personal freedom and individualism, making ministry a mere appendage to life not its centre. Do we believe what we read in the gospels, do we teach the whole of what we believe, do we live what we teach?
  3. Sloth and selfishness. We are NOT part-time ministers.  Our ministry is not one thing among many others. It is not a profession but is a mission.   Do I really find every circumstance of my life being adapted to ministry, or is it the other way round?
  4. Am I a defeatist in the face of the church’s manifold modern difficulties, or do I believe that everything, even the negatives around, are in God’s hands and He can and will use them for good?
  5. Wrong relationships. Ministry is Trinitarian, all to do with good relationships, loving God and neighbour, cooperating together. The social aspects of the Gospel must be lived. Do I do it all my way, on my own? Do I really engage and share with others, really seeing and referencing the other?  Do I, deep down, believe I can do it all better on my own?
  6. Self-absorption. Ritualism, or anti-ritualism.  Insisting on rules interpreted all my own way, looking down on people not living by my rules.  A kind of evil disguised as good. Favouring Church as institution over church as incarnate crucified Christ.  Elitism.  Do we preserve church traditions at the expense of refusing to “put out into the deep”?  Not going out to seek out those looking for meaning in their lives whatever the words they use?
  7. Warring among ourselves…between denominations, within our communities, between lay and ordained, priests and deacons. Do we reach out to those from whom we differ?
  8. Not having a preferential option for the outsiders and the poor. Especially today, as clergy do we put down the laity? Do we truly reverence women’s ministry and leadership? Are we actively including the young and families? LGBT people? migrants? different races? in our ministries?

Can I point to anything which is relevant to me?

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This is the second talk given by Roman Catholic Deacon Ed Channing at the annual Deacons’ Day of Reflection in Exeter diocese recently.

The praying heart of the deacon

Between altar and marketplace

Rev Deacon Ed Channing

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I want to talk about public and liturgical prayer. This is the ministry of sanctification, or of the altar, which is our expression in the Church of the priestly office of Christ.

Some people have a problem with liturgy. It perhaps seems too inward or disconnected from mission and outreach, but to me the public prayer of the Church is what underpins and gives a unity to the life of the deacon. For my own part I find my understanding of who I am when I am praying the deacon’s liturgy. It is like Moses, “turning aside to the lit bush” (from RS Thomas’ poem, The Bright Field) from the work of the shepherd to the holy ground, where God reveals his name and commissions Moses to go and rescue the enslaved people.

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Catholics call the Eucharist the source (spring of living water) and summit (mountain top of encounter with God) of the Christian life. Of course the Christian life itself is what is lived between one Sunday Eucharist and the next. We are called to worship, to be the praying Church so that we can be converted, fed, become one body, and be sent back to the market place to live among the poor as disciples of the Lord. And the deacon has specific parts to play in this.

“The dynamics of the Eucharist go beyond the boundaries of the Eucharistic Assembly to serve the community at large. It is not an escape into an inner realm of prayer, a pious turning away from social realities. Rather it CALLS and SENDS the faithful to celebrate the sacrament of the brother outside the temple in the public market place, where the cries of the poor and marginalised are heard.”

“The sacrifice of the Eucharist must be extended in personal sacrifices for the people in need, the brothers for whom Christ died.  We are gathered for worship and scattered for everyday life.  The Eucharistic liturgy is continued with diakonia, apostolic mission, visible and public Christian witness.”  (The Liturgy after the Liturgy 1996 Ian Bria WCC publications Geneva)

We enter carrying the Gospel book, which was given to us at ordination. It can prove very heavy indeed. It is precisely because we are the icon of Christ the servant that we do this. It is a sacred symbol of the risen Christ among the people.  Our life since the last Mass must have been truly diaconal, truly a proclamation of the living Word if we are to bring among the people the symbol of the Word. We will have to proclaim the Gospel and maybe break the word, like bread, in preaching, which must first have been done in service, in faith, in prayer if it is to prove effective in the liturgy. Unsurprisingly we need to ask a blessing beforehand.  In my tradition we kiss the book after the proclamation, praying fervently that this may not be a Judas kiss. At the proclamation we quietly pray, “May the words of the Gospel wash away OUR sins”.  This seems to me a private prayer, that my life and ministry won’t be such as to rob the gospel of its effects on the assembled people.

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There is a world of prayer in our actions.

The deacon sits by the presider’s chair, prepared to see everyone and everything, to help everyone to do what they are to do, and to fill in for anyone absent, and with no powers of our own. It is a symbol of the incarnation of Christ, coming among us powerless and poor, precisely to see the outcasts, to reconcile the lost, and to exercise only the power of service.

Later we may propose the intentions of the prayer of the faithful (bidding prayer), but only because as the icon and minister of service we more than anyone SHOULD know what needs praying for in the community’s life.  What if we don’t?

Then we stand silent, doing nothing at the altar for the Eucharistic liturgy, powerless, present, ready to serve in any way, any person who needs serving.

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In the Catholic liturgy we mix water with wine in the eucharistic cup with the quiet prayer “by the mystery of this water with wine may we come to share the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” The wine of Christ, the water of ourselves:  the deacon empowers this interchange.  We are to see ourselves in the cup, and to find ways to encourage all to make of their entire life a living sacrifice also. We have to know what the people have brought forward under the symbols of wine and water and money…their whole life, everything given back to the Giver. Our life has to be such as to make that sacrifice a reality.

Traditionally it is the deacon who offers the cup, the blood of life poured out to the other members of Christ’s body the Church. Only if our life shows the truth of a sacrificially-offered life of service is that gesture powerful and transforming.  We offer it with the words “The blood of Christ” meaning this is, and you and I are the blood, the life of God and man poured out in self emptying sacrifice … we must be known as people for whom this is a daily truth.  The deacon makes the invitation to all to offer one another a sign of peace. We must incarnate the peace offered by the risen Christ for this to be appropriate.  Finally we send out the people to the altar of our brother, the service of the poor. The Latin words “Ite, missa est” of the dismissal actually means something like Get out now! You are sent to get on with it! (and me too!)  We go to the poor not simply to help them, but more deeply also to learn from them, for they are the incarnation of the suffering Christ.

And, beautifully, our ministry accompanies the birth in baptism of disciples of Christ, and their return to their Lord at their funerals. In these moments it is vital that we see the person as Christ sees them, and reverence them as Christ himself. It is a life of prayer, a life with Christ, which may make this a reality in overworked, over-busy, stressed and sinful people as we are.

Once a year at the great vigil of Easter the deacon carries into a darkened church of Christ’s tomb the single light of the paschal candle, and proclaims “the light of Christ.”

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The deacon’s single lamp illuminates the building, but our ministry is to share the light with all. We need to be people who can enter the tomb in faith, enter the darkness with faith that the light of Christ shines everywhere. In the Exultet we then welcome and proclaim the resurrection in which heaven is wedded to earth. We have to be able to see the signs of the risen life even among us now. We announce “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam that won for us so great a redeemer.” This suggests that the deacon above all people must be prepared to find Christ everywhere among men and women in this sinful world: that we must turn away from no-one, find Christ in the most different, the least pious, and carry Christ also to every corner of the world where as Psalm 139 says “even darkness is not dark to you.” There are no limits to whose feet we are called upon to wash.


(Images in reverse order from western new york catholic, iz quotes, liturgy nz, cafe church Leeds, pinterest)


This year Exeter deacons and diaconal enquirers met at Buckfast Abbey for our annual day of reflection.

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Our theme for the day was ‘The Praying Heart of the Deacon’. It was a very blessed time, not only because of our beautiful surroundings, but also because of the wisdom and grace that RC Deacon Ed Channing shared with us in his talks.  We’re always enriched by our speakers, but I particularly wanted a deacon to address us this year, because nobody can speak to a deacon’s heart as another deacon can.  Ed is from the RC diocese of Plymouth, where he is a spiritual director.  He has kindly given me permission to share his talks with you.  Take time to read and savour them.

Deacon Ed




The Praying Heart of the Deacon 26 May 2018

Speaker:  Rev Deacon Ed Channing, RC diocese of Plymouth

Called and empowered to serve:  Talk one

Somewhere out there exists an ideal deacon, a platonic idea. That deacon lives in the pages of prayer books, canon laws, scripture, liturgies.  I have yet to meet the person who totally fits this ideal, It’s certainly not me.  But there is something beautiful in it, a call and an inner response, a desire, which comes to me from those words about him or her, that ideal deacon and which I do recognise. It’s something which illuminates patchily who I am, as a deacon. So I will engage with this ideal deacon before sharing the real one with you!  The title of this day is “The praying heart of the deacon.” This does suggest that we have a shape, with a centre or heart, and that prayer is of the essence of it. But we are all different, unique, first-born beloved children of the Father, delighted in as we are. Holy Wisdom, the Christ, delights to be with us,” always at play with the children of men” as we hear in Proverbs 8. For each one of us, our prayer will also be our unique, different response to the living Spirit of love. Everything we do is really, or could be, ceaseless prayer: “rejoice always, pray without ceasing.” 1 Thess 5:16 …this is the will of God in Christ Jesus in you. Our prayer is the work of God, in Christ, in our hearts before it is our activity. God is always there first. Christ is “the ground of our beseeching” as Julian of Norwich wrote 600 years ago. We can only pray because the Spirit of Christ already prays in us to the Father. Our life as baptised disciples is really His life. “I am crucified with Christ and yet I live, or rather it is Christ lives in me.!” Gal 2:20

We can pray as deacons because Christ calls us to this life and mission, for which he has made us, from before time began. And also because the Church recognises and affirms that particular call. There is a common dimension to our prayer because of that Ecclesial dimension of our call. We are not exactly our own men or women. We belong to Christ in the Church.  Jesus Emmanuel, God become incarnate, is sometimes called the sacrament of God … He shows and makes present among people the eternal God.  The Church, in turn, is the sacrament of Christ, for by her words and deeds, prayer, proclamation and service she makes Christ present and available in the human world. The sacrament of the diaconate is to make visible among people the servant Christ.

The Sacrament of Orders is a special gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, which is the royal priesthood of the faithful, Christ’s body. “To serve this royal priesthood God has given a variety of ministries. Deacons are ordained so that the people of God may be better equipped to make Christ known. Theirs is a life of visible self-giving. Christ is the pattern of their calling and their commission. As He washed the feet of his disciples, so must they wash the feet of others.”  Those words from the Common Worship ordinal of my tradition are the nub of the particular spirituality of deacons. You and I are given by God, to the royal priesthood of God’s people, to serve them, in visible self-giving, washing their sore and dirty feet, and so helping them to make Christ known where they are. We belong to God, we belong to each other, we belong to the whole people of God. Our spirituality will be most clearly shown in how our relationships as deacons, as clergy, as Christians, mirror and make present the love of Christ.  The whole Christian life is summed up by the Lord as love of God and of neighbour, and it is love as shown by Christ, self-forgetting love.

From NT times the Church has recognised this call of Christ to servanthood in women such as Phoebe in Romans, and in the deacons described in 1 Timothy; people who are respectable, not double-tongued, moderate in drinking and  not greedy for money, who hold the mystery of faith with a clear conscience, not prone to gossip and able to manage their affairs and duties well.  And following Phil.2 the Church has tried to discern the call of Christ in people who will be moved by Christ’s love and fellowship, full of warmth and sympathy , of a single mind, one in love, one in mind who make their own the mind of Christ Jesus, who though in the form of God emptied himself taking the form of a slave, becoming in every way human, and humbler yet, even to accepting death on a cross.

You are the people the Church has discerned as exhibiting these dispositions of Christ.   You are the people called and empowered to wash the feet of the poor, by accepting the new commandment of love given by Christ at the Last Supper table.  You are the people described by the psalmist as having your eyes fixed on the hand of the Lord like a slave on the hand of master or mistress, and you are the people who are called to recognise the hand of the Lord when you touch the hand of any of the least of His brethren, and by serving them, serve Him.

Deacons see ourselves as successors to the Levites who served the liturgy in the tent of meeting, of the first covenant, but also needing to beware of a tendency of liturgical ministers to walk by on the other side, as did the priest and Levite in Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan.  So we need also to be the Samaritan outsider who sees and helps the wounded.  We look back, also, to the Seven commissioned by the apostles to deal with community dissension and ensure justice in the distribution of goods to the widows of the different communities. Notice how differently they actually turn out, since the Holy Spirit is involved.  Stephen the protomartyr who died as Jesus had died in forgiveness of his executioners, helping to convert Saul to Paul by that.  Philip who converted to and baptised in Christ the Ethiopian eunuch, and who evangelised new communities. We should gain vision and strength from the examples of the deacons before us.  Deacon Athanasius, theologian;  deacon Gregory who still in deacon’s orders was elected Pope and who, as Gregory the Great, evangelised this country by sending Augustine to us. And deacon Francis of Assisi who shows us how to re-build Christ’s church in poverty and respect for creation.

And we may be inspired by the Roman deacon Lawrence, who, when commanded to surrender the riches of the Church, brought the poor and the lame to the magistrate as the true riches of the Church, earning himself his martyrdom. And who was distressed because he had to wait a few days rather than being martyred WITH his Bishop, Pope Sixtus. (We should be bishop’s people, the heart, hands and eyes and ears of the bishop, even now.)

Traditionally deacons divide their ministry into three areas, which are three aspects of the mystery of the ministry of Christ himself. The ministry of the Word, the ministry of the altar and the ministry of Charity. These correspond to, and make present in the world, the prophetic, priestly and ruling offices of Christ. I will reflect more on the second of these in the next talk.

The ministry of the Word is about making the Word of God your own, by continually internalising it in prayer, so that what we do can be seen by all to issue from the Word.  “You proclaim the gospel in word and deed as agents of God’s purposes of love” (Ordinal). It is in the scriptures that we meet Christ first. We need to be people who pray the scriptures. Unless we have met Christ in the pages of scripture in our prayer we won’t be able to proclaim his presence to others.  Ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ (St Jerome).  We do need to study scripture, and commentaries, but even more so we need to meet Christ for ourself in praying scripture. The model for this is the 2 disciples on the road to Emmaus who felt their hearts burning within them as the stranger who was Christ explained everything in the scriptures which was about himself. They were converted from depressed apathy to having burning hearts and boundless energy by hearing Christ in the scriptures. So are we! In particular, I think, the Gospel narratives of Christ are the privileged place of encounter. All the sick, disfigured, deaf, blind, lame, mad and even dead people Jesus meets are substitutes for ourselves. If we enter into their meetings with Christ, we will be transformed just as they were.  As disciples of Christ we walk alongside the apostles who were first called by him. We are no better than they. Especially in Mark we find them totally failing to get the point time after time, as do we. In Mark 10 Jesus is trying to tell them of his coming crucifixion, and all they can do is argue about their own seats at his right hand. As professional disciples we are likely, too, to find ourselves ruefully with the rich young man who so wanted to follow, but who couldn’t give up his own stuff, to truly make Jesus the centre.

But in praying with Christ in the scriptures we may find ourselves with Peter too, whose despair at his cockcrow betrayals was obliterated by Christ’s three fold question “Do you love me” and who was given the care of Christ’s flock as a result. We may find ourselves with Thomas, who was so distraught and angry that he wasn’t even with the others on the morning of the resurrection when Christ brought them his greeting of peace, but then a week later found his angry refusal to believe transformed into his acclamation “My Lord and my God” on seeing Jesus’ wounds .

I believe that this repeated encounter with Jesus in praying the scriptures is what enlivens our preaching with the power of the Spirit, in a way no amount of academic study could begin to do.

The ministry of charity, of love, is the sacrament of the presence of Christ in us accompanying human need. “Deacons are to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the Church the needs and hopes of all people. They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, so that the love of God may be made visible.” (Ordinal) And the famous opening words to the 2nd Vatican Council on the Church in the modern world apply especially to deacons. “The joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the people of this age, especially of the poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed nothing truly human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”

Pope Francis has said he wants a church dirty and hurting with those who are dirty and hurting. A church which is like a field hospital bringing healing right in the middle of battle. He wants a church where everything, all our settled habits, timetables, priorities can be overturned in turning from being self satisfied, comfortable and respectable to being with and for those on the margins. It is the deacons who are supposed to be the shock troops of this revolution. We are to be the self-emptying service of Christ sacramentalised. We have been described as living icons of Christ the servant. The point is that our spirituality is to be co-operative, Trinitarian, with and for others. Icons are written in an authorised way, but each one is unique. They are made in fasting and prayer, they are received and blessed by a Bishop, signed with the name, not of themselves but of the mystery which they signify. As Living icons we are placed within our church as windows into the mystery of Christ the servant of all. But that only works if we have truly met Christ. If we have had a personal encounter with him, and if, like the written icon we are formed in prayer and fasting, according to the right pattern, but with our own uniqueness.  And having been received and blessed by the Bishop, everyone should see the sign of Christ, in our way of living, serving and praying.

This is all a very big ask! and for all of us even the approaching of it is possible only as grace, as gift. We are “gloriously imperfect human beings” brought near by God out of love. In our praying we need to ask to be placed with Christ, God’s son, and we need to ask to truly desire to find him in serving the poorest and the most different from us.

To finish this talk I just refer to the giving of the gospel book to the new deacon at ordination by the Bishop. In the Roman rite the book is placed into his hands with the words “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe and practise what you teach.”   It is all gift, all grace! No way can we make ourselves rightly believe, read  teach and live. It is the Spirit’s work of grace.

May we, by this grace, imitate Jesus, God’s Son, who came, not to be served, but to serve, and so one day, come to reign with him in heaven.