DEACONS INTERRUPTED: Deacons in Discussion with Al Barrett and Ruth Harley

I’m delighted to say that we are offering DEACONS INTERRUPTED, an autumn zoom for distinctive deacons – and anyone interested – to discuss the diaconal elements of Al Barrett’s and Ruth Harley’s best-selling book, Being Interrupted.  This book is making waves this year, and is a radical look at how we do mission.  It’s a long time since I was so excited by a book ! – because so much of it turns out to be diaconal.

This zoom is the start of what we hope will be a series of ‘Deacons in Discussion’, and is free.  Please find further details here and book in:  https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/deacons-interrupted-for-distinctive-deacons-and-anyone-interested-tickets-178650738167

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An Eastertide sermon from Deacon Jess Foster.

Readings:  Acts 2.14a,22-32


John 20.19-31

At this very strange and bewildering time we may be able to identify with the disciples in a new way. We too are locked away in fear, many of us are grieving the loss of a loved one or we may be facing uncertainty about our own future following this unexpected disruption of what was our ‘normal’ life.

Rumours are circulating that Jesus is risen but no-one quite knows what to believe. Its hard to believe the best, to hold on to hope when we know the worst has already happened. As people talk about the world being changed dramatically for the better, and a new more compassionate society emerging post covid-19 I find myself identifying strongly with doubting Thomas. Let me see it and then I will believe it. I fear things may go back to normal – and nurses will remain underpaid while footballers continue to earn massive salaries. I am yet to be convinced that we will remember how connected we are, how much our wellbeing is tied up with our neighbour or that we have been kept alive by the immigrants so often blamed for taking our jobs and scrounging from our welfare state.

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(image from Sharefaith)

But I want to believe it and I want to continue to speak of resurrection hope and the values of the Kingdom of God, love joy, peace, kindness and justice.

So how do we stay hopeful in these strange times and how do we really believe, in our hearts and souls, in resurrection life for ourselves and for those for whom we are grieving. I think the Acts passage gives us some very helpful clues.

Peter draws from the tradition of the people around him. David is a revered and respected figure. He takes his words, which seemed at the time not to make sense, and shows that he is speaking a truth that is being enacted now. There are many voices we can listen to but by rooting ourselves in the words of prophets from Biblical times to contemporary times and from the times between we can build up our confidence and hope. Listening to the words of people who knew what it was to suffer, to live close to God, to trust and to pray helps us discern what is helpful, realistic, hopeful kingdom thinking and what is pie-in-the-sky fluffy nonsense that will ultimately leave us disappointed. We know the authenticity of the prophetic voice when we hear it and when we look for it – whether we hear it expressed in art, music, literature or theology.

We also build our hope by expressing our hope. We all have testimonies like Peter’s of our meetings with the risen Lord. The moments when being a follower of Jesus has made a real difference to our lives. The times when we have met with God in the deepest sorrow, despair, isolation or grief. The strange co-incidences when we have heard exactly what we needed to hear through a friend or stranger, when a loving touch or a warm gaze have lifted our spirits at the moment we most needed it. This story is another story of Immanuel – God with us. Entering the upper room, sharing our wounded humanity, speaking words of peace.

I am not suggesting we all go and bash our neighbour’s over the head with a bible or force religion down our family’s throats. But I am suggesting that this is a time to offer our stories – our stories of hope, comfort and presence to a lonely, scared and hurting world.


From Deacon Jess Foster’s blog

A sermon based on the reading set for the first Sunday of Lent. Matthew 4 1-11

A cultural desert, I feel deserted, the desert is barren, it’s a wilderness out there. I like words and I enjoy thinking about what words we put together and what words sound like each other. We don’t have many positive associations with either of the words desert or wilderness. But I love the desert.

People often ask me why I travel to the Holy Lands so often, there are a number of noble answers I can give you but one of the most truthful is that I love the landscape,  the desert landscape that surrounds the towns and villages of the Bible. The space, the emptiness, the quiet and the broad horizons bring me peace. The stony ground, the dryness and the sharp edges probably reflect my heart and soul! Last summer I spent four days on a desert retreat in the Negev, it was a time of restoration and healing. A time to see the greatness of God in nature, the splendour of creation revealed in stars, oasis, the dramatic edges of rock formations – including one known as Lot’s wife, and freedom from the constant demands of having mobile data or wifi.

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(image from The Dead Sea)

The Irish poet and theologian Padraig O’Tuama claims there is a recurring question Jesus asks his disciples and continue to ask us running throughout the Gospels: will you choose life in the wilderness or death in the city?

This may seem counter-intuitive. We visualise the desert as a place of death and it certainly is a place of danger. Even when I was there I had the odd moment when it felt unsafe – one evening I was happily sipping my Earl Grey tea and gazing at the sky when I was urged to stand up immediately and shake my clothes – a guide had seen a scorpion run over my mat. He was always keen to make sure there was fire burning wherever we stopped – not for warmth but for safety.

We know there is not much to eat in the desert and in the summer water is certainly in short supply. It’s an isolated place and far removed from the healthcare, supermarkets, policing and infrastructure that we believe keep us safe in the city.

But the city as I think Padraig understood it has too many temptations for our souls to stay alive. We are forced to conform to stay successful, our focus becomes limited to our success in terms of wealth and status, we are disconnected from the land and creation, we are limited by walls either literally or metaphorically and we are subject to the power of institutions and lawmakers. Without time in the wilderness we do not have the strength to live as children of God, our distinctiveness is eroded and our stories overwhelmed.

In the desert we are driven to hear a different story. We become acutely aware of our internal drivers. Our physical needs – that might tempt us to turn bread into stones, our  emotional need for connection, security and specialness, that might tempt us to test God and our psychological need for power, recognition and validation – that might tempt us to seek the adoration and worship of others. Jesus can resist these temptations because he knows the stories of the people of God, the people who wandered in the desert for 40 years, being formed, tested and refined. His imagination was shaped by the story of a God who sets people free, who guides, who comforts and provides.

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(image The Bible TV series)

The writer Ben Okri says: ‘Stories are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories individuals and nations live by and tell themselves and you change the individuals and nations.’  For me an important Lenten discipline is to listen to the stories I tell, the stories I hear, the stories I repeat and see if they are reflecting the values I choose to live by. It might also be a time to listen to the stories our nation tells itself and think if there is any small way we can start to change the narrative or begin narratives that challenge the dominant stories.

Lent also seems to me to be a time to rehearse or practice for the times when we really need to exercise our spiritual muscles of discernment, dependency on God, faith and courage. There may be crunch times in our lives when we are called to set aside our physical, emotional and psychological needs to step out into something new and challenging, or stand against the powers of evil manifest in political systems, corporations and institutions. As Jesus approached his death on the cross – he faced again the same temptations as he faced in the desert. He was offered wine to meet his physical need for drink but he refuses it, the men beating Jesus taunted him to prophesy but he refuses to use his divine power for magic tricks; and the passers-by urge him to save himself from the cross but again he refuses, knowing that as tempting as miraculous short-cut might be, it will not serve God’s purposes for the universe.

We never know when we might be asked to risk our own comfort in order to confront evil or stand up for the oppressed. We know that is what saints do and we know it is a part of our discipleship but unless we have rehearsed in the desert, in solitude and prayer, we will not know how to respond and we will walk away or miss the moment – joining the crowds and townspeople in unthinking conformity and apathy.

When we pray the prayer Jesus taught us we ask not to be led into temptation and to be delivered from evil. You are delivered from something not by avoiding it but by going through it – think of childbirth. We are led into temptation when we fail to realise that we are prioritising our own comfort, avoiding risk, taking shortcuts for our own benefit and thus becoming tangled in the demands, priorities and values of the town. We can only see that in the wilderness. The wilderness of silence, of solitude, or self-awareness. The wilderness where we eat the bread and drink the wine that nourishes our soul and reminds us of lives that are broken and poured out for others. The wilderness where we deliberately tame our need for constant attention, consumption and security to experience what it means to be dependent on God.

Some of us this lent will be in a wilderness, not because we have chosen it but because that is where life has led us. Some us are creating our own space to see ourselves more clearly as we practice Lenten disciplines. However you get there, my prayer for you is that you find God there as you have time and space to see yourself with fresh eyes, to hear the stories of God’s love for God’s people and to prepare yourself to discern God’s call to you to dance with the Holy Spirit in the broken, forgotten and exploited corners of the world.


Thanks to Deacon Jess for making this available to us


Deacon Jess Foster reflects on a land and peoples she is coming to know and love.

Bethlehem skyline from Church of the Nativity

                      Image from Daniel Case 

I bet nearly everyone reading this blog has heard this Christmas staple in the past few weeks. I wonder how you responded to it?  Does it jar, inspire or are you numbed by familiarity? Does it occur to you that Bethlehem is a real place, a place in the midst of conflict, the home to thousands of people who share your dreams, your hopes and your passions.

If you have spent any time at all there, you will know it’s rarely still. Traffic is a major problem for the city’s residents as they are unable to build by-passes, tunnels or flyovers and the roads in the town are choked and congested. The Church of the Nativity often looks like a traffic jam too – as tourists stand nose to tail in hour long queues to visit the grotto. There are sounds of life too – busy markets, children in schools, coffee shop chatter and the buzz of friendships gathered round sheesha pipes in the bars and restaurants across the city.

Sometimes there are other noises in the night, the noises of tanks rumbling into refugee camps, shouting as an arrest is made, the heart-stopping sound of weaponry which might be followed moments later by the haunting call to prayer that wends its way over the hills and valleys of this holy place.

When I first visited the Holy Lands I felt as if I had woken up in the land of Cinderella, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel. Walking past a signpost that simply says Sion on it makes me shake my head in disbelief – the concrete reality of biblical mythology is a faith transforming phenomena for many. But I no longer visit these lands to walk in Jesus’s footsteps – I now visit to walk with people who live as Jesus lived.

Back home in Birmingham much of my work revolves around interfaith social action and it is often cited that the ‘Golden Rule’ is found in all the world’s major religions – the rule to love your neighbour as yourself.

But in the Holy Lands of Israel-Palestine so many people I meet have gone beyond this baseline and challenged themselves to love their enemy – in the midst of conflict, fear, oppression and injustice.

Christians, Muslims, Jews, Druze and people of no explicit faith have followed their calling and allowed themselves to be broken open to love the other in small ways and large ways. Some Palestinians can’t meet people who live in Israel, but they work to prevent the spread of violence and despair by empowering women, giving young people ways to articulate their pain or by investing in training and development for those trapped in poverty.

Jewish people and Palestinians together run programmes to help both peoples confront and heal trauma, bereaved parents meet across borders to seek comfort, solace and reconciliation in their loss and former soldiers join forces to wage peace.

Living in an occupied land is not easy. Water is rationed, this month there have been power cuts across the West Bank, movement is limited, violence can and does flare up; everyday there are many injustices and restrictions to navigate.

But so many people refuse to hate, they refuse to teach their children to hate and their lives speak instead of compassion, hospitality and generosity.

These people are human and sometimes I do hear a complaint – not aimed at the Israelis, or their own Government, or at Donald Trump but at us, the Church and particularly the church in the West.

Why have we forgotten the Palestinians? Why are we not in solidarity? Why do so many Christians support the Occupation and ignore the presence of Christians in the Holy Lands. One Christian leader suggested it was because we in the West have hardly any concept of Kingdom and thus of kinship. Our faith has become reduced to a ticket to the Good Place, our discipleship to a matter of personal morality and convention.

Perhaps another reason is our guilt. The Christian roots of anti-Semitism and our collusion with the holocaust is truly shameful part of our history and practice. How many people have recently  sang Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending  and in particular the words:

‘Those who set at nought and sold him, Pierced and nailed him to the tree, deeply wailing, shall their true messiah see’?

Are we really longing to bring Jewish people to a place of wailing and do we still want to perpetuate the accusation of deicide that has caused such harm over two thousand years? We cannot deny that our ill treatment of Jewish people over millennia has had deadly consequences and therefore shouldn’t we recognise and support the establishment of a Jewish state as a place of sanctuary?

But I believe this is not a zero-sum game. Being for one thing does not mean being against another. Jesus teaches us that. He loved all who crossed his path, he healed the sick child of an occupying soldier, he bantered at the well with a Samaritan woman and went to tea with a tax collector. But he was still passionate about justice, freedom and kindness.

I have friends in both Israel and Palestine – Christians, Muslims and Jews. I hope there is room for me to be passionate about equal rights for everyone in the land. I hope there is space to grieve at the pain of generations slaughtered by Nazi ideology and to hear the hurt of a Palestinian family who lost their home, livelihood and father in the Nakba of 1948.

I don’t go to the Holy Lands to ‘do’ anything special. There are enough peace-making experts, theologians and reconcilers there already. I go to listen and learn. I take others to listen and learn. I go because the people there have become my friends and I want to be in solidarity with them as they live lives that speak of Jesus. I go too to learn how I might live here, as we become aware of the fragmented and fissured nature of our society. Who needs to be heard? Who needs to grieve? Who is living like Christ with a heart broken open with love for the ‘other’ refusing polarities, binaries and the comfort blankets of self-justification, blame and scapegoating? How do we see what God is doing through ordinary people and join in, in Birmingham, in Bethlehem  or wherever God sends us.

If anyone is interested in visiting the Holy Lands please contact me at jess@nearneighbours.com.

See Jess’s blog here:  https://distinctivedeacon.blog/


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.



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From early 2017 to mid 2018, the diaconate steering group for Deacon Jessica Foster (comprising Paula Gooder [chair]; Martin Stephenson; Richard Sudworth and Jessica Foster*] met together to reflect on Jessica’s vocation as a deacon.  Inevitably the group wanted to do this particular reflection in the light and context of a wider reflection on the nature of the diaconate both historically and in the Church of England today.

This document represents the work of this group.  It begins with a reflection by Jessica on her vocation as a deacon and how this has developed during her time as a curate.  The second (much longer) section consists of the documents written to stimulate the group’s thinking around the diaconate past and present.  The final section sketches out a vision for the future and how diaconal ministry might be supported more widely across the diocese.

We hope that it will stimulate conversation and reflection on the role of the permanent diaconate in CofE Birmingham, as the diocese seeks new patterns of ministry in the months and years ahead.

*Dr Paula Gooder, theologian, Lay Reader and New Testament specialist

Rev Deacon Jessica Foster, curate, St Peter’s Church, Hall Green, Birmingham

Rev Canon Martin Stephenson, vicar of St Peter’s Church, Hall Green and  Jess’s training incumbent

Rev Dr Richard Sudworth, honorary Research Fellow on Christian-Muslim relations at Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham and vicar of Sparkbrook.

May 2018

Deacons and CofE Birmingham Final-1

A reflection on experience, explorations of the diaconate past and present, and a vision for the future

Your editor would be most interested in your responses to this document. Please use the comments, or send an email to deacons@tutanota.com


(image from Possibility Coaches)

THE SUBJECTIVENESS OF SEEING: Deacon Jess reflects on a multi-faith visit to Israel-Palestine

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Walking along the canal today I passed a man who was intent on taking a photo. He stood for quite some time focussing and refocussing a professional looking camera, gazing at a spot over the water. After passing him I glanced back to try and understand what had caught his eye – but I could see nothing – just a bleak tree backed by a sixties tower.

This moment reminded me of the reflections we had yesterday, one month after our visit to Israel-Palestine as a group of Christian, Muslim and Jewish friends. The Israeli organisation which led the group is called ADAShA which means lens in Hebrew and Arabic.  They accompanied us with great expertise, giving us multi-faceted perspectives, helping us to understand nuance and complexity, stretching our understanding and challenging our preconceptions.

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As we met yesterday one of our local group leaders commented that to some extent we had seen what we wished to see. I wanted to disagree and say what we saw are the facts on the ground, they are indisputable. But the conversation continued reminding me that on our first day in Jerusalem I had said I was unnerved by the predominance of guns because they spoke to me of violence and oppression. Other people saw guns and felt grateful for safety and security. For others who had lived abroad they were simply normal. The diversity of the group and leading and guiding of Adasha worked to move us on from our preconceptions and give us new understandings and new insights.

When I was a teenager, one of the few convincing things I heard about repentance – that was much more palatable than the no drinking, no smoking, no dating interpretation – was the idea that repentance means having new eyes, new lenses – it is a whole new way seeing.

I have been to Israel-Palestine four times and looked with four different perspectives at the situation there but I still carry fixed ideas, prejudices and judgements.

If there is anything I am learning over the last few months it seems to be one simple thing. It is probably something some people don’t need to learn or others learnt ages ago – that simple thing is that it is not important to be right.

In Scriptural Reasoning this evening we looked at King Hezekiah and his healing. He is described as man ‘who has walked before you (God) in truth and with a perfect heart and have done that which is good in your sight.’  Not a bad epitaph. To me a truthful character seems quite different from being right.

Right is about facts, truth is about virtue; right is about competition, truth is about an honest humility; right makes demands and will not necessarily bring peace, truth seeks to look beyond one’s own experience and limited knowlege; right is often knee-jerk, truth is the long slow gaze that focuses and refocuses the lens.

I know there is far more truth to learn in Israel-Palestine than can be learnt in four short visits and some of that truth will conflict. I know repentance is ongoing and my lenses need constant changing, cleaning and refining. So thank you to all of you who have broadened my vision, helped to challenge my prejudices and thanks to the man with a camera who has reminded me that truth needs a slow, thoughtful gaze, accurate focussing and the ability to see beauty where others see nothing.


Deacon Jess Foster muses on bread-making as a creative response to church decline, religious difference and community cohesion.

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Bread Church was prompted by a conversation in which someone outside the church mentioned to our vicar (a fantastic baker) how much she would like to make bread. It was not started to meet our need for church growth or to bring in young people – although it is growing and young people come and enjoy it. It came about because the church was already turned outwards and engaging with neighbours from different faiths. Instead of asking what do we want, the church asked what would you like to do. Instead of worrying about what we need as church to survive, the church responded to the request from a neighbour.

Read the full post here:  https://distinctivedeacon.blog/2017/11/02/middle-ground-and-sin-or-why-i-love-bread-church/#comments

Image from Manor House Stables