As deacons we are pretty starved of resources about our vocation and ministry. But there’s good news. Last year there was an international ecumenical conference on the diaconate in Saskatchewan: see report here.
As a follow-up, a book is coming out in August this year with all the talks, to be called ‘The Diaconate in Ecumenical Perspective’, published by Sacristy Press. The speakers were all very experienced leading Episcopal deacons or people who have been involved with diaconal formation for many years. They include our own Canon Rosalind Brown, and English Methodist deacon David Clark.
Lori Stewart and I recently had the opportunity to travel to Regina to attend an ecumenical ‘Anglican – Roman Catholic – Ukrainian Catholic Conference on the Diaconate’. We knew this would be a great opportunity to connect with some of our Anglican colleagues across Canada but also internationally. I had great conversations with Episcopalians from the US, the Scottish Episcopalian Church, British Anglicans, and folks from Halifax to Vancouver.
It was also quite instructive to hear from Catholic deacons, to hear quite different articulations of ‘challenges’ and ‘controversies’ (such as, a transitional diaconate and issues of gender and sexuality in ordered ministry) from the UCC and ACC experience. More positively, I heard of their experience of the sacred continuity between their liturgical function at Mass and their social role in communities. The Catholic Deacon, Frederick Bauerschmidt, spoke of the Deacon as the one who holds care over all orders in the church – in other words, the deacon nurtures the ministry vocation of the priests and the laity.
Two themes I would like to mention relate to diaconal identity and formation and my learnings come primarily from the following Anglicans/Episcopalians: Maylanne Maybee, Phina Borgeson, and Susanne Watson Epting. Both Maylanne and Susanne offered sharp and nuanced assessment of the ‘prophetic’ role of the diaconate, which they grounded in history and theology. But it was the particularly Anglican emphasis on the baptismal vows as the basis of all ministry vocations that really gave me a new lens to see the relationship between different ministries in the church.
For Susanne Watson Epting baptism means that one is already in vocation, and what ministry formation does is facilitate the discernment and development of one particular social and liturgical expression of what is already initiated in baptism.
Maylanne reminded the room that attention to history and tradition is tremendously important, but they’re important because they show that deacons, under the influence of Spirit, respond to the needs of the moment, which means deacons need to be conversant and literate in discourses of the times. Case in point: on a panel discussing ‘Women and the Diaconate’, Maylanne was the only one with honesty and courage to name that embodiment, gender, and sexuality must be more openly discussed in any conversation about ministry leadership and sacramental practice.
Phina led a very practical discussion about formation, adult education, and goal setting – a topic I know students continually wrestle with. I’m sure my notes on this session will translate into useable strategies for CCS. And from Alison Peden of the Scottish Episcopal Church I learned that the formation of deacons is a residential program, much of which is done together with people who are training for the priesthood and with people training for lay ministry. I wondered how different the relationship between the orders of ministry in UCC and ACC would be if all candidates did portions of their formation together!
Of course, it wasn’t just two days of sitting through academic presentations – there were opportunities twice each day to worship together in the custom of each tradition. These were profound times because they also elicited the joys and pains of ecumenical dialogue. We experienced the richness and thoughtfulness of different liturgical styles but people also experienced the pain of exclusion from sacrament and full leadership participation based on historic ecclesial differences. What struck me, in room full of deacons and a couple bishops, was the visible expression of sadness from the people unable to receive communion and from the people unable to offer communion to their Christian neighbours. If I had to write a spiral reflection assignment I would reflect more on this experience!
I came away from the conference with a list of books to read, people to reconnect with, and an awareness of different approaches to diaconal formation. I’d call that a win!