THE GOD WHO SPEAKS: Deacon Corinne Smith reports on RC Deacons’ Conference

Deacon Corinne Smith (CofE deanery deacon on the Isle of Wight, diocese of Portsmouth) reflects on her attendance at the Annual RC Deacons and Deacon-Directors’ Conference at Hinsley Hall, Leeds, Nov 5-6 November.  I have put some points in bold.

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Corinne unveiling a statue in her church’s new tranquillity garden

It was a great joy and privilege to be invited, once again, to the Annual RC Deacons and Deacon-Directors’ Conference at Hinsley Hall, Leeds, Nov 5-6 November.

As usual – I have been a delegate at the Conference three times now – I was warmly welcomed and immediately felt at home among my “tribe” of Deacons.

The topic for the Conference was primarily about the launch of Cardinal Vincent Nichols’ initiative, “The God who speaks: The Year of the Word”.

As the Cardinal says in his introduction to the brochure, “In partnership with the Bible Society, this initiative focuses on celebrating, living and sharing God’s word throughout the Catholic Church in England and Wales from 30th September until the end of December 2020”.

The vision is “to create new and renewed encounters with Christ through the scriptures. The intention is to achieve transformation in the faith and life of the Church and in the public area, through evangelisation, education, creative arts and social action”.

We were fortunate to have Fleur Dorrell,

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who is a Catholic working for the Bible Society, to take us through the main points.  She said Deacons are “heralds of the Gospel” and, as such, should be proclaiming the Gospel and enabling others to hear it, by making sense of it, living it and sharing it.

As the Gospel for the Year is Matthew, NRSV copies of the Gospel will be sent to all RC Dioceses for distribution among the parishes; and there will be copies of the Good News version of the Gospel sent to all prisons, as well as official prayer cards, online ideas, downloads and articles.

In addition, there will be “Tents of Encounter” in a number of locations around the country, including Brighton, Birmingham, Exeter, Hull, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Swansea. These will be Bible “Domes”, in which people can engage in an immersive Bible experience.  The aim is to create scripture-filled events across the UK, with speakers, art, music, worship, food and fun!

The questions the deacons were then given to consider were

  • “What is your distinctive role as a deacon?
  • How can you be creative and inspirational?
  • What support do you need for this now, and beyond 2020?”

Fleur suggested creative ways of helping people to engage with scripture, such as House Masses, where the congregation could be asked to comment on the gospel reading, encouraging them to “listen to God in the present tense, so people can hear Him in their hearts”.

She spoke about deacons as being “accessible bridge-builders” and how, in our language, posture and dress we should be communicating in an appropriate way.  As Fleur said, “We don’t learn anything if we feel threatened”.  There is a need for authenticity and good quality in preaching, saying we should be asking ourselves, “where is the transformative grace in this Bible passage?”, so that our real-life experience as a deacon comes through.

Fleur spoke too about non-mass, seasonal things, such as the rosary, which can also be used creatively, by extending and developing the ways in which we would normally approach it. She stressed the need for creativity in communicating the message of the Gospel; recognising that we live in a very visual world now, with varying literacy levels. It is also hoped that “The God who speaks” could be used ecumenically; and that would certainly be my hope.

The other significant speaker was Mgr Peter Fleetwood,

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who gave a report on the   German Symposium which he’d attended recently. I had met him in a corridor before his talk and he warned me that some of what he would be saying would, “blow their socks off”!! He didn’t disappoint! The German Symposium had had some very radical things to say.

Fr Peter began by telling us what he had told the symposium. First he posed the question, “Where do you fit in the Catholic Church?’ He said there are some who belong without believing; others who believe, but don’t belong. A few both belong and believe, but there are others for whom neither statement is true. It was important for Deacons to be able to reflect on our own story in this regard and, compassionately, to enable ourselves and others learn to deal with difference.

The Deacon is key to understanding the function of the Church in the world, and said, “You can’t serve from above”, meaning that Deacons must not see their role as being about having “power” in the Church. “Asymmetrical relationships” exist between priests, deacons and bishops and he spoke movingly about the danger of the abuse of power in the Church.

He noted that the question of women as deacons had come up at the Amazon Synod recently, with Pope Francis “pushing the boundaries”. Fr Peter commented that there are many women in roles in the Church which would have been unthinkable years ago. The Church is servant to the world, and he stressed the link between servant and those being served. He quoted 1Cor 12, saying that the gifts given are not “MY gifts/ MY parish”; and we need to remember that.

Should foot-washing  be a sacrament of the Church?  No decision was taken, but he said, “When sacred rites are linked to clericalism there can be problems….” There is a risk in the sacralisation of power which must be distinguished from sacramentality; and he asked where Kenosis (Phil 2) would fit in such a power dynamic. He said we need to remember that our baptism is the base for our calling…and to imagine the Church as the “sacrament of justice”.

He ended by saying that women Deacons are not discussed much in most of the churches in UK but, as a result of the silence and invisibility of women, many women have walked away from Catholic life.

It was an extremely stimulating and enjoyable couple of days and I came away feeling energised, by having been in the company of other deacons, and inspired to see whether there is an appetite  for taking forward “The God who Speaks” in my area.

Anyone wanting more information about The God who Speaks can go to the website: godwhospeaks.uk

https://www.cbcew.org.uk/home/events/the-god-who-speaks/