WHO DO THEY THINK WE ARE? Report on York deacons’ conference March 2020


Speaker:  Rev Dr Anna Sorensen 

Deacons Weekend Conference at Wydale Hall, Yorkshire (28th February 2020 to 1st March 2020) 

Report by Sarah Johnson, diaconal enquirer 

Hosted by York Diocese and audio files from the weekend are aimed to be available through their website.

Rev Dr Anna Sorensen (details below) expertly presented issues to be considered, and formulated questions for discussion with the theme of “Who do they think you are?” permeating throughout the weekend.

Session 1:  Deacons as Servants of the Church

All Christians have a servant ministry by virtue of baptism,  but the deacon’s focus is to model and enable others to respond to human need by loving service which resonates with the third mark of mission.  We explored  the common misinterpretation of the deacon’s service as servile, inferior or second best, considering where some of the misunderstandings have arisen historically, particularly how the diaconate was referred to following the conversion of Constantine and the ‘fake news’ constructed around it. Imperial patronage and the structures of state created a sequential hierarchy of orders with deacons serving as apprentice priests, and a transitional deacon becoming the norm. This model continued  after the Reformation and the establishment of the C of E, creating over 400 years of the Church’s understanding of a deacon being ‘inferior’ (final collect of the 1550 ordinal refers to the deacon as an ‘inferior office’*.)

John Collins’ work on diakonia was important in re-establishing ‘diakon’ words as relating to one who undertakes a mandatory task. A good example is his exegesis of Acts 6.1-4 from the book ‘Deacons and the Church, Making connections between old and new.’  This extract was shared, reviewed and discussed.

We were reminded that the charism of service is not servility. It is a Christ-like ministry following the hard service of Christ crucified. It is a commission, with the pattern laid down by Jesus himself; a visible self-giving ministry involving costly, strong, servanthood with a discipleship pattern. The leadership of deacons is about challenging and enabling others to carry forward the mission of God.

To quote Bishop Cuthbert’s remark to Anna during her research – “Deacons are less churchy and more feisty”  

Question for reflection and discussion:

Where should the balance come between service and commission in the ministry of a DD?

The general feedback was that it is a balance between both, and each element is important to underpin the work of a deacon.

Deacons at Wydale 2020

Conferencees at Wydale Hall, March 2020.  35 people altogether – the most ever!

Day 2

Session 2 : Transitional Diaconate

Deacons are called to a liminal ministry – this is different from the sacramental focus of priest and broader than serving for example as a social worker.  The diaconal experience of transitional deacons is different, and largely focused on preparing to become the priest.  Therefore the old adage “once a deacon, always a deacon” does not resonate with the calling of distinctive deacons in a way that develops deep understanding.

Interesting to look at the % of time priests spend doing the “priestly” and the“deacon” tasks as proportions of their time.

Question for reflection and discussion:

Should we accept sequential ordination as our inheritance or should we consider direct ordination as a more complementary and collaborative model?

The majority present felt that direct ordination would help clarify each calling and provide pathways for training that can focus on the needs of deacons and priests separately, allowing each to understand the other’s vocation.  No one expressed a wish to maintain sequential ordination.

Later that morning three deacons shared their stories of their first year following their ordination.   Whilst each ministry was contrasting and different there was a common thread of passionate caring for the communities that they were serving, responding to need according to their gifting and being a Christ-light in the places they encountered.

Session 3: Readers and Deacons

Most ordinary church folk have no idea about deacons.  Bishop Barry Rogerson (1998) took the view that deacons had been replaced by readers. There is overlap but the deacon has a focus outside the gathered community whereas the reader is a teacher and lay theologian for the gathered congregation. We then explored how reader ministry and the ministry of the deaconess developed from a historical perspective.

There was also a short discussion on the role of Deacons within a liturgical and sacramental ministry.  Within the group, and in Anna’s research, there was a wide range of practice in sacramental ministry.  The ordinals have said different things over time.  The 2007 Common Worship ordinal has deacons not baptizing, however this is not consistent across the different Dioceses.  A discussion followed with regard to the reason people may be asking a deacon to conduct weddings/baptisms. There was a strong feeling in the group that perhaps there are times and circumstances when involvement of deacons is appropriate, for example if requests arise in the context of a pre-existing pastoral relationship. This needs to be considered locally and in careful dialogue with incumbents and bishops.

Question for reflection and discussion:  

What should the future relationship between reader and deacon look like?

Within the room there was a general agreement that there is sufficient  space for both deacons and readers to flourish in ministry, with a willingness to work together as each is important.  The key to mutual flourishing centers around collaborative ministry.

Anna then summarised some important things to consider whilst going forward so the wider church has a better understanding of who deacons are.

  • The Church of England has taken notice of John Collins’ reflection on the meaning of diakon words as conveying an envoy and agent of God’s purposes of love which is now reflected in the current ordination liturgy for deacons. This is a liberating approach which enables deacons to be more responsive, creating new ways to meet need; a way to minister according to skills rather than a set list of tasks.  Paula Gooder focuses on the mandate for the deacon’s ministry – why we do it. Deacons can move away from a functional ministry concerned with tasks to a theological ministry based on the one who sends us.
  • Insist on visibility – representation in the house of clergy (which is in reality the house of priests considering its representatives). There is a house for Bishops but not the diaconate. There’s no seat for deacons to be represented although other groups have a given representation. Make sure your title is recorded accurately as this ensures visibility of deacons.
  • Play to your strengths – there is a strong international and ecumenical link within the history of the diaconate. Therefore there is a shared heritage which allows a gateway between denominations in a very special and particular way. There’s a rich seam of ecumenism to be mined.  The world-wide DIAKONIA network is a valuable portal but currently the C of E has no affiliation mechanism to this link although this will hopefully be rectified in the near future.

The group was very grateful for Anna’s thoughtful and thought-provoking insights.  They generated many lively and reflective discussions with the group of deacons, ordinands and enquirers drawn mainly from the diocese of York but with representation from several other dioceses.  The opportunity for deacons to come together, share practice and encourage one another is highly valued.  We are a growing number and look forward to meeting again in Birmingham at the national forum Deacons on the Move 2020:  details here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/deacons-on-the-move-2020-tickets-77728031635?aff=ebdssbdestsearch

Anna’s thesis can be found in full here: https://deaconstories.files.wordpress.com/2018/11/anna-sorensen-phdthe-ultimate-1.pdf

Anna is Rector Designate for the North Beltisloe Benefice and Bishop’s Officer for Distinctive Deacons (diocese of Lincoln).  Her PhD thesis (2018) took the theme ‘What does it mean to be a distinctive deacon in the Church of England today?’

  • Young, Francis: Inferior Office?  A history of deacons in the Church of England:  Francis Young 2015.  James Clarke and Co Ltd  ISBN-10: 0227174887       ISBN-13: 978-0227174883

With thanks to Deacon Liz Carrington and Sarah Johnson



Deacon Phina Borgeson called on deacons to “exercise leadership in the church’s prophetic activity,… speaking out about injustices and inconsistencies” and protecting God’s created order.

In May this year there was an international and ecumenical conference on the diaconate, held at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.  Canon Deacon Michael Jackson, who acted as conference secretary,  has offered us this excellent report.  Other reports and papers can be found elsewhere on this blog.

How can it feed in to our English diaconate, I wonder?

Regina Hosts Ecumenical Conference on Diaconate By Canon Michael Jackson

Published in Saskatchewan Anglican September 2018

Close to 100 people gathered at Campion College, the Jesuit affiliated college at the University of Regina, for an international Anglican-Roman Catholic-Ukrainian Catholic conference on the diaconate. The conference, held May 10-13, was co-sponsored by the Diocese of Qu’Appelle and the Archdiocese of Regina. Believed to be the first of its kind, the conference attracted four bishops, eight priests, 55 deacons and a number of diaconal candidates and lay people, from seven Canadian provinces, six U.S. states, England, Scotland and New Zealand.

Bishop Rob Hardwick of Qu’Appelle and Archbishop Donald Bolen of Regina co-chaired the conference, while Bishop Bryan Bayda of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Saskatoon was a session chair. Anglican bishop Donald Phillips of Rupert’s Land also took part. The conference was an outcome of the covenant between the Diocese of Qu’Appelle and the Archdiocese of Regina, which has been in place since 2011. Said Archbishop Bolen, “This international conference is a new venture in our covenantal relationship, building on the fact that both our Churches have a threefold ministry including the diaconate, and that diaconal ministry is being explored in significant ways by both Churches, including our respective dioceses, at the present time.”

Image result for Qu'Appelle conference on diaconateThree bishops involved in the ecumenical conference were photographed at Campion College. (l-r) Bishop Bryan Bayda of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Saskatoon, Bishop Rob Hardwick of the Anglican Diocese of Qu’Appelle, and Archbishop Donald Bolen of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina. (photo – Frank Flegel) 

Entitled “The Ministry of the Deacon: Word and Sacrament, Charity and Justice,” the conference brought together 11 leading authorities on the diaconate from Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. They addressed nine topics:

  •  the Conundrum of the Transitional Diaconate
  •  the Theological Basis of the Diaconate
  •  Women and the Diaconate
  •  the Diaconate as Ecumenical Opportunity
  •  the Diaconate in the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches
  •  the Prophetic Ministry of the Deacon
  •  the Deacon in the Worshipping Community
  •  Diaconal Formation
  •  Diaconal Relationships.

Roman Catholic speakers were Deacon Frederick Bauerschmidt, professor of theology at Loyola University in Baltimore, Sister Gloria Marie Jones of the Dominican Sisters of St. Jose in California, Deacon George Newman of Newman Theological College in Edmonton, and Dr. Brett Salkeld, archdiocesan theologian of the Archdiocese of Regina. Sub-Deacon Brian Butcher of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, was the speaker from the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

From the Anglican Communion, speakers were Deacon Phina Borgeson of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California; Canon Rosalind Brown of Durham Cathedral, Church of England; Deacon Susanne Watson Epting of the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa; Deacon Canon Michael Jackson of Qu’Appelle, Deacon Maylanne Maybee,

formerly Principal of the Centre for Christian Studies in Winnipeg; and Canon Alison Peden, director of ordinands for the Scottish Episcopal Church.

The presentations and discussions showed considerable convergence and common ground on the diaconate among the participants despite their different faith traditions. For example, there was a majority consensus that the “transitional” diaconate – the practice of ordaining people deacons for a brief period before they become priests – was unnecessary and undesirable. Deacon Susanne Watson Epting described efforts in the American Episcopal Church to come to grips with this conundrum. As Roman Catholic deacon George Newman said, “one would be led to wonder, if [a candidate for the priesthood] is not going to engage in traditional deacon ministry, why ordain him as a deacon?” Anglican deacon Maylanne Maybee noted, “if we were to be consistent, we would resume the practice of direct ordination (i.e. ordination to the priesthood without passing through the diaconate first).” However, countering this, Roman Catholic deacon Frederick Bauerschmidt and Anglican canon Rosalind Brown defended “sequential” ordination as deacon, then priest, on the grounds that all orders of ministry incorporate the diaconate.

Several speakers commented on the welcome recovery of the permanent or vocational diaconate, especially since the Second Vatican Council, as a distinctive order of ministry. It is no longer the “inferior office” referred to in the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer, but a symbol and instrument of the New Testament idea of diakonia, or service, which is the vocation of every Christian through baptism. “Diaconal ministry,” said Canon Brown, “is a dynamic extension of Eucharistic celebration, as deacons are incarnational ministers of the Eucharist in the forgotten, awkward corners of the world.” The session on the prophetic ministry of the deacon explored in depth this role of incarnational minister. Deacon Phina Borgeson called on deacons to “exercise leadership in the church’s prophetic activity,… speaking out about injustices and inconsistencies” and protecting God’s created order. Sister Gloria Marie Jones emphasized that “the prophetic mission of Jesus, and therefore of the deacon, is about unity, inclusivity and forgiveness.”

The issue of women in the diaconate was of particular interest to the Roman Catholic participants: their Church does not admit women to ordained ministry, while the Anglican Communion ordained its first women deacons in the 1970s, soon to be followed by priests and more recently bishops. Sister Gloria spoke poignantly of her own experience as daughter of a deacon, whose wife actively supported him in his ministry. “It was truly a shared preparation and ministry….but one was ordained and the other was not.” She was present in Rome in 2016 at the meeting of women religious superiors where Pope Francis announced a commission to study the question of women deacons. “I have come to believe,” she said, “the ordination of women to the diaconate is important for the sake of the Church, much more than for the sake of women.”

Anglican and Roman Catholic speakers alike asserted the value of the deacon’s role in worship, despite a tendency in some areas of both Communions to downplay it. Deacon Bauerschmidt, who has published a book, The Deacon’s Ministry of the Liturgy, explained from the Roman Catholic perspective how the diaconal function in the Eucharist and other liturgies “points to the importance of the diakonia of the Church as a whole.” Canon Brown sees the deacon’s functions at the Eucharist – reading the Gospel, leading the intercessions, calling for the exchange of the Peace, setting the Table and clearing it, giving the Dismissal – as highly symbolic of the Church’s ministry of hospitality.


One of the most intriguing aspects of the conference, especially for the Anglicans, was the unique contribution of the Ukrainian Catholic participants. Brian Butcher gave a comprehensive overview of the diaconate in the Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic traditions, noting the presence of women deacons in the early church. SubDeacon Butcher, along with Bishop Bayda and Protodeacon David Kennedy of Toronto, led a moving choral celebration of Ukrainian Catholic vespers in Campion College Chapel. The conference participants also experienced Anglican compline and morning prayer and Roman Catholic morning prayer.

Highlights of the conference were the two eucharistic celebrations. While the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches are not in communion, Archbishop Bolen spoke of a real but incomplete unity. The bishops took part in each other’s liturgies for the Feast of the Transfiguration. Bishop Hardwick preached at the Roman Catholic Mass at Campion College Chapel on May 12 concelebrated by Archbishop Bolen and Bishop Bayda. In turn, Archbishop Bolen preached at the Sung Eucharist at St. Paul’s Cathedral on May 13, where Bishop Hardwick presided. All three bishops joined in giving the final blessing at both celebrations. And Bishop Bayda preached and gave the blessing at the May 13 joint prayer service of the Diocese of Qu’Appelle and Archdiocese of Regina – Solemn Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral – the final event in the conference.

A month later, Archbishop Bolen ordained nine permanent deacons – who had all attended the conference with their spouses – at Holy Rosary Cathedral. This was the first group to graduate from the diaconal formation program of the Archdiocese of Regina, directed by Dr. Salkeld.

As Roman Catholic journalist Frank Flegel reported,

In spite of the vigorous debate, organizers said it was a learning experience. “We learned so much from each other, experienced each other’s worship and theology and came closer together, which is really what the ecumenical movement is all about,” said conference secretary Deacon Michael Jackson, who has served 41 years in the Anglican Diocese of Qu’Appelle. Joe Lang, a Roman Catholic deacon for 20 years, felt reaffirmed in his ministry after listening and taking part in the discussions, and said he found it interesting to hear about the variety of ministries in all the faith communities.

Conference organizers expressed appreciation to the Faith, Worship and Ministry Department of the Anglican Church of Canada and to the Archdiocese of Regina for grants which made the conference possible, to both sponsoring dioceses and the Regina Catholic School Board for providing resources, and to Campion College for hosting the event.

Canon Michael Jackson is deacon at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Regina, and was secretary of the 2018 conference on the diaconate.

Image result for Qu'Appelle canon deacon michael jackson