Some dioceses of the Church of England have in recent years developed a range of understandings of what an ordained deacon is. These include
- a predominantly liturgical role (sometimes a way of honouring women’s ministry while not ordaining them as priests);
- a role associated especially with service, often in contexts of great social need; or lastly
- an ‘ambassadorial’ role as one commissioned for a range of tasks – sometimes specifically in the service of the bishop – often tasks involving communicating between church groups or between church and world.
In the Anglican tradition priests (and bishops) remain deacons when ordained to another order. The classic role of the priest, presiding at the holy eucharist of the gathered people of God, is currently limited to strange on-line versions of itself. And the liturgical role of the deacon is currently very constrained if not impossible. But the second and third roles of the deacon seem to me to be needed as never before. And perhaps they offer a way for priests to think through their current roles and rediscover elements that should always been there, but have often been neglected because of the demands of the ordinary rhythms of public worship and church administration.
It is a diaconal role to make connections, to search out social needs and help the Church deploy its resources, spiritual, financial and practical into those needs. Whether that be by setting up an emergency food bank, or mobilizing volunteers to help the vulnerable, or responding to the rapidly accumulating sense of loss within the community as it experiences both bereavement and unemployment.
But also the deacon is understood (especially in the influential work of Collins) as trusted go-between. The one who explains to churchpeople the thinking of their bishops, the one who relays to senior staff the impact of policies on the spirituality and morale of laity. Also one who makes and deploys those vital ecumenical connections that enable the people of God to work with unity in crisis, and the one whom the Church can send into liaison with local councils and charities, to bridge differences and catalyse action with common purpose, action moreover that prioritises, as the Church of God is always called to do, the needs of the poor.
I offer this thought as a possible help to self-understanding and vocation for Anglican ministers who may be understandably puzzled and dislillusioned at the closure of churches and loss of liturgical gathering.
Christopher Southgate, Eastertide 2020
For further reading: John N. Collins, Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources (OUP, 1990) (technical scholarly discussion of the root diakon-); John N. Collins Deacons and the Church (Gracewing, 2002) (popular version of his research with discussion of contemporary role). Anglican discussions: Rosalind Brown, Being a Deacon Today (Canterbury Press, 2005); Steven Croft, Ministry in Three Dimensions, Ordination and Leadership in the Local Church, New Edition, (DLT, 2008). Anglican reports: For such a time as this (Church House, 2001) (a report drawing on the insights of Collins, but rejected by General Synod);The Mission and Ministry of the Whole Church (General Synod Misc 854, 2007); Methodist: Ronnie Aitchison, The Ministry of a Deacon (Epworth, 2003) or www.methodistdiaconalorder.org.uk. Roman Catholic: Owen F. Cummings Deacons and the Church (Paulist Press, 2004). Ecumenical: Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (World Council of Churches, 1982)