A way to think about Anglican ordained ministry during the coronavirus crisis

Some dioceses of the Church of England have in recent years developed a range of understandings of what an ordained deacon is. These include

  1. a predominantly liturgical role (sometimes a way of honouring women’s ministry while not ordaining them as priests);
  2. a role associated especially with service, often in contexts of great social need; or lastly
  3. 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)

A short talk on justice and wisdom in virus times

Our colleague Professor Ruard Ganzevoort in Amsterdam has a powerful five-minute video column on ‘the virus of short-sightedness’ at ruardganzevoort.wordpress.com. English subtitles. Really thought-provoking as we try and ask: where is hope to come from, and where shall wisdom be found.

thoughts for ministers one month on – April 25 2020

Guidance for Ministers – a month on

A month ago we offered some very general guidance for ministers navigating themselves, and their congregations, through the Coronavirus crisis.  Here we revisit the situation and our early responses.

One month further into lockdown, we all find ourselves a little, or a lot, more tired and with no fewer questions about our current situation. We offer here a rough framework of three dimensions for processing these questions and shaping a lived response.


The goal for any recovery from a shock event, modest as it may sound, is to reach a place where it is possible to say ‘what has happened has happened’. The initial shock of an overwhelming event (or time) can make even this kind of simple acknowledgement difficult or impossible.

Along the way one of the most effective ways of moving toward that place is to notice, and name, the various things that are going on in our bodies, thoughts and emotions. This is important even, or perhaps especially, when these things seem strange or unedifying. The more we are able to acknowledge without judgment persistent questions, niggling emotions, bodily discomforts and surprising compulsions, the closer we edge to an ability to bear the fullness of our reality. Biological research tells us that the simple act of naming a truth builds new neurological pathways in our brains. Allowing a place for each of the things we notice within ourselves, and approaching those places with gentleness, helps us to earth ourselves and to be fully present to our situation.

By the same token, being gentle with what we notice about others, including those whom we accompany as minister, and assisting them to recognize and name what is going on in them, helps to earth them also. Note that neither advice nor answers are necessary in the short term. What is needed is to acknowledge uncertainties and questions (both one’s own and those of others) and to allow them a place.


In order to help us to make sense and meaning, of our situation, it can be helpful to attempt some mapping of our context.

Our earlier guidance was subtitled ‘thoughts for ministers during the first phase of the coronavirus crisis’. Coming back to it a month later, it seems to us that we are still in ‘the first phase’. Perhaps many of us have moved past the initial, heady days of ‘heroic response’ in which rapid release of stress hormones carries us through the emergency of the onset of disaster, but we have not, collectively, experienced the decline that inevitably follows the adrenaline rush. We don’t yet know the parameters of the disaster.

Perhaps we are now in a ‘doing’ phase. We are keeping ourselves busy, attending to people and developing innovative and creative interventions, quite possibly while looking over our shoulders at the innovations and creativity of others. We’re doing some anxious assessment – ‘am I doing lockdown well?’

There are different motivations for all of this ‘doing’. Partly it is a natural response to the need we perceive. And it is true that we, ourselves, need activity at a time like this to help us to establish routines, patterns and aspects of identity to replace those that have been lost. But for most of us there will be, mixed up with all of these things, a subconscious attempt to avoid thought and feeling – a reluctance to bear the reality of what we face.


In addition to a grasp on our reality, and a context in which to understand that reality, we also need hope to anchor us. Where does our hope come from? Studies that have mapped the various stages of responses to shock events often refer to a final stage that may be termed ‘wiser living’. This stage is marked by wisdom in all its aspects. ‘Recovery’ is blessed with gifts of wisdom and experience as well as with the simple relief of receding pain and injury. However, recovery is likely also to be weighed down by such costly gifts. Perhaps recovery looks something like an increased capacity for the bearing of reality.

While it is counter-productive to attempt to side-track the necessary journey ‘through the valley of the shadow of death’ in order to reach recovery sooner (and there will be those in every congregation who will want to try), we nevertheless need to be able to perceive rays of hope when we are strong enough to look for them. Many people are beginning to ask what life will look like when this is all over. Tied up in those questions are half-formed hopes that out of this suffering and pain might come new patterns of life that, for example, value the earth, promote justice or support relationship better than the old patterns. It is almost certainly too soon to be putting flesh on such hopes, or prescribing directions for their fulfillment, but it is not too soon to be consciously planting seeds or to be noticing green blades where they are rising.

Associated with the quest for signs of hope will be questions about the place and role of God in the pandemic. Much writing about trauma cautions against getting caught up too soon in the ‘where is God in this’ question, and especially against the temptation to formulate premature answers. Rainer Maria Rilke counselled his ‘young poet’ to be patient with the uncertainties in his heart, to ‘love the questions themselves’ and to live them, without seeking answers. He would not be given the answers, wrote Rilke, because he could not live with them. Instead he should ‘Live the questions now.’[1]

Conversations we have had with friends and colleagues suggest to us that many of us are doing just this. Holy Saturday and the Easter period have been especially profound times this year, with some speaking and writing with vulnerability and honesty about their experiences of understanding in new ways the painful mixture of hope, despair, joy and confusion depicted in the post-resurrection accounts, as well as in the psalms. This is a time, if ever there was one, for vulnerability, honesty, and a tentative humility in theological reflection. ‘Perhaps [we] will then gradually,’ suggests Rilke, ‘without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’

Meg Warner, Hilary Ison, Carla A. Grosch-Miller, and Christopher Southgate (with thanks to Katie Cross)

25 April 2020



[1] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Tr. M.D. Herter (Norton; New York/London: 1993), 35 (italics in the original).

Great resources from the US

Throughout our project we have been much indebted to the work of Dr Kate Wiebe and the Institute for Collective Trauma and Growth. This is just to point readers to their great website at ictg.org, which has among other things some important posts on the coronavirus.

As I write the crisis deepens in both UK and US – wishing all our readers health and safety in this crazy time.

Christopher Southgate


a meditation for the strangest of Easters

Meditation for Easter in the midst of the coronavirus crisis

St Mark ends his Gospel with the response of the women who went to the tomb on the first Easter Sunday:

‘they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’ (16.8).[1]

This Easter will dawn for many people in a place not of triumph, but of fear.

The resurrection accounts have been described as a reverse-grieving process, in which the witnesses gradually come to realise that the one who was lost is alive, and breathes on us the Holy Spirit. Anger is dispelled, depression and denial and bargaining can all be set aside. But I suggest that for many of us, this Easter, we are not far along this process yet. We would like to have the larger story, the story of victory over death, this Easter 2020, to be able to sing it out to the sunrise with our hearts on fire. But our heroes this Easter morning should be those women, Mark’s only witnesses to the resurrection.

Mark is telling us in effect that where we are in our confusion and fear is a valid place to be. It’s even a holy place to be, because it is real. The larger story will emerge – it is in the hands of the God who has done something extraordinary at the empty tomb. We are in a process of searching for this larger story, the one that will enfold and hold all the losses of this time, including the loss of freedom to map out futures, of the power to fix things, the loss of the delight of gathering, and of the profundity of looking closely into others’ eyes, the loss of reassuring and healing touch, for some the loss of parents or grandparents we shall never see again, in this life at least.

This is an Easter for holding together – by phone-call or Skype or Zoom or Tik-tok or even that most precious of rediscoveries, the letter – the range of reactions we’re all having, the different varieties of fear and confusion and amazement we’re facing. We have the Lord’s songs to sing in this strange land, the great Passiontide song of love unknown, the Easter hope of Jesus Christ the apple tree, but let us sing them not with a false and self-forgetting triumphalism, but as explorers who will help each other search for the larger story of all this, owning our fear, sharing our wisdom as it returns to us, hoping for what we do not yet see.

The women half-ran, half-stumbled away from the tomb, carrying the greatest secret in the history of the world. And Christians this year are bearers of a secret we may not feel we are even ready to tell, but yet is our clue to the larger story within which all this trauma will one day be seen to sit.

Christopher Southgate

[1] The longer ending, vv. 9-20, is not in the best manuscripts.

meditation for Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday reflection   2020                           


The shadows lengthen. In ordinary times, we would be gathering in the sanctuary to hear the story of friends gathered around a table for the last time. We would extinguish candles as we recounted the shadows that surrounded Jesus this night: the betrayal of Judas, the denial of Peter, the hate and fear of Jesus’ enemies, the anguish of the garden prayer, the horrors of the cross. As we were reminded on the longest night at the end of last year, the darkness is necessary in order to see the light. But tonight we do not let ourselves leap ahead to the end of the story. We stay here in the darkness.

We are in darkness now. It is a time of unknowing: How long will we be in lockdown? Who will get this virus? Who will survive it? Some will wonder how they will feed themselves or their families; how long will the money last? Will my business fail? All are aware that we have no way of knowing what the ultimate impact of the pandemic will be, on us, on the nation, on the world.

Into this time of unknowing, Jesus comes. He gathers us together -though physical gathering is not possible, we can call to mind our friends and loved ones. Imagine us together, for our bonds are unbreakable. He gathers us and he invites us to an ordinary table, our kitchen table. There is bread, there is wine…ordinary things that become extraordinary under his blessing. He takes up the towel, wraps it around his waist, picks up a basin with water and goes to each one, stooping to wash our feet. We are embarrassed; we look away. But we receive the touch. We sense the tenderness of the moment. When he is done, he looks at us with love and asks if we know what he has done to us. Then he gives us the new commandment: to love one another as he has loved us. To love one another.

This is what darkness calls for: for us to love one another. For us to be a small, affirming flame remembering the power of love as light in the darkness.

Our hearts burn within us as the evening proceeds. We follow him outside beneath a starry sky. He kneels to pray; his body writhes in anguish. We cannot bear to watch. We fall asleep. Three times he wakes us. Twice we fall back into the stupor of sleep. The third time the arrival of our brother Judas and a large crowd shock us into wakefulness. Judas kisses him. The soldiers arrest him. The Temple governors look on with approval. We are doomed. He is dragged off. Despite our best intentions, we flee. We cannot help but flee.

When we are sore afraid, we flee, we fight or we freeze. We have no control over these responses – they are our brains’ way of keeping us alive. There is no need for shame, though we do feel it. The disciples fled at the arrest. Peter overcame his fear for a brief moment, and then retreated back into it – denying that he knew Jesus three times before the cock crowed twice. We want to condemn him, but deep inside we know that we would have done the same thing.

The sanctuary is dark now. We are alone with our vulnerability, our humanity. We look up, from whence will our help come?


Carla A Grosch-Miller


thoughts for ministers taking funerals during the virus crisis

Some thoughts from a trauma-informed perspective on supporting ministers in funeral ministry during the Covid-19 Crisis


As the Covid-19 crisis deepens, we will, as ministers, be called upon to take funerals for those who have died from the virus, as well as from other causes, in circumstances that may well be very distressing for us as well as for the few family members who are able to attend, and those who can’t.

What we are going through globally, locally in our communities and churches, and in our families and within ourselves is a traumatic situation. Trauma can be a shock event like an accident or act of violence, but it can also be a slowly unfolding situation over a period of time as in the current crisis that we are all facing personally and professionally.

First a bit of background to set the context as it’s helpful to understand the main characteristics of trauma which many of us are experiencing in some form or another in this situation in order to know how best to approach supporting ourselves and others:

  • overwhelm – our normal capacities to cope become overwhelmed and we feel that we can’t handle all that’s coming at us; it’s all “too much, too fast, too soon”[1]. The sense of overwhelm can also come from having to receive and handle other people’s distress and pain, and to have to keep doing it, while trying to hold our own anxiety and distress.
  • broken connections – quite literally our physical connections with one another have been broken and we can’t console others with a touch or hug as we would normally do. Not only are families distressed by the loss of a family member, but also by not being able to have the funeral they would have liked to celebrate and honour the deceased. Our understanding of who we are and how we connect as ministers is being shaken, and how we understand the world and God is being challenged. When previously safe assumptions about how we live, what we think and what we experience are thrown up in the air it feels a scary place to be, in our bodies and emotions as much as in our minds. 
  • trauma is a whole body experience – we know we are going through something difficult because our bodies, not our minds, tell us first! All sorts of body experiences and symptoms emerge, such as a tight chest, stomach ache, needing to go to the toilet more often, headaches, tiredness, loss of concentration, depleted energy levels, neck and shoulder tension, skin conditions and so the list goes on depending on where your stress registers in your body. The amygdala, our ‘early warning system’ in our ‘feeling brain’ (limbic system) is telling us we are not safe and is triggering the nervous system to send out the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol to get us ready for fight or flight. When these hormones are coursing round our bodies, we quite literally lose connection with our ‘thinking brain’ (pre-frontal cortex) and we react instead either with fix-it energy, or with collapse. Most importantly, we lose our capacity to be truly present to ourselves or to others.

So, how does this help in terms of being faced with taking several funerals in extremely distressing circumstances, on top of all the overwhelm and disconnection we may already be feeling in our ministries and personal lives?

  • Naming what’s happening: this might sound obvious, but attentive listening to exactly what is going on for us enables us to name precisely what we are experiencing in our bodies and our feelings. Our nervous systems start to calm when we can name exactly what it is we are feeling.It releases tension when this is heard and received in ourselves and, whether in person or virtually, by a warm resonant other. One of our deepest needs is to know that we are understood, so being able to share what we are going through with someone else who can acknowledge with us that what we are facing is overwhelming, difficult, upsetting, confusing etc, is a huge resource. Once we’ve been able to name what we’re feeling, then we can begin to work with what we need to move forwards.
  • Normalising: understanding that what we are experiencing is perfectly normal in a traumatic and anxiety provoking situation. Knowing that we can’t stop our bodies reacting initially in this way helps us to realise that we are not being weak or inadequate, and to let go of guilt or shame that we are not coping better than we feel we should. 
  • Breathing: when we are agitated, anxious, or distressed we can’t think clearly as we have temporarily lost connection with our thinking brain. Calming the triggered nervous system is what helps us to re-regulate ourselves and bring our thinking brains back on-line. One of the most effective ways to do this is to pay attention to the breath and to consciously slow it down, lengthening the inhale and the exhale for a few breaths and bringing our awareness to our bodies being grounded in the present, in physical space and time. A way of doing this is:
  • to stop for a few moments and be aware of your body, your feet on the floor, the chair supporting you, and any areas of tension that you notice in your body;
  • to become aware of your breath and then to take a slightly longer inhale (for the count of 3) and to lengthen the exhale (for a count of 4), and to do this about 5 times;
  • to stay with the quiet for a few moments, to be present to the moment and your experience, and then bring it to a close perhaps with a thanksgiving to God for the gift of his presence with us in our breath.
  • Resourcing: when our feeling brain is calmed then it can connect well with the thinking brain to gain access to our resources! This is the space for working out creative and sensitive ways of handling the service and what will be of most help to the family. Positive and practical ways forward emerge along with drawing on other resources that may be available to us.
  • Being present: one of the gifts of this approach is that you can then practise breathing, calming and centring when faced with the actual funeral and, from this place, be more able to communicate a sense of safety and space in which the distress and grief of those attending can be held. It’s not only viruses that are contagious, but feelings are too. Being able to be present to and hold difficult feelings, our own and those of others, is calming for others and enables them to be more present in the midst of very distressing circumstances. Sometimes we’re afraid of naming in the service how difficult this is for the family in case we make it worse, but actually the opposite is true. People feel that you understand, that you ‘get it’. It speaks to their souls.
  • Self care: doing this kind of funeral ministry on top of all the other pressures and different ways of ministering in this crisis, is hugely demanding and tiring, so it is really important that you don’t feel guilty about attending to your own needs. We are in this for the long haul. Be kind to yourself!

And finally – some very practical advice for at the Crematorium as on Twitter @PeterCo27756774

            You’re not wimpy

            Keep your distance from folks

            Go vested, to avoid using the small vesting room

            Use your own prayer book/order of service

            Wear disposable gloves until you begin

            Use hand gel after touching anything & avoid touching your face

            Shower afterwards

Hilary Ison 01.04.20


[1] Peter Levine, author of several books on understanding and healing trauma