24 April 2012

Edinburgh Seminar on Deacons, the Diaconate and Diakonia

The following report was presented yesterday afternoon to the Anglicanism Affairs Working Group and last night [23 April 2012] to the Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland:

Report on Scottish Episcopal Church, Diaconate Working Group, Seminar on Deacons, the Diaconate and Diakonia

Anglican participants at the Edinburgh consultation: Canon Patrick Comerford, Revd Frances Hillier, Revd Sarah Gillard-Faulkner, Bishop-elect John Armes, Elspeth Davey, Church Relations Officer, SEC

Patrick Comerford

I attended the Seminar on Deacons, the Diaconate and Diakonia organised by the Diaconate Working Group (DWG) of the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC), on Wednesday 13 March 2012, in the General Synod Office, Edinburgh.

The seminar was chaired by the Very Revd Dr John Armes (Saint John’s Church, Edinburgh), secretary of the Working Group, who is about to be consecrated Bishop of Edinburgh.

The participants in the seminar included:

Scottish Episcopal Church: Very Revd Dr John Armes, who is to be consecrated Bishop of Edinburgh on 11 May next (chair); Elspeth Davey, Church Relations Officer, SEC; the Right Revd Mark Strange, Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness; Mrs Norma Higgott, Convener Mission & Ministry Board, Elspeth Strachan, Ministry Development Officer (facilitator).
Church of England: Revd Frances Hillier (Diocese in Europe).
Church of Ireland: Canon Patrick Comerford.
Church of Scotland: Deaconess Morag Crawford.
Church in Wales: Revd Sarah Gillard-Faulkner.
Methodist Church: Mrs Jenny Easson; Deacon Roger Hensman,
Roman Catholic Church in Scotland: Revd Tony Schmitz, Diocese of Aberdeen.
Salvation Army: Major Alan Dixon.
United Reformed Church: Rev Mitchell Richard Bunting, Revd Kathryn Price, URC.

The seminar was organised by the DWG because the SEC, as a member of the Porvoo Communion, is committed to exploring diakonia and diaconate, and in the light of the 2009 consultation in Oslo, is committed to exploring the meaning of diakonia and what do about diakonia and diaconate.

This seminar was an exercise in extending this discussion by listening to the experiences of the other member churches of the discussion beyond Anglican Communion on these islands and the experiences of the other denominations in Scotland.

At the opening, we were told the diaconate is an “undiscovered treasure ... a gift of God for the present day... a ministry that reaches out beyond the Church.”

Each church was invited to make a presentation of its own experiences.

Revd Deacon Frances Hillier said most permanent deacons in the Church of England tend to be NSMs, and tend to be in caring professions. Although some are canons and she is a bishop’s chaplain, but they cannot be archdeacons.

The questions she asked included: what’s the difference between readers and deacons? How do they relate to lay ministry? What are the future plans? She said much depends on dioceses, and the attitude of bishops. But she believes there is little appetite in the dioceses for a renewed diaconate, and permanent deacons are often seen as “an inconvenient irritant.”

Scottish Episcopal Church: Bishop Mark Strange said the SEC is good at dealing sacramentally with itself, but a number of people feel called to a different type of ministry which is in the community and which is not tied up to being priests. He asked whether there is a role of deacons where not assumed going to be something else.

Morag Crawford said deacons had distinctive and lifelong office within the ministry of the Church of Scotland that is evangelistic, pastoral, educational and social. It includes chaplaincy in schools, colleges, the forces, prisons, hospitals and the workplace. In all there 49 active deacons (out of 1,200 active ministers), and they include 34 parish workers, five hospital chaplains, a teacher, and two retreat leaders.

The parish deacons work includes pastoral, youth, family and school work and work among the elderly. The marks of deacon ministry include collaborative, service, mission, outreach, flexible, encouraging and enabling.

She traced the story of deacon ministry in the Church of Scotland back to 1836 and the first influences in Germany, and a renewal of enthusiasm in the 1880s, with the formation in 1888 of the Order of Deaconesses in 1888, and the introduction of Parish Sisters in 1893 and Church Sisters in 1916, brought together in one Order of Deaconesses in 1949.

When ordained ministry opened to women in 1966, it was thought the diaconate would die out in the Church of Scotland, but the diaconate opened to men in 1979. By 1990, they were admitted to the Courts of the Church, including presbyteries and the general assembly, and since then some have become moderators of presbyteries. They are free to conduct worship and preach, for which they no longer need a special licence, and may conduct weddings.

They work in area such as justice and peace, being a prophetic voice. There are no special powers or activities exclusively reserved to them, but they have a distinctive call as accountable servants.

Major Alan Dixon said that for Salvation Army officers the commissioning service for is the equivalent to ordination in 1978. But this does not give someone a distinctive status, and being an officer is about availability, service. The questions raised at the seminar seemed to be “total non-starters” from a Salvation Army perspective, where mission and social care are one,

Revd Kathryn Price described how the United Reformed Church chose the title of Ministry of Church-Related Community Work (CRCW) rather than deacon, because of the historical use of the terms deacon and elder among Congregationalists.

People in CRCW ministry work in local churches, alongside Ministers of Word and Sacrament. They have a commissioning service, and posts last for five years, with a possibility of further five. This is a ministry of the church, but while they are not ordained she admits the commissioning is like an ordination service without laying-on of hands. But they are not commissioned for life, and each commissioning is new.

Their work is social, mission and outreach high, but fewer numbers are engaged in Bible studies and prayer groups, for example. This is work is in local capacity building, enabling a congregation to be built up.

The Revd Sarah Gillard-Faulkner feels that in the Church in Wales she is “a lone voice.” There is no forum for deacons, such as a college of deacons. Yet she feels her vocation is as a permanent deacon within the three-fold ministry and Catholic heritage of Anglicanism.

She spoke of the ministry of deacons in terms of service, searching for sick and poor, proclaiming the Gospel, building the kingdom. Serving the sick, poor, needy and those in trouble, and showing compassion for the weak lonely and oppressed, are “signs that the church called to serve Christ in the world.

But deacons are normally transitional, with one year or sometimes even less. There is only a handful of permanent deacons in the Church in Wales, mostly in Diocese of Monmouth (5), and she only stipendiary deacon in her in her diocese (the 10 others are self-supporting). The majority of the other permanent deacons are retired and often were not ordained priest because of their age.

She spends a lot of time with young people and children, in schools, creating new expressions of community, with people on the margins, and in outreach to people who otherwise have no connection at all with the church. It is a pastoral role with its own mission and outreach, but difficult to explain within a Eucharistic-centred church, where the ministry need is identified as mainly for priests.

She sees this as a prophetic ministry, with a prophetic voice in the Church in Wales. “I’m a bit of a lone voice. But prophets are. But it is a lonely place for an extrovert.”

Roman Catholic Church: Revd Tony Schmitz of the Diocese of Aberdeen spoke of the deacon as the agent of another. With a ministry that is often confined to caritas and caring role, but Christ is the first deacon. He spoke of diakonia of altar, diakonia of word and diakonia of caritas.

He recalled how the church in the East has retained permanent deacons, but there they have been reduced to a sacramental role. Vatican II had called for restoration of diaconate, and his church now has 40,000 permanent deacons throughout world, of whom 15,000 are in North America. In Namibia, the Minister of Tourism is a deacon.

Deacons preach, assist at the Eucharist, may minister at baptism and marriage, catechise and teach, and are obliged to say the daily offices. They are involved in chaplaincy to hospitals, prisons, armed forces, counselling, police, schools, immigrants, marriage preparation, work in canon law (the chancellor of one diocese is a deacon), justice, peace, environment, spiritual direction, RCIA preparation, developing lay ministries (including lay apostolate) and missionary activity.

Soon, they shall be 77 deacons in eight dioceses in Scotland, where there are about 600 or so priests. Most are not paid, and the so the age profile is high.

Deacon Roger Hensman (Methodist Church) said that Methodist Ministers of Word and Sacrament are now being called presbyters, but there is still confusion about the word minister, with deacons being called Ministers of Word and Service.

He sees deacons as members of a religious order. But can one be a deacon without being a member of the religious order, and a member of the religious order without being a deacon?

Some deacons preach, but only after a call to preach. Some are worship leaders but do not necessarily preach. Others “do” weddings, funerals and baptisms. He identified a danger of deacons being used as cheap labour, but while they exercise pastoral care, the pastoral charge comes through the presbyter.

He spoke of the danger of deacons being defined by what they do not do: “You’re a minister but don’t do communion ... when are you going to be made up to being a proper minister?”

Their pastoral work in congregations is to build them up, and their roles in the community are development and church planting. Examples include running a farm with young offenders, working with people caught up in people trafficking, drugs and alcohol, or in chaplaincy and as bridge builders.

After a false start in 1873, this ministry dates from 1890, and was inspired by the example of German Lutheran sisterhoods.

It is a complementary rather than assistant ministry, and one that is here to stay, although it constantly swings between the perceptions of function and being.

On behalf of the Church of Ireland, I spoke of the new deacon-intern programme for Year III students at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and the opportunities it had provided and the questions it had brought to the fore.

In the group discussions, we were asked to identify: common themes; points of convergence; and points of divergence.

The questions asked and points identified include:

• Should the diaconate be visible and permanent?
• The diaconate is a sign of Church serving the world.
• The diaconate is a bridge between the sacred and secular, the people of God and others.
• The diaconate is in and for the community.
• The diaconate is challenging, prophetic, facing issues and pioneering.
• The diaconate needs accountability and support.
• Is there payment? Should the diaconate be stipendiary and/or, non-stipendiary?
• Where does authority, encouragement and oversight, reside?
• Are they consistently exercised for the whole church?
• Questions about status and parity with the minister, presbyter or priest.
• What is the difference between ordination and commissioning?
• Service, serving the needs of the community, and working at the edge or on the margin.

It was interesting to see the divergence between the churches that have a theology of the three-fold ministry and those that do not. The non-episcopal churches appear to have a more developed theology of diaconate, even though some are less inclined to use the name deacon (e.g. URC).

Others spoke about the danger of people not distinguishing between being a servant and being a doormat, being humble but not being martyrs. How do people understand the role of the deacons apart from not being priests? There is a danger of deacons being seen as a failed priesthood when they are not second best, and the diaconate is not a consolation prize.

There were questions too about selection, formation, training, post-ordination training ... and whether these should be alongside ministers/priests/presbyters.

There was divergence over permanency and the concept of ordination. Some churches have a very clear liturgical role for deacons that mirrors their role in the church and the world, others do not.

The way ahead:

The Anglican Churches in these islands are part of the Porvoo Consultation on the Diaconate in Dublin next year (2013). We asked whether there is anything we as Anglican Churches can take forward together, or that separately we would like to work on in our own churches. We agreed too that future discussions need to take account of the fact this is not just about diaconate, but about diakonia.

Dr Armes said diakonia is for the local church and spoke of the need to own that and of the need for the appropriate person to equip that.

The Porvoo Contact Group meets in October, and the SEC DWG may call a similar seminar again, perhaps before the end of year, in preparation for the Porvoo Consultation in 2013.

Patrick Comerford
23 April 2012

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