Tuesday, 25 September 2012

‘God’s love knows no limits’

I was reminded in Crete this summer that The Beggars’ Opera translates into Greek as Η λαϊκή όπερα

Patrick Comerford

I have been asked by the bishops and the Working Group to present some theological reflection at the end of our day-long Consultation on Diaconal Ministry.

The traditional Anglican ways of doing theology, since the days of Richard Hooker, are to consider Scripture, Reason and Tradition. So let me begin with Scripture.

The two principle scriptural passages for discussing diaconal ministry are usually Acts 6: 1-7 and I Timothy 3: 8-13. That passage in the Acts of the Apostles may be a good starting point this afternoon.

Hear the disciples are listening to the cry of the hungry and the neglected. Our normal reaction to criticism is to arch our backs and to become defensive. In this case, though, this is not how the Church reacts. Instead the 12 listen to the anguished cries of a group who are marginalised because they are Greeks and not Jews, because they are men, not women, because they are hungry and not with their own resources.

The 12 respond by calling together the group of the disciples and ask them to select seven men to deal with the crisis. The Church hears the cry of the poor, they pray and only then are hands laid on them (Acts 6: 6).

The names of the seven are there not as an idle list of curious interest only to Biblical archaeologists and antiquarians. They are listed for a purpose.

They include Stephen, who becomes the first martyr. Now martyrdom is first and foremost not about death, but about witness; so Stephen symbolises the direct connection between diaconal ministry and witness to Christ and the Gospel.

They include Philip, who may have been one of the 12, so diaconal ministry s as authentically apostolic as priestly and episcopal ministry.

They include Prochorus, the scribe of Saint John the Divine in the cave at Patmos, so that diaconal ministry is related to our vision for the Kingdom of God.

The second passage, I Timothy 3: 8-13, is one that students are often asked to go away with and read ahead of diaconal ordination. Now we could get caught up in debating how serious a deacon must be (verse 8), how much wine or money a deacon may have (verse 8), or how they ought to manage their children and households (verse 12). But these appear less important to me than the fact that deacons must “serve well” (verse 13).

For serving well is at the heart of diaconal ministry and of all the ministry of the Church.

We often use the words “service” when we mean liturgy. “What time is the service next Sunday, rector?” And it is truer than we imagine. For in the liturgy the Church is serving God and serving the people. The word liturgy (λειτουργία) is not about priests; it means the work for and of the people. And not the nice middle-class people in most of our parishes, but the many, the riff-raff, the oppressed and the beggars.

I was reminded in Crete a few weeks ago, with a play that came to Rethymnon, that The Beggars’ Opera translates into Greek as Η λαϊκή όπερα. Liturgy at its best is true service; it is about feeding and hearing the cry of the hungry and the poor.

And, as the Revd Rob Clements reminded us this morning it is at its fullest when the priest gathers and the deacons scatters … but it goes on and on, we are gathered and scattered, gathered and scattered, until the Great Banquet.

It all goes back to us being God-like. In a bruised and broken world, the poor and the marginalised and the broken call out in their need to God. God hears the cry of the poor. God’s primal and covenantal response to humanity is this: God hears the cry of the poor (see Exodus 2: 24-25; 3: 7-8; Isaiah 11: 4; 42: 6-7; 61: 1; Luke 4: 18-19).

If we want to be God-like, we must hear the cry of the poor. Viv Squire talked about the pain of listening, and it is painful. John McClure said this morning that “as a Church we’ve got to hear the cry of the people … the cry for help.”

Does the Church hear the cry of the poor?

We often talk about people hearing God’s call to ordained priestly ministry. God’s response to that then comes in the Church’s affirmation at ordination.

On the other hand, I like to think of diaconal ministry as being a reverse of that process of call and response. God hears the cry of the poor, and then responds in providing diaconal ministry through the Church.

The ministry of bishops is to facilitate this, to ensure these two happen, that we have this two-way flow in ministry, so that with their empowerment it becomes truly Trinitarian, that the ministry of the Church reflects the life of the Trinity.

The Gospel reading used at the ordination of deacons (Mark 10: 35-45) tells the story of James and John and their ambitions. And in that story, Christ reminds us (verse 43, ἀλλ' ὃς ἂν θέλῃ μέγας γενέσθαι ἐν ὑμῖν, ἔσται ὑμῶν διάκονος) that “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, your deacon.”

The words most commonly used for ministry and ministers in the Gospels are slavery and service, slaves and servants – a very humbling reminder for us in the face of diocesan and clerical structures that often foster and encourage ambition.

I have three favourite examples if diaconal ministry in the Gospels: the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4: 5-42); the Syro-Phoenician woman (Matthew 15: 21-28, Mark 7: 25-30); and Christ in Gethsemane (Matthew 26: 36-36; Mark 14: 32-42; Luke 22: 39-46).

The two women are outsiders, they are not Jews, they are women. When the disciples fail to bring food and drink or people back from the city, she serves Jesus at the well, and then goes back to Sychar to tell people what has happened to her at this encounter. The Syro-Phoeniocian woman pleads on behalf of someone else who is poor and suffering, albeit her own daughter, and connects her plea with feeding at the table, which here becomes a metaphor for liturgy that ignores the cry of the poor.

Christ in Gethsemane asks that his cup might pass from him, if it is his Father’s will. How many times do the poor cry out in the night, and feel that their cry is unheard, by God and humanity. Christ’s cry in Gethsemane is the moment when the cry of the poor becomes God’s own cry.

When we turn to tradition, as our second support for theology, we might wonder whether we have got it wrong as Anglicans when it comes to diaconal ministry. Do the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal merely pay lip service to the scope for diaconal ministry? Or is it that we have failed to use the resources in our tradition to their full potential?

I think the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal have got it right, it is simply a problem with how we have used tem when it comes to affirming diaconal ministry.

The language of the Book of Common Prayer prays at Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer:

Endue thy ministers with righteousness
and make thy chosen people joyful

The Tudor Anglicans were making no distinction between the ministers of the Church and the ministers of the State. Both were servants, and the Ministers of State were regarded by the Tudor monarchs as their personal servants to do their bidding.

Today Government ministers talk about “my department” and “my civil servants,” forgetting that they too are only public servants and civil servants. When we realise we have distorted some things in ministry in the Church over the centuries, at least we can comfort ourselves with the realisation that civic and political society have also distorted the concepts of ministry and service.

Canon Helene Steed has pointed out that this morning that the five marks of mission are part and parcel of the Anglican tradition too:

● To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
● To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
● To respond to human need by loving service
● To seek to transform unjust structures of society
● To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth

When did the Church last affirm that someone striving to safeguard the integrity of creation or seeking to transform unjust structures of society was engaged in diaconal ministry?

And so, we have to ask how we can support, empower, resource, own and affirm the ministry of all engaged in what we identify as diaconal ministry.

Too often we reduce this to affirmation as ordination. But we need to find new ways of empowering, resourcing, owning and affirming all expressions of diaconal ministry.

Reason forces us to ask whether we are getting it right. Is the problem with what the ordinal says about diaconal ministry? Orv is the problem with the RCB pension fund, which worries about more people in ministry pushing limited pension resources to breaking point? Is the problem with Church Governance and our worries that ordained deacons in this form of ministry would unbalance our synodical representation?

If the problems lie with structures, then I would day let us change the structures so we can own a true diaconal ministry in the Church of Ireland. We will continue to get it wrong if we continue to see the only model of diaconal ministry the one the Revd Adrian Dorrian referred to as “a priest in waiting” or one that, in the words of the Bishop of Clogher, has to be “clericalised.” Ordination does not need to imply clericalisation.

We talked today about being called to “do God” in the words of Emma Spence, to listen to the poor, to be passionate about God and to be compassionate about people. And we were reminded that we cannot separate διακονία (diakonía), λειτουργία (leitourgía and μαρτυρία (matyría).

Helene reminded us too that “God’s love knows no limits” and Jude Trenier reminded as that we are building the Church of the future. If we are to continue to invite future generation through the Church into the Kingdom of God, and share with them the limitless love of God, then finding a way forward for diaconal ministry in the Church of Ireland is more important than keeping things just as they are.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This presentation was made at a Consultation on Diaconal Ministry in Dublin on 25 September 2012 by the Commission for Christian Unity and chaired by the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Michael Jackson.