03 February 2010

The ordination and ministry of a deacon

The Presentation ... Simeon is a model for the ministry of a deacon
Patrick Comerford

‘The Ordination of Deacons,’ The Book of Common Prayer (pp 553-562).

Next Sunday’s Lectionary readings: Genesis 2: 4b-9, 15-25; Psalm 65; Revelation 4; Luke 8: 22-25.

Collect (for those to be ordained):

Almighty God, the giver of all good gifts,
by your Holy Spirit you have appointed
various orders of ministry in the Church:
Look with mercy on your servants now called to be
deacons and priests;
maintain them in truth and renew them in holiness,
that by word and good example they may faithfully serve you
to the glory of your name
and the benefit of your Church;
through the merits of our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Last Friday morning, in the immediate aftermath of the curacy rounds, more than one of you was awakened by the words of this collect as we prayed it in the chapel at the end of the Litany, and realised: “These words are about me!”

This afternoon, I want to spend some time with you discussing what it is to be a deacon – not what it is to be a good student, to pass your exams, to get a good B.Th. degree, to be sure that you’ve found the right parish for your first curacy … And so on.

I simply want us to talk about what it is to be and to do – to be ordained as a deacon, and to do the work of a deacon.

Because we are celebrating Candlemas today – the Feast of the Presentation – at our Community Eucharist, I thought it might be appropriate first of all to look at TS Eliot’s poem, ‘A Song for Simeon.’

For in many ways, Simeon is a model for the ministry of a deacon. He is righteous and devout, and having listened to God’s call and trusted in God’s promises, he waits for years – he must at some stage have thought too many years – in the Temple (Luke 2: 22-35).

You have been waiting for some years now, responding to God’s call and waiting for the fulfilment of his promises. And as deacons, you will be charged with presenting Christ to the world – in your preaching and proclamation, in assisting in the sacramental ministry of the Church at Baptisms and at the Eucharist, and in your pastoral and parochial ministry.

A Song for Simeon

Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season has made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have given and taken honour and ease.
There never went any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow is come?
They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

According to thy word.
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
Thine also).
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

Archbishop John Neill (centre) and Dean Dermot Dunne (left) with three deacons before their ordination in Christ Church Cathedral: the Revd Stephen Farrell, the Revd Anne Marie O’Farrell and the Revd Robert Lawson

To the point of being boring, I’ve told you many times before of my two favourite T-shirt slogans: “To be is to do – Plato; to do is to be – Socrates; Do be Do be Do – Frank Sinatra.” And: “Three good reasons for being a teacher – June, July and August.”

Well, I’m afraid that the second one is going to be meaningless to most of you this summer as you face ordination as deacons in May or June, and then are expected to hit the ground running as curates during the months of June, July and August.

But which is going to be must overwhelming for you: The tasks you are facing this summer? Or the day of ordination as deacon itself?

Here we may be preparing you for many of the tasks you face in terms of vocation or profession. But while you have a good general idea of what to expect over the next three years as curates, you probably have little expectation yet about what is going to happen on the day of ordination itself.

Sometimes at ordinations I find that deacons are surprised – even shocked – by the gravity of the challenge on those awesome occasions. And so too are their friends and families when they hear what deacons are being ordained for.

For the next few weeks, you are going to be anxious about exam preparations, exam questions, exam results, your final project. But then, as you go to each other’s ordination, as you see your own friends being ordained, you realise what all the preparation here has been all about.

The past three years here have not been about not about exam results – although they help. It’s been about responding to that call, allowing the Church to discern that call, and then it’s about service, ministry and mission.

In the Psalm appointed for next Sunday’s readings (Psalm 65), the Psalmist sings:

You are to be praised, O God, in Zion;
to you shall vows be performed in Jerusalem ...

Happy are they whom you choose
and draw to your courts to dwell there!
they will be satisfied by the beauty of your house,
by the holiness of your temple
(Psalm 65: 1, 4).

The New Testament reading (Revelation 4) describes the call of Saint John the Divine in the cave in Patmos in terms of being brought up to gate of Heaven, which stands open, and to stand in front of the heavenly throne.

Like the Psalmist, you believe you have been chosen and called by God long ago, and answering that call, in itself, should bring you happiness in itself as you are called to serve in the house of the Lord, no matter which parish you go to as a curate, no matter which parishes you go to later as an incumbent.

Perhaps, as you kneel before your ordaining bishop on the day of your ordination, you may, like John as he responded to his call on Patmos, have a blissful or even a spiritual or mystical feeling of standing before the gate of heaven and the Heavenly Throne.

But there will also be that moment for most of you when just have that tingle that that you would prefer to have been left where God had called you and called someone else – one of your family members of friends present, perhaps – for ordination and for his service.

You may be frightened, just like the disciples who follow Jesus into the boat in next Sunday morning’s Gospel reading (Luke 8: 22-25) – frightened even before the storms start to brew up.

But God calls a wonderful and diverse group of people to serve his Church and his world in the ordained ministry.

But no matter how tough or difficult or challenging you think your time here as students may have been, you will soon find your confidence in God, a confidence you may think in the weeks ahead that is lacking these weeks, as you look once again to Christ, the real captain of the boat, who is in charge of all storms that may batter and frighten you.

As you kneel before the bishop, as a candidate for ordination as deacon, you are told that in the Church of God deacons serve in the name of Christ, and that you are a reminder to the whole Church that serving others is at the heart of all ministry (‘The Ordination of Deacons,’ The Book of Common Prayer, p. 555).

You will be told that deacons have a special responsibility to see that those in need are cared for with compassion and humility (p. 555).

You and the whole congregation present are told that deacons are to strengthen the faithful, to seek out the careless and the indifferent, to minister to the sick, the needy and those in trouble, to help the oppressed, to promote unity, peace and love (p. 555).

You will be called upon to baptise, preach and teach, to read the Gospel, to lead the people in prayer, and to assist in the administration of the Holy Communion (p. 555).

Remember too to keep prayer is at the heart of your ordained ministry.

At your ordination, you will be reminded in the words of the ordinal that as deacons you are called to “strengthen the faithful” and to “lead the people in intercession” (p. 555). Later, when it comes to your ordination as priest, you will be told that you “are to lead God’s people in prayer and worship, to intercede for them …” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 565).

Bishops too are to “pray for all those committed to their charge … and to lead the offering of prayer and praise” (The Book of Common Prayer, pp 576, 577).

All of us in ordained ministry – deacons, priests and bishops – are asked at ordination by the bishop: “Will you be diligent in prayer …?” The response is: “With the help of God, I will” (The Book of Common Prayer, pp 556, 566, 578).

Archbishop Rowan Williams ... writes of “three-ness” of prayer for those who have been ordained

Archbishop Rowan Williams writes of “three-ness” of prayer for those who have been ordained, and what he says about priests is true for deacons too: “If you have the charge of priesthood laid upon you, then the Sunday liturgy, the Daily Office and private prayer are simply there, and there is no way around them, even if you should want one. They are part of the bargain, and they grow on us as we increasingly sense in them something of the sovereignty of God. In this way, they become both a commitment and a joy, even if there are times when we would rather be doing something else. The ‘three-ness is not a matter of law or rules, but a part of the essence of being Christian.” (Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections).

You will be told that you are to accept the discipline of the Church, to fashion your own lives and the lives of your families according to Christ’s way, to be diligent in prayer, in the reading of Scripture reading, and – just in case you thought this year’s exams are about to put an end to your student days – to be diligent in all studies that “that will deepen your faith and fit you to uphold the truth of the Gospel (p. 556).

Your studies began here, but they do not end here. They should never end.

Your friends and families, when they (hopefully) come to your ordination as deacons, will shake your hands, hug you, congratulate you, and be eager to stand in for photographs with you. They will think have finished it all, they will congratulate you for having finished it all, as if you had achieved or reached your goal.

But that day of ordination to the diaconate is only going to be the beginning of it all. Whatever Plato, Socrates or Frank Sinatra may say, or sing, about being and doing, a deacon is more about doing than about being. And you will realise it as you kneel before the bishop and the bishop – on behalf of the whole Church – places hands on your head and prays for the pouring out of the Holy Spirit so that you will be equipped for the office and work of deacon, that you will be filled with grace and power, that you will be faithful in serving, teaching and proclaiming (p. 557).

But the bishop also prays that you will do all of this “with full assurance of faith, abounding in hope and rooted and grounded in love” (p. 559).

There are times when you will need that reassurance that the Church has prayed that you will have “full assurance of faith, abounding in hope and rooted and grounded in love.” For like the disciples in the boat, there will be times you will find yourself being tossed around on the rough waters, and you will expect Christ to challenge you: ‘Where is your faith?’ (Luke 8: 25).

I firmly believe that those prayers of the Church, prayed on the day we are ordained as deacons, are fully answered, not just at the moment of ordination, but as we struggle on to faithfully serve God, to serve the Church, to serve the world as servants in ministry, to follow Christ in the boat. Christ’s call brought you here, but he will continue to urge you on, to command you, to amaze you, and to demand your obedience.

You will never be prepared adequately or fully for to obey his commands.

But yet, you will constantly come to give thanks for God’s call and the blessings that come with responding to it, as the Psalmist prays in next Sunday’s Psalm:

You crown the year with your goodness,
and your paths overflow with plenty.
May … the hills be clothed with joy.
May the meadows cover themselves with flocks
(Psalm 65: 12-14).

Be filled with fear like the disciples in the boat, but filled with the fear of God.

Be filled with mystery, like Saint John before the open gate of heaven and the Heavenly Throne.

And, like the Psalmist, be ready to shout for joy and to sing (verse 14).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a workshop with Year III BTh students on the Pastoral Studies course, ‘Spirituality for Today,’ on 3 February 2010.

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