13 March 2012

‘Deacons, the Diaconate and Diakonia’

Students making their declarations in the Chapter House in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, prior to their ordination to the diaconate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

The following presentation was made at the ‘Seminar on Deacons, the Diaconate and Diakonia’ organised by the Diaconate Working Group of the Scottish Episcopal Church in Edinburgh this afternoon [Tuesday 13 March 2012:

‘Deacons, the Diaconate and Diakonia’:
The Church of Ireland Experience

Good afternoon.

This is my first time in Scotland, arriving in Edinburgh this morning. And I imagine, after last Saturday’s result in Dublin, I think I was one of the happy travellers on a flight from Dublin to Edinburgh these past two or three days!

But thank you for your welcome and hospitality. I am aware that we are preparing for a meeting in Dublin next year (2013) and look forward to sharing and welcoming at the other end too.

We have had some interesting developments in our understanding of diakonia, the diaconate and the ministry of deacons in the Church of Ireland in recent years, as we have revised and changed our programme of training for ordination at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, where I teach on the MTh programme.

The Preface to the Ordinal in The Book of Common Prayer (2004) of the Church of Ireland has similar if not the same theological understandings of the threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons as those found in most other member churches of the Anglican Communion (p. 518).

But that says little about understanding of the diaconate, and whether there are any unique ministries appropriate to one who is ordained deacon.

Indeed, the preface hints – although it is not explicit about this – that the order of deacon is a transitionary one, saying that “none shall be admitted a Deacon, except he be Twenty-three years of age …” and “every person which is admitted a priest shall be a full Four-and-twenty years old, and shall have served in the Office of a Deacon the space of whole year at least …”

The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland provides two ordination services, one in “traditional” language (pp 519-526), and one in “contemporary” language (pp 553-562). Having been at ordination services every year since this Prayer Book came into use, it appears to me that all deacons in the Church of Ireland, at this stage, are being ordained using the words and form of the second rite.

The Ordinal says “Deacons in the Church of God serve in the name of Christ, and so remind the whole Church that serving others is at the heart of all ministry” (p. 555), and there is no similar parallel wording or phrase at the ordination of priests and bishops.

This raises questions about whether we must retain sequential ordination – questions that were raised over a decade ago in To Equip the Saints, the Berkeley statement of the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation in 2001.

Personally, in my experience in the Church of Ireland, I know of only three cases of people who were ordained deacons and remained deacons without being ordained priests:

● one was ordained a deacon in the US, and served as a deacon in a parish in the Church of Ireland in the early 1970s, without ever being ordained a priest before returning to the US;

● the second was ordained a deacon, and for what I imagine were evangelical arguments about headship never presented herself for ordination as priest, and has since transferred to the Church of England, where she remains a deacon;

● the third is a deacon from a Baltic Lutheran member church of the Porvoo Communion, who served in an NSM-type situation, who moved to Ireland, and who is now an NSM deacon.

But these are three exceptional cases, and the norm remains in the Church Ireland: deacons expect and are expected to be ordained priest about 12 months after their ordination as deacons.

We have tried to have a major re-think about this. No longer is the deacon’s year served as type of one-year “apprenticeship” in the first three years of curacy, with the curate being ordained priest after the first of the three years has been served.

We have a three-year course for full-time ordinands, leading to the degree of MTh from Trinity College Dublin (University of Dublin). The first two years are devoted almost entirely to the academic content of this programme, with weekend placements in parish situations:

Year 1: An eight-week Sunday placement; and a three-week full-time placement.

Year 2: A 10-week Sunday placement, with one day in each alternate week.

As they begin their third year, ordinands are ordained deacons, but this no longer takes place within the context of beginning a three-year curacy. Instead, this year continues as part of the academic programme, with students completing their dissertations (about 18,000-20,000 words), completing a pastoral portfolio, and working on a more intense parish placement, with defined learning goals.

The year as a deacon-intern is an integral part of the MTh degree programme; its purpose is to provide a focal point in making the connection between learning and practice, and the priority is the development of the intern.

Intern deacons are expected to take part in parish Sunday services, lead two services a month; preach about once a month, spend three days in practical ministry under the direction of their training incumbent, and spend two days a week in study and one week a month in residence as students, engaging principally in theological reflections on their practical experiences and completing their dissertations.

At present, there are 17 full-time students in that Third Year of the MTh programme. Next year (2012-2013), they may be seven; and in following year, we seen part-time students who have completed a four-year part-time course, entering this phase of the programme, either in a full-time or a part-time capacity.

What if a student/ordinand fails to complete the Third Year of the programme?

Do we find ourselves with students who, having failed to complete the academic programme, are either unavailable for ordination or have to repeat a year?

Could we then find ourselves with a permanent diaconate, or semi-permanent diaconate, by default rather than by design?

These are some of the difficulties we are identifying at the moment.

But we have certainly separated the diaconate from concept that it is merely the first year of curacy in which the curate is not able to do all the things the rector can do.

But as a staff, many of us are re-examining the wisdom of ordaining the interns as deacons.

If it is assisting in the definition of the diaconate, why are we still using terms such as “intern” and “internship” and not simply “deacon” and “diaconate”?

Parishes still expect the “deacon-interns” to fulfil all the roles and to assume all the responsibilities of a first-year curate in a traditional three-year curacy, and this places additional stress on the Year III students.

Facing the possibility of failure or change of heart during this Year III experience is truly to wrong reason to be forced into considering what a permanent diaconate would mean for the Church of Ireland.

We are still left with the legacy of those expectations, and the thinking in the old ordinal that the role of a deacon was primarily as a liturgical assistant, rather than a person who had major role in preaching and pastoral care.

In the old models, those skills were developed in the curates’ “apprenticeships.”

Other anomalies are being identified in this process too:

What is the future for NSM ministry in the Church of Ireland, if any?

What is the difference between a reader, an intern and a deacon, apart from their possible roles in baptism?

But we are seeing potentials, identifying possibilities and naming problems, and we are aware that this is the beginning of a process that there are many lessons to be learned along the way.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

No comments: