25 June 2016

Reflecting on an ordination anniversary
and the role of deacons in the Church

An icon of Saint Philip the Deacon with the Ethiopian Eunuch, by Ann Chapin (2008)

Patrick Comerford

I was ordained deacon 16 years ago today [25 June 2000], and yesterday I celebrated my ordination as priest 15 years ago on the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist [24 June 2001].

As I was reflecting on these anniversaries yesterday, I recalled too how my path to ordination began 45 years ago when I was a 19-year-old in Lichfield, following very personal and special experiences in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, and in Lichfield Cathedral in 1971.

As priests, we normally celebrate the anniversary of our ordination to the priesthood, and reflect on it sacramentally. But I wonder whether we reflect on the same way on the significance of our ordination as deacons, despite all the token assents we give to the notion that we remain deacons after our ordination to the priesthood?

When candidates are presented to the bishop for ordination in the Church of Ireland as deacons, the bishop declares:

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. Deacons have a special responsibility to ensure that those in need are cared for with compassion and humility. They are to strengthen the faithful, search out the careless and the indifferent, and minister to the sick, the needy, the poor and those in trouble.

When called upon to do so, they may baptize, preach and give instruction in the faith.

Deacons assist the bishop and priest under whom they serve. When the people are gathered for worship, deacons are authorized to read the Gospel, lead the people in intercession, and distribute the bread and wine of Holy Communion.

The bishop asks those who are being ordained deacon a number of questions, including:

Will you be faithful in visiting the sick, in caring for the poor and needy, and in helping the oppressed?

Will you promote unity, peace, and love among all Christian people, and especially among those whom you serve?

Will you then, in the strength of the Holy Spirit, continually stir up the gift of God that is in you, to make Christ known to all people?

Over the past week or two, I have been celebrating with one of my students, the Revd Kevin Conroy, who has celebrated completing his MTh dissertation examining the diaconate and our understanding of it in the Church of Ireland.

An added pleasure in supervising Kevin’s research is his achievement in being awarded the Weir Prize at the end of this academic year.

Kevin lives in Wicklow and has served his internship as a deacon in Saint Brigid’s, Stillorgan, and All Saints’, Blackrock, with the Revd Ian Gallagher.

In his dissertation, he asks: “In the light of recent discussions among the Porvoo member Churches, is the permanent diaconate a distinctive ministry for implementation within the Church of Ireland, and what are the consequences for understanding the three-fold ministry?”

An interesting aspect of Kevin’s dissertation comes when he turns to the Preamble and Declaration to the Constitution of the Church of Ireland, which declared in 1870: “The Church of Ireland will … maintain inviolate the three orders of bishops, priests or presbyters, and deacons in the sacred ministry.”

It would be unimaginable to have a diocese without a bishop and priests, but many dioceses are without deacons, and those dioceses with deacons see them as deacons in transition to the priesthood.

I have taken part in some of these Porvoo Consultations, and it has been a real pleasure to journey with Kevin during this research.

I travelled a similar journey with the Revd Suzanne Cousins, whose dissertation topic is: “Generous Love in Multi-faith Ireland: towards mature citizenship and positive pedagogy for the Church of Ireland in local Christian-Muslim mission and engagement.”

She describes the aim of this research as identifying “hindrances to Christian engagement in Church of Ireland parishes and dioceses, with a view to stimulating the future development of a contextualised teaching resource on Christian-Muslim engagement for use by clergy and laity in the Church’s changing mission context.”

Once again, this is a subject area that I have worked on in a number of contexts, and it is a particular pleasure that the external examiner has considered this work to have been carried out at doctoral standard and has recommended it for publication. We celebrated together over lunch on Thursday [23 June 2016].

Suzanne lives in Newcastle, Co Down, and has served her internship as a deacon in Saint Mark’s, Newownards, with the Revd Chris Matchett. She is to be ordained priest in September to serve in the parish of Saint Columba’s, Moville, Co Donegal, in the Diocese of Raphoe, and Kevin is to be ordained priest to serve in the parish of Saint Patrick’s, Dublin, in the Diocese of Dublin.

As I reflect on the anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate, I have a special prayer for these two deacons in particular as they prepare to move on the priesthood.

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