CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE FUTURE
This paper began with the efforts of the first followers of Jesus to be a Christian community which undertook the mission of making the Good News known everywhere. In this topic we return to the Church, the followers of Jesus, and this time to the people of our own time and place, as we too seek to respond to that missional call.
You will notice that the readings for this topic offer a selection of perspectives from people, deacons and others, who are looking at the diaconate not as a ministry in isolation but as an integral part of the Church today and for the future; as one writer puts it, the question the Church (and each diocese within it) needs to be asking is, not what can deacons do but what can “deacons together with the bishop, the priests and the lay ministers do”.1 Collins writes:
Given the nature of the tasks undertaken by deacons in major regions of the diaconal movement, an understanding of diakonia must be cultivated which embraces social welfare without being simply identified with it. One way to attempt this is through the idea of a sacred commission.…. The educational process [to bring about this change]would require a shift from the idea of service to the needy to the idea of the delegation of the community’s deacons and co-helpers. In reaching an understanding of this shift and of the reasons for it, each community would also be brought face to face with its corporate responsibility to acknowledge the presence in their midst of the Lord who serves. Each community would also be led to accept a corporate response “to effect the development of the body for its up-building in love (my emphasis) Ephesians 4:16.2
When writers speak of deacons as ‘living icons of signs of hope’, as ‘signs of solidarity’ and of ‘leaders empowering others in ministry’ they do so within the context of a Church called to mission.For Deacon Michael Ross, the ministry of a deacon involves self-effacement and active witness that can create a bridge connecting worldliness with the transcendent. Rather than suffocatingthe ministry of the laity, the ministry and action of the deacon, as a bridge, instead, open up new possibilities for those who follow the lead of deacon in devotion to the mission of Christ.3Paul McPartlan describes the deacon as a sign of solidarity, a sign of‘seamlessness’ between altar and workplace/family/neighbourhood – the kind of seamlessness that should exist between Church and the world if the church is to be truly at work in that world.4 William McKnight argues that the deacon’s fundamental ministry “ is the support of the laity’s participation in the apostolic mission of the church”, facilitating the participation of others in works of mercy, helping the local church to express and fulfil its desires to serve , “an instrument of the Spirit for the growth of the church in service to the gospel”.5
In a reflection on the moral life of a deacon, Deacon James Keating argues that because the sacramental identity of the deacon is mission, then the key disposition of the deacon must be an eagerness, an availability, to serve and to be concerned for the needs of others. One’s interior life, the developing conscience and communion with God, are to sustain a life of peacemaking, humility and “eager availability” as expressed in the simple question: ‘how may I help you’?6
We have begun to move back from the world of theory into the day-to day reality of life in ministry; the next three Readings all offer more of this. Rosalind Brown’s book Being a Deacon Today is worth reading as a whole but one chapter is included here, one in which she explores what it might mean for deacons to be found ‘at the margins’.
The short article from the journal “Ministry” offers one example of such a ‘marginal’ context for ministry and then the final chapter ofa book by Deacon Ronnie Aitchison discusses ‘diaconal ministry and the future from the perspective of a deacon in the Methodist Church.
‘The Deacon at the Margins’ in Being a Deacon Today: Exploring a distinctive ministry in the Church and in the world by Rosalind Brown, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2005, pp. 31-44.
‘Shaping World-Facing Ministry: Theological reflection on Industrial Mission as the work of Deacons’ by Peter Hayler in Ministry, The Edward King Institute for Ministry Development, Volume 2, Spring 2003, pp. 3-4.
‘Diaconal Ministry and the Future’ in The Ministry of a Deacon by Ronnie Aitchison, Peterborough: Epworth Press, pp. 156-176
Robert Hannaford too, whose work we noted in Topic 8, is one of the writers who have strongly linked the diaconate with the Kingdom of God; he argues that the office of deacon is a sign to the Church of the ‘radical conversion of life’ required by those who would enter the Kingdom of God – a transformation that involves becoming as servants, slaves and children … as Jesus himself. Hannaford goes as far as to say that the deacon is both a sign of the Kingdom of God ‘breaking in’ and a call to the Church to conform ever more closely to the servant messiah. he speaks of its prophetic potential to represent the place of the poor and outcasts in the Kingdom of God, reminding the Church of the authority of their voice as the powerless ones:”[A]s a sign of God’s Kingdom the diaconal ministry is an expression of both the priority of the poor and of the gospel’s demand that we should be free of the ensnarements of this age”.7
The Kingdom of God
The kingdom of God or rather the Kingdom Community is the focus of our last reading. David Clark left his ministry as a Presbyter in the Methodist Church and entered the Order of Deacons partly in response to his own growing awareness of the diaconal nature of his ministry. In his book, Breaking the mould of Christendom: Kingdom community, Diaconal Church and the Liberation of the Laity, Clark argues that the world faces an urgent choice between community of chaos. In looking to the choice of community, he sees the Kingdom community as the ideal -where people live in accordance with the purposes of God. The church is being called (as it always has been to be the servant (diakonos) of the Kingdom community and furthermore it is necessary break the existing mould of Christendom “ if the diaconal church is to be able to offer the gifts of the kingdom community to a world facing a stark choice between chaos and community”.8
Clark looks to the liberation of the laity who need to be free of the constraints of Christendom in order to be servants of the Kingdom community, builders of that community and the renewed diaconate has an essential role to play. he places the future of the Kingdom of God squarely in the hands of deacon leaders. He argues that current structures and leadership are caught up in maintaining the Christendom model of Church – the subtext of so many mission endeavours is to put people in the pews. Instead he argues we are called to be part of the bringing about the Kingdom of God, the realm of God, the well-being of God for all people everywhere. And unless deacon leaders are raised up to train laity to fulfil their calling as church dispersed in the world – in homes, workplaces and schools, in communities and suburbs, then the church will have nothing to say to our world which is being threatened by disintegration in so many ways.
Clark sees the Order of Deacons as essential to keeping the Church focussed on the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom community rather than the maintenance of Christendom; he argues that we need to train deacons to be agents of change, community builders, community educators who can teach and enable laity to be a force for good, a force for God in the world. Deacons are ideally placed to do this enabling as they are more flexible and mobile, less ‘embedded in the institution’. Deacons need to build on and move beyond their previous roles of carers and activists; now is the time for deacons to become community educators and leaders: raising awareness, equipping the laity, caring for the dispersed church, linking church and society, being involved in cross-church ministry – being catalysts and enablers for the Kingdom community.
Clark is also practical and does make useful suggestions about training and formation based on his experience as lecturer as well as ordained minister. He begins with working life experience as a pre-requisite for acceptance; he acknowledges the importance of theological and historical knowledge particularly around the diaconate; he is concerned that there be sufficient emphasis on spiritual formation and, he adds to these, training in community work skills – the theory and practice of leading and equipping others, building partnerships , working with people. He argues that at this time, because the Christendom model dominates standard training of ordinands, deacons would benefit from being trained separately from priests and pastors. The diagram in the Book of Readings gives some indication of the way he sees the ordained ministries working together – the episcopal role is the one, he argues, that integrates and holds the roles of presbyter and deacon together. Then read through the final chapter of his book, ‘A renewed diaconate: liberating the laity’.
‘A renewed diaconate: liberating the laity’ in Breaking the mould of Christendom: Kingdom community, Diaconal Church and the Liberation of the Laity by David Clark, Peterborough: Epworth, 2005, pp. 273-295
At the end of this Study Guide, I wonder how you see the diaconate in the Church and where you see the renewal of the diaconate heading?
I wonder what local issues or challenges you face?
I hope you have enjoyed this study and that it has encouraged or enlivened your ministry wherever it is experienced.
Your final assignment invites you to reflect on your study of this Course.
What difference has it made to your understanding or experience of the diaconate?
Please take some time to look back over this Course and identify your areas of learning, affirmation and or challenge.
After I have read it, I will return your confidential evaluation to you. Since I am accountable to the St John’s Trust Board for the provision of this Study, I may ask if I can include comments you make but if I do so these will be incorporated into my Report to the Board in a way that does not identify you in any way.
Thank you for your help with this.
- Keenan Osborne, OFM in The Permanent Diaconate: Its History and Place in the Sacrament of Orders, (N.J.: Paulist Press, 2006) 153.
- John Collins in Deacons And The Church: Making Connections, (England: Gracewing 2002) 134-5.
- Michael Ross, ‘the deacon: icon of the sign of hope, The Deacon Reader, (N.J.:Paulist Pres, 2006) 110
- Paul McPartlan, The Deacon Reader, ibid, 66
- William McKnight, The Deacon Reader, ibid, 84-85
- James Keating, The Deacon Reader, ibid, 122-138
- Robert Hannaford, ‘Towards a Theology of the Diaconate’ in The Deacon’s Ministry, Christine Hall ed. (Herefordshire: Gracewing, 1992), 42
- David Clark in Breaking the mould of Christendom: Kingdom community, Diaconal Church and the Liberation of the Laity, (Peterborough: Epworth, 2005) xviii