Recently, Deacon Corinne Smith was invited to give a paper at the Annual Conference of Roman Catholic Diaconate Directors and Deacon Representatives, run by the Department of Catholic Education and Formation, under the authority of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.  Her brief was to talk about Anglican Deacons from a woman’s perspective – a very timely contribution now that Pope Francis has set up a commission to look at women deacons.

Corinne has kindly shared her paper with us:  here’s what she said:

Anglican (women) Deacons

Deacon Corinne Smith (Portsmouth diocese)


Francis Young in his book, “Inferior Office: a history of deacons in the Church of England”, describes how the Church of England’s “relatively sudden conversion to the idea of a lifelong or distinctive diaconate” came in the 1980s, as a consequence of the need to accommodate women’s aspirations for ordained ministry.

Yet, as he also says, “less than 10 years after the momentous decision to admit women to deacon’s orders, the distinctive diaconate was brought to the brink of extinction as the majority of women deacons sought ordination as priests”. (P87)

1968 saw the Report “Women in Ministry”, which proposed the recognition of women as deacons in the true sense, as one possibility among others in the Anglican Communion. The action of the Church in Canada gave further impetus to this, by ordaining its first woman deacon in 1969; and in 1980 The Church in Wales ordained its first women deacons.

In 1981 The Deaconess Community of St Andrew organised a consultation on the diaconate; and in the same year The House of Bishops in General Synod produced “The Deaconess Order and the Diaconate”, which was commonly known as the “Portsmouth Report. This document paved the way for General Synod’s approval of the ordination of women deacons in July 1985.

Among other recommendations, the Report urged that “The Church of England make provision for, and encourage, men and women to serve in the distinctive diaconate.

In reality, the distinctive diaconate was not something to which many men were likely to be drawn, because the nature of the work undertaken by deacons was of the sort traditionally associated with women. However, in Portsmouth Diocese, the then Bishop, Ronald Gordon, did set up a training programme specifically designed for male Anglican deacons.

By 1984 General Synod had made amendments to the canons such that the ordination of women as deacons could be allowed, without the need for parliament to debate the issues.

A clause was also added at this time that “nothing in this measure shall make it lawful for a woman to be ordained to the office of a priest”; and it was finally passed by General Synod in 1985.

In 1987 The first women deacons were ordained, and Canon law was amended to allow licensed deaconesses to apply to their bishop for ordination to the diaconate, the canons having closed the Order of deaconesses to new members from 1986.

In 1987 there were 750 female and 13 male deacons (7 of whom were in Portsmouth).

The legacy of the Portsmouth Report however, was to create a permanent diaconate without providing a structure for it to be integrated into the Church’s ministry as a whole. This has cast long shadows, which continue today.

The Portsmouth Report has been described as being primarily a vehicle for meeting womens’ demand to be admitted to ordained ministry, without outraging conservative opinion. As a result of this, women’s diaconal ministry was defined negatively, that is to say, they were clerks in Holy Orders as deacons, because they could not be priests.

Some people continued to argue for the intrinsic value of the diaconate, though. (Alison White and Di Williams) “Deacons at your service”, which suggested two images of the ministry: servant and bridge.

This book foreshadowed some later theological thinking in the GS report “For such a time as this”, which describes the deacon as bridge “representing the Church to the world and the world to the Church”.

In this model, the deacon provides a way for clergy to travel towards the laity and the laity towards the clergy.

1988 saw the publication of “Deacons on the Ministry of the Church”, by Stephen Platten and Mary Tanner. This remains a major resource for Anglican thinking on the diaconate. BUT the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood continued to be an issue to be addressed.

Platten rejected a “functionalist” understanding of the deacon’s ministry, drawing on Karl Rahner to say that the diaconate was of value in its own right, since it calls out individuals to represent both Christ to the Church and through that the Church’s ministry in Christ to the world.

He emphasised the role of deacon as servant and embodiment of servanthood in the Church, with two “poles” to the ministry” Pastoral care – which he saw as being more appropriately exercised in e.g. a hospital or a prison, rather than a parish context – and liturgical worship, where the deacon becomes the “sacramental representation of the Church’s ministry of service.” (P96)

Platten also suggested alternative selection and training criteria for women deacons, but apparently there wasn’t the funding for this, and it was also thought to be “discriminatory” to train women deacons differently from men heading for priesthood, especially as many women believed they would eventually be priested.

It is fair to say that the Church of England was unprepared for women deacons! Although 10 places were reserved for women deacons in a special constituency in GS, 25 were elected in 1990.

What bishops may have seen as a minority ministry rapidly became a major section of the clergy, and by 1990 there were 999 women deacons in the C/E of whom 511 were stipendiary and 256 were non-stipendiary. 56 were non-stipendiary deacons in secular employment. Interestingly, the 256 had been working as paid lay-workers prior to their ordination!

By 1991 there were 1200 women deacons, but the issue of identity i.e. whether they were distinctive deacons or “priests in waiting”, continued to divide opinion.

Catherine Treasure “Deacons now” was clearly in favour of deacons taking as many traditionally priestly roles as canon law would permit. She predicted that the diaconate would die out once women were priested, but what happened was that, once women were admitted to the priesthood, some women deacons (I count myself among them), were subjected to huge pressure to be priested in order to be seen to be more “useful”.

Anglican thinking about the diaconate as a ministry in its own right was further hampered between 1987 – 94 by the fact that new research done by John Collins Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources”, which was published in 1990 wasn’t widely known.

From 1998 – 2003, there was a marked decline in numbers; and in the five years since the ordination of women to the priesthood, numbers dropped to just 155 distinctive deacons: 114 women and 41 men.

Interestingly, in the second half of the 1990s, interest in the diaconate expanded globally and ecumenically, leading to the publication of the Hanover Report in 1996, which was a joint declaration made by the Anglican Communion and the Lutheran World Federation.

Anglican churches which had decided to ordain women to the priesthood also began to revisit their thinking on what deacons should be, but the momentum was lost again when Churches in the Anglican Communion started to explore the possibility of women being consecrated bishop.

In 2001 a report recommending the development of a distinctive diaconate “For such a time as this” was debated by Synod, but it was referred for more work and has yet to be debated again.

In 2003 The Diocese of Salisbury’s Report on the Distinctive Diaconate by Rosalind Brown, drew on “For Such a Time as This”; and Chichester Diocese also commissioned a report on how its deacons might relate to lay ministries within that diocese. (The Chichester Report)

Since 2006 the issue of deacons has been raised again in Synod in the context of a debate of Lay Readers, but we are still no further forward.

The 2007 GS report “The Mission and Ministry of the whole Church” recognised that distinctive deacons do have a place as a part of the Church of England’s ministry strategy, but encouragement for it varies from one diocese to another; and the cause of distinctive deacons still depends very much on the sympathy of individual bishops.

DACE, which was founded in 1988 and folded last year, was an Association for those involved in “Diaconal” ministries in the UK and was affiliated with Worldwide Diakonia. Membership included Distinctive Deacons, but it also had, for example, Church Army officers as part of its membership. With such a broad portfolio, plus the fact that it lacked the status of the Central Readers’ Council (which is a charity within Min Division), DACE never really had a voice for Deacons within the structures of the Church of England.

But things are changing for the better….

The diaconate has always been an option for Anglo-Catholic women who feel called by God, but who remain uncertain about the legitimacy of ordination to the priesthood; but the Evangelical Anglican group, Reform, has also recently begun to promote the ordination of women to the diaconate because it gets round the “headship” problem.

However, there is more potential for the diaconate than merely as providing “sidings” for those of different churchmanships into which women can be shunted! it is very exciting to see the number of men becoming distinctive deacons increasing, and there has been a growing awareness in some parts of the Church that diaconal ordination is particularly suited to those who feel called to “pioneer ministry”.

Deacons, whose ministry has been characterised by the symbol of the bridge, are exactly the right people, where the top priority is directed towards growing more Christians by reaching out to the unchurched and those on the fringes.

The report “The Mission and Ministry of the Whole Church” says of the distinctive diaconate “The distinctive diaconate is particularly appropriate where an individual feels strongly drawn to the missionary, go-between ministry, seeking out lost sheep and bringing both the message of the gospel and the practical care that goes with it to the unchurched…

It ends by saying that the “distinctive diaconate should be actively encouraged”, and that it needs to be “more widely recognised as a valid calling…and where the training pathway for distinctive deacons could be more clearly and prominently signposted than it has been in the past”. (P163)

The picture across the Church of England remains patchy, because of differences in the way Deacons are regarded by the various Diocesan Bishops, but there are real signs of renewal.

Paul Avis and Stephen Ferns produced guidelines for Directors of Ordinands to consider when evaluating vocations to the distinctive diaconate, which is now used nationwide.

Exeter Diocese has recently started a College of Deacons, which gives them a place within Diocesan structures, with a Warden and 10 Deacons consisting of 5 women and 5 men.

York Diocese also has a positive view of Deacons, and is looking to set up a College along the lines of Exeter. They currently have 9 Deacons, with one in training; and there are active plans in hand for expanding the numbers.

Portsmouth has 8 Deacons, three of whom are serving their curacies, and is also looking toward setting up a College of Deacons, again with a mix of men and women.

Chichester Diocese has 23 Deacons, and the Director of Apostolic Life for that Diocese is Canon Deacon Rebecca Swyer.

Southwark Diocese has recently revived the distinctive diaconate and they now have 6 deacons, both men and women.

There are other Dioceses where things are beginning to change, but that gives a bit of an idea of what is currently happening.

It feels as though this is a “Kairos moment” in the Church, as many of us are now recognising that the Diaconate is exactly the Missional, Evangelistic form of ministry which is most appropriate for the furtherance of the Kingdom in our day; and, because we don’t have presidency to come between us, has huge potential for ecumenical working between Anglican and Roman Catholic Deacons.


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