ROSALIND BROWN: THE DEACON IN WORSHIP. A ministry of hospitality

Rosalind Brown is always a welcome guest at any deacons’ gathering, not least this blog.  This paper of hers is part of the collection now published in the book ‘The Diaconate in Ecumenical Perspective’  (please note that the discount is no longer available)

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Rosalind Brown:  The Deacon in Worship.  International Ecumenical Conference on the Diaconate, May 2018, Regina, Saskatchewan.

The story of the resurrection appearance on the Emmaus Road is a story of reciprocal hospitality: just when the disciples thought they were the hosts of a stranger, Jesus was revealed as their host. We sing of this extraordinary truth in the hymn, ‘Come, risen Lord, and deign to be our guest; nay let us be thy guests, this feast is thine’. If Jesus is our host at every celebration of the Eucharist, offering God’s hospitality to us, then I want to work with the idea that – to borrow John Collins contribution – the deacon is the butler, the head servant who acts on behalf of the owner of a large household. And so in this paper I explore the idea of the deacon as the person who arranges the hospitality at the Eucharist, the Mass.

The Last Supper was Jesus’s final act of hospitality to his disciples, hospitality first offered when he invited two of them to ‘come and see’ where he was staying and they stayed all day. I wonder what they talked about and what they ate. Jesus was a cook. I’m struck by the words that go unremarked in Mark’s gospel when the disciples asked Jesus where they should go to make the Passover preparations. Jesus’s reply suggests that he, unbeknown to his companions, had made meticulous preparations in advance. Usually women, not men, carried water jars in public so, in the heightened tension around his presence in Jerusalem, this could have been a careful plan to identify the person they were to follow. And the room was furnished and ready: Jesus had made the arrangements to host his friends, the advance party just had to make the final preparations. That is hospitality, as was his action on the beach that unforgettable resurrection morning when he had breakfast on the go when they needed it. His choice of charcoal meant the smell would take Peter back to the charcoal fire by which he had denied Jesus a few days earlier and thus facilitate the subsequent conversation when Jesus, by giving Peter the chance to rework that failure, enabled Peter to know that he was truly and forever welcome. Jesus as host was very attentive to detail. Incidentally, it can be interesting to ask people if they can imagine Jesus in charge of a barbecue; for some it’s a startling thought.

Reflecting on Jesus’s hospitality, I once wrote,

O God of feast and festival, of water turned to wine,

you fed the crowds who followed you, with outcasts chose to dine;

gregarious God, your acts reveal

a place for us at every meal


O God of family and home, of simple times with friends,

you breakfast-cook at Galilee, companion when day ends;

endearing God, your acts reveal

how gently love and care can heal.


O God who walked Emmaus Road and joined in Cana’s feast,

at times you slip into our lives when we expect you least;

surprising God, your acts reveal

what your appearance may conceal.


O God of hospitality, still welcoming us all,

you also come through those in need, the inconvenient call;

O God, let all our acts reveal

the welcome that from you we feel.

Copyright © 1995 Rosalind Brown

So I’d like to explore the deacons’ role in worship as one of offering hospitality. And that, perhaps inevitably, takes me to St Benedict. For the last 13 years I have served in what was, for 450 years, a Benedictine monastic Cathedral and we still try to live by Benedict’s principles. When Benedict wrote, travel left people vulnerable to the perils on unmade roads and was physically exhausting, so visitors arrived tired and hungry from a substantial journey. Benedict’s principle? ‘All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, who said “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”’[1] That doesn’t just mean treating them well but expecting to meet Christ when we greet someone at the door. How might that possibility affect how we approach them?

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Joan Chittister writes pithily,

Of all the questions to be asked … one of the most pointed must surely be why one of the great spiritual documents of the Western world would have in it a chapter on how to answer the door. And one of the answers might be that answering the door is one of the arch-activities of Benedictine life. The way we answer doors is the way we deal with the world. … The chapter on the porter of the monastery is the chapter on how to receive the Christ in the other, always.[2]

In my book, ‘Being a Deacon Today’ I suggested that deacons should be freed from other duties in church before a service so that they can be on the church doorstep, welcoming people and helping them over the threshold which for some people could feel like an enormous hurdle to be jumped, even threatening. Think of your own church door: how easy is it to find and to open, especially if you are nervous? Is the entrance area welcoming?

A colleague once asked a group of church members in his previous parish – some longstanding, some very new – to review the church’s ministry of hospitality. When they reported back the problem was identified as the church door. So what to do about it? Their answer was not a new door but to put a welcomer outside the door who would open the door for everyone – not just visitors – and help them over the threshold. Flannery O’Connor has written, ‘Most of us come to the church by a means that the church does not allow.’[3] Deacons, through their ministry beyond church doors during the week, are on the doorstep to make sure that the many surprising ways to the church are kept open and people are encouraged to take them. So if a church has a deacon that is where he or she should be because welcoming people is the first role of the deacon in worship, echoed by the President in the opening greeting. Deacons can also train other welcomers to understand this as part of the liturgy.

Hospitality finds a welcome for everyone at their own level and some people need space to sit on the fringes and not be drawn in too far. There are always people sitting at the back of the Cathedral during services and we are happy for them to be there, and to come and go. I realise it is not always as easy in churches where there is not the same space that we have. But this may be a person’s first time and they want to see what goes on before deciding whether to be drawn in. My equivalent of their vulnerability of suddenly being immersed in a strange new world with very different norms would be visiting a casino. I wouldn’t have a clue what to do so initially would need to observe from the side-lines, feeling out of my depth unless someone came alongside me to help. So hospitality bids us put a deacon on the church door to welcome and reassure people, not just to hand out a pile of books or notice sheets. Incidentally, at the Cathedral we identify books by their colour because saying ‘the hymn book’ or ‘the prayer book’ is meaningless to some visitors. At the same time, the deacon can welcome the regulars, some of whom live alone and may not have spoken to anyone for days, and can pick up needs to be woven into the church’s prayers or provide the catalyst for a home visit.

So the deacon offers hospitality on the church doorstep, inviting people to worship. This continues in the formal liturgy as the deacon invites people to clear their consciences with God and, like Peter on the seashore, to put their failures behind them and know that they are forgiven and can hold their heads up in God’s presence. The deacon offers the people the hospitality of the gospel, God’s good news of his incarnational and transforming presence among us; at times in centuries past guarding those precious gospel scrolls and books literally with their life. And the gospel must be heard clearly: Benedict was firm that readers must be able to edify their hearers,[4] and learning to read well in public is a diaconal duty. Then, in leading the intercessions, deacons are agents of hospitality for the woes and worries, joys and hopes of the world which people bring to worship, enabling them to find their rightful place in the worship, neither dominating it nor being ignored. Very often at the Cathedral we are thanked for our intercessions because the words have been hospitable and well-led intercessions give people a vocabulary with which to pray, expressing needs they feel deeply but can’t always put into their own words.

Bidding people share the peace, when we recognise one another as the reconciled Body of Christ, leads into the deacon setting the table around which we all gather. Benedict’s description of the monastery cellarer is pertinent here.[5] The cellarer is responsible to take care not only of things, like food and kitchen utensils, but in doing so to care for people who have crossed the threshold of the monastery. He or she is to be humble and to ensure their words and actions do not lead little ones astray, and we can include vulnerable adults in that.

As an aside, Benedict’s approach, of seeing diaconal ministry as caring for people, applies to setting the altar but also to how we serve food or do the washing up at refreshments after the service. Ladling soup or pouring tea at a soup kitchen or parish lunch can be done in many ways, not all of them hospitably.

Benedict says that the vessels on the altar are to be treated in the same way as the kitchen utensils of the monastery to which he gives special attention.[6] At Durham Cathedral we have put some extracts from the Rule on the kitchen cupboards, along with a twenty first century interpretation, because, in a community that offers hospitality and where many people use the kitchen, it is important that the equipment people need is on hand. We struggle with this as plates and cutlery seem to have legs of their own, which just shows how timeless is Benedict’s wisdom. It is not hospitable to the volunteers serving refreshments if things have been borrowed and not returned or the cups needed for coffee are still dirty in the sink or there are no clean tea towels. With so many churches offering hospitality after worship, oversight of the kitchen and the rotas to provide hospitality can be seen as an element of the deacon’s ministry of hospitality in worship and engagement with the community. So here is Benedict on the subject of care of the utensils that keep the monastery running whether in the kitchen, the garden or the sacristy:

For the care of the monastery’s property
in tools, clothing and other articles
let the Abbess appoint sisters
on whose manner of life and character she can rely;
and let her, as she shall judge to be expedient,
consign the various articles to them,
to be looked after and to be collected again.[7]

Notice that anyone in charge of utensils must have a reliable manner of life and character, just as the doorkeeper’s qualifications include wisdom and maturity.[8] These are important duties and not to be assigned lightly, hence – extrapolating to ordained ministry – the bishop’s questioning of the character of those to be ordained.

Both setting the table and clearing up are vital parts of hospitality whether offered at home or in the Eucharist which is the expression of our Lord’s hospitality to us. So the deacon prepares the altar for the Eucharistic celebration. One child visiting Durham Cathedral in a school group saw the high altar and asked the guide, ‘Is that tablecloth like my Mam puts out when we have a special meal?’ She’d got the message: special altar linens matter. Kathleen Norris’s book, ‘The Cloister Walk’, tells of her experiences as a ‘married woman with a thoroughly Protestant background and often more doubt that faith’[9] when she spent two extended residencies in a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery. In another article about this experience, she describes an epiphany moment in the Mass of seeing a vested minister, quite possibly a deacon, doing the ablutions at the altar. I couldn’t find the quotation where she records her astonishment that (in my recollection of her words) ‘he was doing the washing up in the service!’ which led her to realise how the work she did at her kitchen sink day in, day out, for her family has immense value in God’s sight and is not out of place on the altar at the end of the Mass. Deacons model holding together church and world.

And then the deacon is back to directing traffic over the church doorstep as, with the dismissal, the deacon orders rather than invites people to leave church to live in the world the new way of Eucharistic living of which they have had a foretaste in church. And if the deacon can do that by demonstrating the value of washing up, of care of utensils, of proclaiming the gospel, of bringing the needs of the world into the heart of worship, then maybe, just maybe, the gathered and worshipping people of God will catch a vision of how they can offer Christ’s hospitality to the people they meet in the coming week. In other words, how they, led by the deacon, can bring Eucharistic life and worship into the heart of the world.

[1] The Rule of St Benedict. Chapter 53

[2] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict. Insights for the Ages New York: Crossroad 1992 p170

[3]Kathleen Norris, Dakota: a spiritual geography, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company 1993 p63

[4] The Rule of St Benedict. Chapter 38

[5] The Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 31

[6] The Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 31

[7] The Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 32

[8] The Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 66

[9] Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, New York, Riverhead Books 1996, inside front cover

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