As warden of the college of St Philip the Deacon in Exeter diocese, I work to a diocesan steering group who recently asked me to provide a short paper on how long people who have been ordained distinctive deacon should spend in the diaconate, before they could start candidating for priesthood.
Most deacons will be aware of the steady trickle (and it is a trickle, not a stream) of people moving from one to the other, for reasons we know well (mentioned in paper). Of course it goes without saying that if someone is being called by God into priesthood, then they should heed that call.
However, concerns are raised every so often as to the speed that some people do this: they are only DDs for a few months before they start exploring priesthood. My steering group wanted to think through the issues. This very short paper has been approved by them, and I thought it would be of wider interest. Do let me have your reflections.
DIOCESE OF EXETER
HOW LONG SHOULD DISTINCTIVE DEACONS REMAIN IN THE DIACONATE BEFORE EXPLORING PRIESTHOOD?
The Church of England has always subscribed to the threefold ordained ministry of bishop, priest and deacon. Although the diaconate was originally understood as a ministry in its own right, over time it gradually lost its emphasis on caring for the needs of the poor until it was seen merely as a necessary stepping-stone to priesthood. This is how most people in the church understand the diaconate today.
Although the focus and trajectory of the distinctive diaconate is now much clearer than it used to be, the waters are still muddied by the dual aspect of this ministry, in that it is seen both as a preparation for priesthood for some, while being the goal and fulfilment for distinctive deacons. This is a particular issue for those who see the diaconate as primarily a liturgical role, in which case priesthood can be understood as a short step towards liturgical fulfilment. The outcome of this and other considerations is that some who candidate and are ordained as distinctive deacons start exploring priesthood very early in their curacy.
Since the revival of the social aspect of the diaconate in the nineteenth century, there have always been people who believe that God’s calling to them was to diaconal ministry in its own right, the so-called ‘distinctive’ diaconate. Distinctive deacons have a strong call to an outward-looking, community-minded ministry with the hallmark of mission through service. They prefer to be out and about, making contacts, building relationships, identifying and meeting needs, creating stepping-stones between God and the world. They often have a particular concern for issues of poverty and justice. Although the deacon’s ministry is fed by and returns to the Eucharist, the primary focus for distinctive deacons is always outward-facing, located on the margins of church and community and committed to enabling the diakonia of the whole church. This is the ambassadorial understanding of the diaconate in the diocese of Exeter in use by the DDO and vocations advisers when meeting diaconal enquirers.
Although a personal call to priesthood is always to be respected, diaconal vocation is not just about an individual calling but also about the ministry itself. There is a continuing need to educate the church that the diaconate is not an inferior order or a waiting room for priesthood but a robust and vigorous ministry in its own right.
This indicates that deacons who have been through several years of discernment and have been ordained with a clear diaconal call should be encouraged to take some responsibility for a decision which has been made prayerfully and communally and publicly witnessed in ordination. Time is needed for distinctive deacon curates to explore the diaconate. The facets noted in our diocesan diaconal dispositions include relationship-building, pioneering, the meaning of servanthood, community networking, trust-building, starting new projects, teambuilding etc as well as poverty and justice issues. Beginning to inhabit the diaconate in this way cannot be rushed.
There is precedent in the Nordic church as well as in the diocese of York for a minimum term in the diaconate (seven years) for those ordained as distinctive. The diocesan steering group for the College of St Philip the Deacon considers that the three years of curacy is a minimum length of time for those who have been ordained as distinctive deacons to do justice to some of these areas of diaconal ministry. As a result, it recommends that it should be made clear to distinctive deacons that no exploration of priesthood will be considered until these three years have been satisfactorily completed as ministers with a primarily diaconal calling. If after three years they are of a mind to consider priesthood, they would be free to raise it with their bishop in their end-of-curacy interview. This would help to ensure that such priesthood candidates understand more fully the differences between diaconate and priesthood, and can show that they have taken this ministry seriously. It would also help to safeguard the integrity and uniqueness of the distinctive diaconate and contribute to the clarity of the whole church on this much-misunderstood vocation.
Rev Deacon Gill Kimber