WHO DO THEY THINK WE ARE? Report on York deacons’ conference March 2020


Speaker:  Rev Dr Anna Sorensen 

Deacons Weekend Conference at Wydale Hall, Yorkshire (28th February 2020 to 1st March 2020) 

Report by Sarah Johnson, diaconal enquirer 

Hosted by York Diocese and audio files from the weekend are aimed to be available through their website.

Rev Dr Anna Sorensen (details below) expertly presented issues to be considered, and formulated questions for discussion with the theme of “Who do they think you are?” permeating throughout the weekend.

Session 1:  Deacons as Servants of the Church

All Christians have a servant ministry by virtue of baptism,  but the deacon’s focus is to model and enable others to respond to human need by loving service which resonates with the third mark of mission.  We explored  the common misinterpretation of the deacon’s service as servile, inferior or second best, considering where some of the misunderstandings have arisen historically, particularly how the diaconate was referred to following the conversion of Constantine and the ‘fake news’ constructed around it. Imperial patronage and the structures of state created a sequential hierarchy of orders with deacons serving as apprentice priests, and a transitional deacon becoming the norm. This model continued  after the Reformation and the establishment of the C of E, creating over 400 years of the Church’s understanding of a deacon being ‘inferior’ (final collect of the 1550 ordinal refers to the deacon as an ‘inferior office’*.)

John Collins’ work on diakonia was important in re-establishing ‘diakon’ words as relating to one who undertakes a mandatory task. A good example is his exegesis of Acts 6.1-4 from the book ‘Deacons and the Church, Making connections between old and new.’  This extract was shared, reviewed and discussed.

We were reminded that the charism of service is not servility. It is a Christ-like ministry following the hard service of Christ crucified. It is a commission, with the pattern laid down by Jesus himself; a visible self-giving ministry involving costly, strong, servanthood with a discipleship pattern. The leadership of deacons is about challenging and enabling others to carry forward the mission of God.

To quote Bishop Cuthbert’s remark to Anna during her research – “Deacons are less churchy and more feisty”  

Question for reflection and discussion:

Where should the balance come between service and commission in the ministry of a DD?

The general feedback was that it is a balance between both, and each element is important to underpin the work of a deacon.

Deacons at Wydale 2020

Conferencees at Wydale Hall, March 2020.  35 people altogether – the most ever!

Day 2

Session 2 : Transitional Diaconate

Deacons are called to a liminal ministry – this is different from the sacramental focus of priest and broader than serving for example as a social worker.  The diaconal experience of transitional deacons is different, and largely focused on preparing to become the priest.  Therefore the old adage “once a deacon, always a deacon” does not resonate with the calling of distinctive deacons in a way that develops deep understanding.

Interesting to look at the % of time priests spend doing the “priestly” and the“deacon” tasks as proportions of their time.

Question for reflection and discussion:

Should we accept sequential ordination as our inheritance or should we consider direct ordination as a more complementary and collaborative model?

The majority present felt that direct ordination would help clarify each calling and provide pathways for training that can focus on the needs of deacons and priests separately, allowing each to understand the other’s vocation.  No one expressed a wish to maintain sequential ordination.

Later that morning three deacons shared their stories of their first year following their ordination.   Whilst each ministry was contrasting and different there was a common thread of passionate caring for the communities that they were serving, responding to need according to their gifting and being a Christ-light in the places they encountered.

Session 3: Readers and Deacons

Most ordinary church folk have no idea about deacons.  Bishop Barry Rogerson (1998) took the view that deacons had been replaced by readers. There is overlap but the deacon has a focus outside the gathered community whereas the reader is a teacher and lay theologian for the gathered congregation. We then explored how reader ministry and the ministry of the deaconess developed from a historical perspective.

There was also a short discussion on the role of Deacons within a liturgical and sacramental ministry.  Within the group, and in Anna’s research, there was a wide range of practice in sacramental ministry.  The ordinals have said different things over time.  The 2007 Common Worship ordinal has deacons not baptizing, however this is not consistent across the different Dioceses.  A discussion followed with regard to the reason people may be asking a deacon to conduct weddings/baptisms. There was a strong feeling in the group that perhaps there are times and circumstances when involvement of deacons is appropriate, for example if requests arise in the context of a pre-existing pastoral relationship. This needs to be considered locally and in careful dialogue with incumbents and bishops.

Question for reflection and discussion:  

What should the future relationship between reader and deacon look like?

Within the room there was a general agreement that there is sufficient  space for both deacons and readers to flourish in ministry, with a willingness to work together as each is important.  The key to mutual flourishing centers around collaborative ministry.

Anna then summarised some important things to consider whilst going forward so the wider church has a better understanding of who deacons are.

  • The Church of England has taken notice of John Collins’ reflection on the meaning of diakon words as conveying an envoy and agent of God’s purposes of love which is now reflected in the current ordination liturgy for deacons. This is a liberating approach which enables deacons to be more responsive, creating new ways to meet need; a way to minister according to skills rather than a set list of tasks.  Paula Gooder focuses on the mandate for the deacon’s ministry – why we do it. Deacons can move away from a functional ministry concerned with tasks to a theological ministry based on the one who sends us.
  • Insist on visibility – representation in the house of clergy (which is in reality the house of priests considering its representatives). There is a house for Bishops but not the diaconate. There’s no seat for deacons to be represented although other groups have a given representation. Make sure your title is recorded accurately as this ensures visibility of deacons.
  • Play to your strengths – there is a strong international and ecumenical link within the history of the diaconate. Therefore there is a shared heritage which allows a gateway between denominations in a very special and particular way. There’s a rich seam of ecumenism to be mined.  The world-wide DIAKONIA network is a valuable portal but currently the C of E has no affiliation mechanism to this link although this will hopefully be rectified in the near future.

The group was very grateful for Anna’s thoughtful and thought-provoking insights.  They generated many lively and reflective discussions with the group of deacons, ordinands and enquirers drawn mainly from the diocese of York but with representation from several other dioceses.  The opportunity for deacons to come together, share practice and encourage one another is highly valued.  We are a growing number and look forward to meeting again in Birmingham at the national forum Deacons on the Move 2020:  details here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/deacons-on-the-move-2020-tickets-77728031635?aff=ebdssbdestsearch

Anna’s thesis can be found in full here: https://deaconstories.files.wordpress.com/2018/11/anna-sorensen-phdthe-ultimate-1.pdf

Anna is Rector Designate for the North Beltisloe Benefice and Bishop’s Officer for Distinctive Deacons (diocese of Lincoln).  Her PhD thesis (2018) took the theme ‘What does it mean to be a distinctive deacon in the Church of England today?’

  • Young, Francis: Inferior Office?  A history of deacons in the Church of England:  Francis Young 2015.  James Clarke and Co Ltd  ISBN-10: 0227174887       ISBN-13: 978-0227174883

With thanks to Deacon Liz Carrington and Sarah Johnson


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