Deacon Paul Hollingworth shares his vocational journey, through ups and downs, divorce, remarriage, Roman Catholic and then Anglican ordination. Thanks, Paul! It’s always inspiring to learn how God has been at work in someone’s life, leading them to the diaconate.
My Deacon Journey
by Rev Deacon Paul Hollingworth, Romsey Abbey, diocese of Winchester
Over the past ten and a half years in which I have been an ordained Reverend Deacon, I am often asked what a deacon is, and why am I not a priest? Well, here is my story in which, I pray, you will find some answers and inspiration.
My journey started at eleven years old, when I was the only member of my immediate family to be confirmed in the Church of England at St Augustine’s, Gillingham, Kent. I went on to become a member of the choir at my local church of St Barnabas, Gillingham. Through this early ministry in the Church I started to grow, and realise faith was becoming very important in my life.
But, as happens a lot today, my teenage years led me astray, and I drifted away from attending church. But my faith never really diminished, as from my confirmation I was aware of something nagging me to do more. I did not become aware of what this was until I reached my mid-thirties. So read on and find out what.
By twenty-one I was married to my first wife and had two wonderful sons, but this marriage was not to last, and we were divorced after seven years. This was a major turning point in my life, as I started a new life and tried to make sense of what the past had meant. For me, I quickly learnt that although I was not at that point a ‘practising Christian’, my faith had helped me through a traumatic time, and the nagging feeling I’d had in my youth returned. However, I still did not fully realise what this was, other than it felt as if someone was almost constantly telling me to open my heart and listen.
For the next couple of years I struggled with what it was to be single again, and moved back in with my parents. During this time my parents supported me, and especially my mother who I was very close to. My mum had a strong faith, and that I believe is where my faith developed from. My father was an atheist and unfortunately stopped my mum from going to church, although she read the bible every day.
After a couple of years I met Mary, who was a divorcee with two beautiful daughters, and we were married after two years of going out with each other. We both felt that we wanted God in our marriage, and at that time only the local Methodist Church in Gillingham would marry us as we were both divorcees. From this moment on my path was set to start my journey of becoming a deacon.
Mary and I, after a short stay in Chorley in Lancashire, moved to Romsey in 1986. Mary had an upbringing as a Roman Catholic and wanted to start going back to church. This was the moment I realised how much I had missed Church, and the nagging in my soul started in earnest. We agreed to find a RC Church and go together to worship. This was St Joseph’s in La Sagesse Convent, and at that time the priest was Father Louis Cotterall.
The community, especially the nuns, welcomed us and I very quickly became involved in ministry within St Joseph’s, from moving furniture for the nuns, to reading scripture at Mass on a Sunday. My Christian faith continued to grow, and eventually during Mass one Sunday I got this massive feeling I had to talk to the priest, as God was calling me for something and I had finally opened my heart and listened.
From my discussion with Fr Louis, it became evident that I might be seeking ordination, and in the RC Church this meant as a Permanent Deacon. But before we could even consider this, Mary and I would have to go through a marriage tribunal to see if our previous marriages could be annulled, as this would then allow me to become a Roman Catholic, and our marriage could be solemnized in the RC Church.
This process took two years, which I found very difficult, as my faith had grown to such an extent I now knew God was calling me to ordained ministry. In the end, both our previous marriages were annulled, which opened the door to me becoming a Roman Catholic. My journey towards ordination as a deacon began in earnest. I had a year of discernment led by the Franciscan nuns at their convent in Sway. This was followed by three years of formation training through St John’s seminary at Wonersh near Guildford, which Mary and I attended one weekend in four.
This all culminated in my ordination as a Permanent Deacon on 4th July 2010 in Portsmouth RC Cathedral.
About a year after my ordination, I started to question the RC Church’s teachings as some did not sit comfortably with me and felt very exclusive. This was against my developing ministry that God had called me to, which was to look after the sick, dying and those on the margins, regardless of their faith or none. I struggled with this for several years, and eventually it led to seeking my return to the Church of England as a Deacon. Romsey Abbey community, the ministry team and Bishop Tim welcomed me with open arms. For me it felt, and still does, that I have returned ‘home’; and on 6th January 2017 the Archbishop of Canterbury accepted my RC ordination and give me my Permission to Officiate (PTO).
At first the Church of England guided me towards becoming a priest, but after some months I realised this was not what God had called me for, I was and am a Deacon. So you may ask, how a deacon is different to being a priest?
The first thing to understand is that there is a three-fold ordained ministry in the Church of England, Deacon, Priest and Bishop, and each is a distinctive but interwoven ministry. Having said this, both priest and bishop are first ordained deacons as a foundation of their ministries. A deacon at ordination is told “Theirs is a life of visible self-giving. Christ is the pattern of their calling and their commission; as he washed the feet of his disciples, so they must wash the feet of others. Searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely…..into the forgotten corners of the world.” Therefore, a Deacon is a humble servant reflecting Christ the servant to all, and normally comes out of and serves the community they are in.
At their ordination, Priests “are called to be servants and shepherds…..to proclaim the word of the Lord….to be messengers, watchman and stewards of the Lord…they are to bless the people in God’s name.” And so Priests are shepherds and therefore have further responsibilities to the parish they are sent.
Although Deacon and Priest each have a focus that varies from each other, we work together as a team in doing God’s work. The main things for me as a deacon are that, yes, I do have liturgical roles within the Abbey, to assist the priest and serve the congregation; but my main ministry is outside the building taking God to everyone, especially showing Christ the humble servant to those in need.
So you can see that a life’s journey can take many turns, but each one needs us to learn and understand what it means in our life. All that you have read about my journey has made me who I am: my mum’s strong faith, understanding the pain of divorce, the love of Mary and the absolute unconditional love of God. All this has given me the grace to take Christ in my heart and mind to everyone I meet, and to have the gifts of empathy to meet people wherever they are on their own journey.