The Rev Ian McIntosh is Head of the Formation Team within the Church of England’s National Ministry Team. He oversees work on lay and ordained initial ministerial formation, and as part of this has been involved in the new shared discernment process and new formation frameworks, both of which have a focus on the distinctive diaconate.
Last Saturday Ian took part in our national/international conference ‘Towards a Flourishing Diaconate’. He gave an excellent, short paper which really rejoiced our deacons’ hearts! Here it is.
Distinctive Deacon Charisms
Bishop Martin has spoken about some of the qualities that the Church will be looking for distinctive deacons to inhabit as they make their way through the discernment and formation processes in the Church of England. And those qualities are seen as they are displayed in the four domains which he has mentioned.
I have been privileged over the last year or so to have worked with Deacons, Gill Kimber and Liz Carrington, to produce some more detailed evidence statements that can be used in IME 1 and 2 to assess how well this process of inhabiting qualities is going. Some of you have contributed to this and I am also aware that Anna Sorenson’s work feeds into this process too.
What we have noticed as we have prepared these statements are four particular areas which mark out the ministry of a distinctive deacon and which we have distilled from the more detailed evidence work. They are not earth-shattering and many of you will be exemplifying them already. But they do go some way to articulating what this ministry is all about. In particular, these points might help to sharpen where this ministry is indeed distinctive and different from that of a priest.
A deacon In a world-facing engagement rooted in local communities: One of the dangers of a grid system in a discernment process is that it imposes a reality on the world which in truth is more nuanced. So, one of the domains that will be used in the new process is that of the World. But for many deacons that really needs to be defined as the local community in which so much ministry is located and towards which deacons are plainly committed. That sense of being deeply placed and situated in a locality is so fundamental to much diaconal ministry both in parochial and chaplaincy settings. It is represented in partnership work with social agencies, in being an ambassador and working for community cohesion and in spotting where God is at work in a place. This fundamental alignment and orientation to the local community as part of God’s wider world marks out a deacon and picks up much of what Rosalind Brown’s work highlights. It is reflected too in the domain of the deacon’s relationship to Christ which expresses her discipleship, rooted as it is in empathy and pastoral relationships with those who are not within the church community as much as it is in displaying a world-focussed and life transforming faith. Yes of course we recognise that deacons have roles within the church and at the margins between church and world, but it is their ministry within the local community which often marks them out.
Deacons as community educators: This charism has been at the heart of much of Ann Morisy’s work on Journeying Out and it is a deliberately nuanced phrase which plays with the concept of education both within the church community and in the wider community. One of the ways in which I think these formation grids will develop in the future is to have a much more porous line between the columns of church and world – almost all ministry needs to have that porosity especially that which is diaconal in terms of the to and fro of bridge building work. Such a designation as community educator would not be sought by all and cannot capture the whole of this ministry, but a deacon often acts as an animator within a local community, for instance in ways that not only work to provide food banks but who work to challenge the structures of society which lead to them being needed in the first place and to be the agent of God’s kingdom of justice as they advocate for the change which needs to follow. Likewise, many deacons will exercise that educative role within a local church community which seeks to listen, learn and engage with its context. A deacon may be at the heart of gathering the stories of the community which can be broken open on a Sunday morning in worship, reflected on and offered along the lines of that which has been written about from Hodge Hill in Birmingham within the work of Ruth Harley and Al Barrett. The grid tries to pull out this sense of being a community theologian by making those deep connections which learning can bring between church and world and which can then animate Christian disciples to be witnesses in that world.
Deacons as Pathfinders: The role of a deacon as a pathfinder and signpost to Christ both for individuals and for communities is one of those “hidden” charisms which the formational grids hold. It may need more articulation. But it hints at the ways in which deacons, in their wider community engagement, have opportunities to point people to Christ, to meet their curiosity about God with resources as to how they might continue to explore and to find. Pathfinders too for communities seeking to know how to be so as we emerge from a pandemic; animators of a church community who has lost its way in connecting with those who live around its crumbling building. Deacons as pathfinders within the Church to remind the whole church of its diaconal character, to be a living icon of Christ, to engage liturgically in pointing the congregation to Christ found as much in the presence of the poor as in bread and wine. This is about a hospitality and openness to the world.
All these require an Imagination and Agility: These are crucial aspects of all ministry in times when inherited narratives are either not known or need re-interpreting. Flexibility to spot and see where God is at work and to have the courage to follow are inherent in these grids.