‘Only Connect’ Distinctive Deacon Conference,

Wydale Hall, Diocese of York

4-6th March 2022

Wydale, near Scarborough, was a beautiful setting for our first face to face gathering for two years. It was a joyful occasion shared by 26 participants including 5 enquirers and 1 ordinand. We were joined by deacons from Dioceses as far apart as Durham in the North and Bath and Wells in the South. We were delighted to welcome community theologian Ann Morisy as our main speaker and the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell and the Rev Dr Ian McIntosh, Head of Mission and Ministry who were able to join us on Sunday.

Session 1 Local Matters

Ann noted the changing context of ministry due to COVID, and the war in Ukraine which she felt represented the breakdown of an epoch. The church can provide an alternative performance to power, profit and status, she said, but the most imaginative and creative platform for influence resides in the local. Smart phones provide us with our own PR agency, but have deacons made the most of technological advances? Communities can be degraded by Wi-Fi as it reduces face to face connection and we can miss the spontaneous help generated by a smile. Ann asked us to notice the flows of people in our local spaces and their connectivity and how we engage with those who feel unworthy. When flows diminish deprivation follows. She challenged us to think about how we cherish our communities.

It was important to acknowledge anxiety, especially amongst young people, and to recognise that ‘our bit of spare’ finance may be about to disappear as energy prices soar. Anxiety increases the tendency to react, rather than respond in a more considered way. She noted that the skills of leadership in church are not those required to deal with people who may be reacting to pressures using their reptile brain. We should be aware of our personal triggers when relating to others. The new mission field will be moderated by anxiety but scapegoating is a danger. Jesus is the final scapegoat. We must avoid being drawn into other people’s battles but be alongside whilst encouraging them to seek their own solutions. Approaches that use humour, play and fun (Messy Church) can counter anxieties. Ann recognised that deacons have struggled for recognition but cautioned that increased power and status has the potential to distance us from those we seek to relate to.

Session 2 Grappling with Circumstances

This session looked at how faith alters our attitudes and our ‘seeing’ and changes our micro actions in a process of transformation. Drawing on positive psychology Ann examined the strengths and virtues that promote positive outcomes; wellbeing, life satisfaction, and hope.  A sense of meaning in life is key to wellbeing. However, we often give more weight to circumstances than to our attitudes and intentional activities.   As Victor Frankl observed  “the last human freedom is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.“ Transformation involves shedding the perceived constraints of circumstances and choosing new intentional activities individually and corporately. Research suggests that our capacity for wellbeing is more than just genes and circumstances. There is vast scope for intentional activities, which we tend to underestimate. Early Methodism and the Salvation Army recognised and capitalised on this latent capacity, motivating people to overcome limitations instead of becoming the victims of circumstances.

The Methodist keys to success were:  giving people the chance to hear themselves think in conversation, placing problems in a wider supportive frame of solidarity and encouraging intentional behaviour. Alongside a generous theology, it was important to believe in the capacity for transformation and holiness.

Session 3 Deacon Stories.

Three deacons presented an overview of their ministry. The first described her role as Area Dean of a group of churches in the East Riding Deanery of Yorkshire. This was particularly interesting as it is an uncommon situation which she described as a move from ‘us/mine’ in a parish to the wider ‘ours’ in the deanery. The second described his role during vacancy in a rural setting and the greater degree of co-ordination required with other overlapping ministries whilst maintaining his own balance between community and church. The final presentation highlighted the journey of a York church towards its Silver Award from Eco-Church. All C of E churches are encouraged to sign up and gain awards in line with General Synod’s aim to reach Carbon Net Zero by 2023. https://ecochurch.arocha.org.uk/

Session 4 Tools for the Task.

Ann began by drawing our attention to the ‘connector impulse’, which is central to re-establishing neighbourliness especially where the trust distance is slim.  Connectors have an in depth knowledge of the terrain.  They also knows lots of people, have a trusted reputation, an understanding of the strength of the ‘weak tie’ , and the guts to issue an invitation. The impulse to meet the needs of others comes with risks as the helper retains the power which obscures a structure of participation. Emanuel Lévinas stressed the importance of the fundamental capacity we all have for an encounter with the face of the other which opens up a disclosure moment and an urge to compassion.

Aside from needs meeting, solidarity is vital with those battling circumstances, for example, poverty, riches and addictions, and time to reflect on the world’s perversions on the one hand and the longing for the world’s wholeness on the other. Generosity, kindness, play and laughter are key dynamics in creating a flourishing habitus (Pierre Bourdieu).

Welfare initiatives which focussed on eradicating needs and deficits – want, disease etc.- are worthy aims for governments Ann said, but not for the Church which is better placed to  cultivate flourishing, fulfilment , inspiration, blessing and hope.  She highlighted five ‘goods’ that need to be cultivated –

1.Relationship  (communal, reciprocal, ‘being with’, a solace in adversity)

2.Creative (overcoming adversity: making, crafting, planning, shaping)

3.Partnership   (collaboration around a common goal, working with: enables dignity to surface; involves an essential humility with the help and commitment of others)

4.Compassion   (solidarity with those less fortunate; the single most poignant place of our encounter with God)                                                                                                                                 5.Joy (enjoying the things that God gives us in plenty; a joy in Jesus’ desiring and a love that never lets us go)

In conclusion Ann referred to Luke 7:36-50- Jesus anointed by a sinful woman. This is a story of an outlier – a person on the edge who is offering Jesus help. This is the deacon’s terrain! In parallel with this woman, we are:

  • Lifting up people in their courage and bearing witness to their pain,
  • Subverting power as an inconvenient presence
  • Making the oppressed visible– we too have been disrespected
  • Helping people gain confidence in the possibility of God
  • Encouraging imagination – beyond mundane symbols, re-enchanting our view of the world
  • Giving hospitality to the unorthodox and zany

Session 5

In the closing session the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, spoke. Taking his title ‘Servant and Herald’ from the ordinal, he affirmed his support for distinctive deacons, their specific role in holding before the church the missional responsibilities of all the baptised and going to places the gospel has not reached. He raises awareness amongst priests. Heralding and serving fit into his strategy ‘Living Christ’s Story’.

He asked us if our calling had dragged us into the church instead of into the world where he believed we should be. He acknowledged the need for a better discernment process for distinctive deacons as some people are choosing priesthood because of the stipend. Secondly, he asked us to describe the gospel today in one sentence. He suggested ‘In Christ you can become yourself – your real self’ and ‘I worship therefore I am’.

Finally, we were joined by The Rev, Doctor Ian McIntosh, Director of Mission and Ministry in the Diocese of York who spoke about the distinctive deacon discernment pathway that Gill Kimber and Liz Carrington had contributed to. He hoped it would paint a picture of the role that enquirers could recognise and say “That’s me” but he recognised there were barriers to overcome.

Overcoming misunderstanding within the priesthood was an issue. Some people may need support to work comfortably in a mixed ecology church without feeling threatened as roles overlap. Diaconal oversight roles, that carry the equivalent of incumbent level leadership and responsibility, will operate in collaboration with priestly colleagues but will need to be ‘de-coupled’ to ensure the deacon is freed to exercise a wider leadership role in the word outside church (‘world’ as gathering places n the community).   Their roles may include:

  1. Community Educator – animation
  2. Catechist
  3. Pathfinder – world and church (see ‘Deacons Interrupted’ by Al Barrett and Ruth Harley)

Deacon Liz Carrington 14/03/2022

 

**NEXT YEAR’S CONFERENCE 3-5 MARCH 2023**

With many thanks to Liz for this excellent report on what was clearly a very rewarding weekend!

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