I recently had the privilege of being asked to contribute some ‘blurb’ to Fr Simon Cuff’s new book, ‘Priesthood for All Believers: clericalism and how to avoid it’.
(Rev Simon Cuff: image from St Peter de Beauvoir website)
He has a wonderful chapter (chapter 5) on the necessity and value of the distinctive diaconate, and I have his permission to reproduce some of it here. But do buy the book! – it’s so accessible, and he’s saying some crucial stuff about how the church is hamstrung by clericalism. He certainly ‘gets’ the diaconate. This chapter, ‘The Priestliness of the Diaconate‘, is excitingly clear about how a true understanding of the diaconate can help dismantle clericalism.
To whet your appetite, here are some extracts (words in bold are mine):
The particular calling to the ministry of deacon is essential to the life of the Church. Among denominations which recognize a distinctive ordained ministry of deacons, deacons are commonly overlooked. They tend to be subject to comparison with the particular calling to ordained priesthood and are often defined by the particular acts that are not part of their ministry, rather than by the particular shape of the ministry to which they have been called and which is essential in building an anti-clericalist church.
… The overlooking of the particular ministry of deacons is almost certainly due to a particular kind of clericalism – the association of ‘priesthood’ with ‘leadership’, and the propensity to collapse general talk of vocation into the particular calling to the ordained ministry of priest. A church that in theory recognizes the ordained ministry of the deacon but in practice discerns and nurtures relatively few callings to the particular ministry of deacon is a church that is likely to be experiencing this kind of clericalism.
… While this transitional period of serving as deacon is often thought to remind those ordained priest that their ministry is always ‘diaconal’ (a term we will come to below), in fact this can end up having the opposite effect. Those called to the particular ministry of priest can feel that since they too have been ordained deacon, but have been elevated to a higher status and calling, they already know or ignore the insights of those whose particular calling to diaconal ministry is essential to the life of the Church, and the ministry of an anti-clericalist Church.
… Rather, for the deacon, these roles in worship reflect the particular call of the deacon. This call is a call to the margins, a commissioned ministry to the margins so that the centre of church life may always be upset by the margins and that the various processes of marginalization which occur in the life of the Church can be held to account through the ministry of deacon.
… I will refer to the ordained ministry of ‘deacon’ without the qualifier of ‘distinctive’ or ‘transitional’. I prefer to do so as it makes the particular calling to the ministry of deacon primary. This reflects clearly that the ministry of deacon is the primary calling to ordained ministry.
… It should be apparent that the particular call of the deacon, not only to the margins, but to hold the centre and processes of marginalization to account … is essential to overcoming clericalism within the Church. It should also be apparent that the relative lack of attention paid to the diaconate in the Church is perhaps unsurprising as it will perpetually require the centre to be open to acknowledging its own complicity in the processes of marginalization.
… Those called to celebrate the Eucharist are called to the particular act of presiding at this communal celebration of Christ’s dramatic renunciation. The call of the deacon is not unrelated to this priestly renunciation, however, their role is distinct. The deacon folds the edges into the eucharistic heart of the Church. There is an essential ‘priestliness’ to this act. Just as the cultic priests of the Old Testament were seen as mediating figures between God or gods and humankind, the deacon is also a kind of mediator. The deacon mediates between the centre of Church life and the margins of existence.
… saying that all priestly and ordained ministry is primarily diaconal, in the sense that it must be attentive to the margins and the process of marginalization, can also serve to undermine the centrality of a vital and vibrant diaconate to a church which is anti-clericalist to its core.
… the deacon’s calling, while exercised in service of the whole Church including bishops and priests, is primarily in response to God’s calling rather than an episcopal or presbyteral commission. The deacon’s sending out of people at the end of the liturgy, which is a traditional diaconal role, is a sending in its own right and a reflection of their own sending to the margins.
And there’s much more! Here’s his conclusion of this fine chapter:
For a Church that has been healed from the scourge of clericalism, we can say that a vibrant ordained diaconate will play the role for which it has been commissioned by God. Deacons will play their particular part in being sent by God through the bishop to the margins, and thereby encounter and overcome the forms of marginalization present in Church and society, of which clericalism is one form.