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Reflections on the Diaconate

Rebecca Swyer discusses the frequently misunderstood role of the deacon, which provides a reminder to all Christians of our shared calling


have lost count of the number of times that I have been asked: ‘Are you going to go further?’, i.e. am

I going to be priested, or ‘what can a deacon do then?’ Both questions highlight the

widespread ignorance within the Church of England about the diaconate and also rampant clericalism that sees the ministry of some Christians as more important than others, rather than ‘a variety of giſts, but the same Spirit’ [1 Cor. 12.4]. Defining the diaconate can be

difficult – rather like trying to hold onto a slippery eel! It is not a ministry that can be defined by tasks that only deacons can do because there aren’t any. Tere are elements of the liturgy that deacons should properly undertake, but none that only deacons can do. Tis is not a weakness, but says something about the nature of the order.

God’s call Te diaconate models the baptismal

call of all Christians to a life of service and seeks to enable and encourage others to live out that calling. Our value in God’s eyes does not come from what we do, but from who we are. In baptism God expresses his love for us by imparting his grace to transform our lives and we are sent out into the world as agents of his love. Everything we do comes from that call. Te identity of deacons rests


the call from God to be his servants wherever we are sent. Deacons can therefore serve in different places and situations and ‘do’ quite different things and yet still ‘be’ diaconal. I have served in a parish, and in a university seting, and now work within the diocesan structures and yet my identity and authority as a deacon remains.

Servant and prophet Diaconal ministry is paradoxical, reflecting the incarnation: Jesus

Christ, fully God and fully man. Te deacon is both servant and prophet. Te term ‘servant’ can be problematic, tending to evoke an image more akin to slavery than the radical servanthood of Christ. Jesus knelt and washed his disciples’ feet, but also overturned tables in the Temple. Likewise, people can have a skewed view of what a prophet is, believing it to be about looking into the future and preaching doom and gloom. Jesus read the signs of the times and responded appropriately, constantly proclaiming the Word of the Lord.

baptism binds us together and demands that we serve and are served by one another

It is Jesus’ ministry of service and

prophecy for which the deacon has particular responsibility, although it should remain the foundation of priestly and episcopal ministry also. Te prophetic and serving dimension of diaconal ministry is expressed liturgically in the Eucharist in the proclamation of the Gosel and responsibility for preparing the altar.

The doorkeeper Te deacon also has a ministry of

both sending out and gathering in. Te Ordinal talks of the deacon ‘serving the community in which they are set’ and being ‘agents of God’s purposes of love’, identifying and responding to needs in the ‘forgoten corners of the world’ and bringing those needs to the church. A traditional image of the deacon

is as doorkeeper, encouraging people outside to come in and those inside to go out. Terefore in the Eucharist the deacon has traditionally overseen the intercessions and dismissed the people, commanding them to ‘go out’

in the name of Christ. Tere is perhaps a paradoxical side

to my nature. I am strong-willed, organized and firmly set in the catholic tradition of the Church of England, but am also imaginative, and enjoy challenges and responding to the ‘bigger picture’. I do not conform neatly to any

norms: I am younger than many clergy, yet have been ordained for 20 years; my characer is not an obvious choice for a servant; I hold fast to the catholic faith yet also challenge injustice and work alongside all Christians as far as my conscience will allow.

A share in authority Experience in parish, university

and diocese leads me to believe there has been inadequate exploration of diaconal

leadership and how it

relates to that of bishops and priests. Deacons are knee-jerk collaborators who seek to enable, accompany and work alongside others whether clergy or laity. Te call to wash one another’s feet means having

the humility to let

others wash our feet, and minister to us and alongside us. Traditionally deacons have a close relationship with the bishop, symbolized by standing on his right during the liturgy. Whilst the deacon is in authority

under the bishop, the right hand is a position signifying a share in authority. Tere is then a mutuality in the relationship between deacon and bishop (and priest as his representative) – I am just as much a servant, prophet and go-between to the bishop as to lay people. At a time when potential schism

lies ahead in the Church of England, the role of deacon as a permanent reminder to all Christians of our shared calling should not be underestimated or neglected. Baptism binds us together and

demands that we serve and are served by one another – which is a challenge indeed. ND

April 2011 ■ newdirections ■ 7

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