Last week I had the privilege of attending the National Deacon School, ably run by the Ven. Anne Russell-Brighty. It was a gathering of deacons from all around NZ, about 26 for the weekend reunion, and 12 of us continued for the next few days. It was an opportunity to learn, but also to let off steam. One of our number has written a paper about all the negative sides of being a deacon, and I thought I would explore this side of it a little. First, there are not many negatives about serving as a deacon. Not, that is, when you consider the vast privilege of washing people’s feet, showing our world how Christ would want them to live. But it’s not the calling itself that is frustrating. It is the misunderstanding of that calling in the wider church. The Vocational Diaconate is fairly recently arrived on the scene, having been revived from the 1960s. That is, unless you count the way the church operated in its first 4 centuries or so. Nowadays, the church is very priest-focussed, very hierarchical, and people don’t know what to make of deacons. The understanding of the role is also muddied to some extent by experience of the Pentecostal church, where the Pastor has a combined role of priest and deacon.
Often the priests don’t know what a deacon does, and congregation certainly don’t. Many of us have been asked when we’re going to ordained ‘properly’, or we are commiserated with for ‘missing out’. On being priested, that is. Maybe we should express our sorrow that someone has been ordained priest, and isn’t allowed to stay a deacon… Now I’m being naughty. That raises another point though. Many in the church have the understanding that a priest is still a deacon, but that is not the case. These priests had a year as transitional deacons, where they were being trained for the priesthood, with a nod at what a deacon is. The roles are very different. In the ordination service, candidates are asked if they are called to the work of a deacon, and those who are to be priested later blithely answer ‘yes’, although they have been discerned as priests in training. Our ordination services do not adequately reflect the different roles of Vocational Deacon, and priest-in training. It should not be called Transitional Deacon. This is where the frustration lies.
Being a deacon is not a way to have a glorious career in the church, adding more titles to your name, and more fancy copes each procession. We get to lead the processions in the cathedral, clad in our albs and crossed-over stoles. We stand apart for that reason, but we are also ready for action. Our stoles don’t flop all over the place when we are trying to do something. In a liturgical setting, we may be assisting with the ablutions, or pouring the wine. We don’t need to be worried about our vestments. That’s a good reason why our stoles are tucked away. In the community, most of us are not robed, although wearing a clerical collar is always useful when you are trying to visit the hospital outside of visiting hours!
Most of us receive no payment for our work as vocational deacons, but that gives us freedom of hours and places where we can minister. Being a deacon is not about working in a particular place at a particular time – eg on a Sunday morning in a building with a cross on top of it. It’s much broader. Whenever we are present with people, we are doing Christ’s work. And we are called to be infectious, encouraging others to join us, loving and serving the Lord in our communities.
There is a different personality-type that seems to attract deacons too. It has been described as the grit that irritates the oyster, so that a pearl is formed. We can be a bit annoying, a bit in-your-face, a bit challenging. That’s part of our job – to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It’s not always an easy fit in the political world of the church, but I seem to recall a certain Carpenter who was a bit challenging too.
The wider church has a treat in store as it discovers more of the potential of the Vocational Diaconate. Several deacons in every parish would make such a difference to the world!