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Parishes need deacons beside their priests  

13 May 2016

The way forests help us to breathe provides a model for the deployment of clergy in the Church, says Stephen Spencer

THERE are many signs that people in both parishes and dioceses are shifting their priority from maintaining current structures to emphasising innovation in outreach and growth. This move “from maintenance to mission” is being supported by the General Synod’s Reform and Renewal programme. One important commitment, for example, is to increasing ordinations by a half in the next few years.

All of this is welcome. Congregational decline continues, and, in view of the many clergy who are to retire in the next ten years, the need for action is urgent. It is questionable, though, whether increasing ordinations by a half is going to reverse this decline; at best, it can only plug the gaps.

A more radical response is needed; but at this point, opinion divides. One view is that people should get out of their church buildings and into their communities, demonstrating their faith in practical ways. The other view is that the travel should be in the opposite direction, drawing people into the congregational life of the Church, where their faith and discipleship can be strengthened.

A way forward may be provided by an analogy from the natural world. Forests allow the world to breathe by taking in carbon dioxide and converting it into oxygen. As animals, we engage in the reverse process, breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide. Should not the Church do the same: drawing in and going out, oxygenating our world with the gospel?

Up to now, one element has predominated. Over the past half-century, congregations have invested in their own life — in their fabric, their organisation, and ministry to their own membership — with a gradual withdrawal from the public square. We now find ourselves with better buildings, and a more sophisticated organisational structure, but a limited impact on society.

The answer is not to just abandon our buildings, and diocesan organisations, and launch outwards. We need a natural balance between adventuresome outreach and nurturing congregational life.

The difficult question is how this can be achieved. It is not just about changing the relationship between the Church and its surrounding community. Vision is not enough; it must find expression in tangible practice. The Church’s public representatives must embody this dual movement.

Help can be drawn from a source that some will find surprising: the past. Christian tradition provides us with examples of ministry that are expressed in the wider world rather than within the Church.

One such ministry was evident in the Early Church. It was brought into being to extend the apostles’ work of proclamation and service to others. It is the diaconate, but, to be more precise, what the Church of England currently knows as the permanent or distinctive diaconate, which is well established in several dioceses. Through the recent biblical scholarship of John Collins and others, it has been reinvigorated with a sense of apostolic authority and importance.

In this renewed understanding, the deacon is entrusted with the ambassadorial responsibility of publicly embodying and expressing the calling of the Church to go and make disciples of all nations.

Deacons are not able to preside at the eucharist, and so cannot be diverted into becoming incumbents or housekeepers of the Church itself. Their focus is outward. Alongside St Stephen, famous deacons include: Phoebe; St Francis of Assisi; Nicholas Ferrar, of the Little Gidding Community; and, arguably, Elizabeth Ferard, the first deaconess in the Church of England.

Unlike Readers, licensed evangelists, and lay pioneer ministers, deacons wear the clerical collar and receive the authority of ordination to help them in their ministry. In their being, as well as their doing, they are widely recognised as conveying Christ to the world, not least to its forgotten places.

None of this undermines the part played by the priest. The priest is needed to build up the household of the Church, to oversee the upkeep of its building and resources, and to be the mother hen who gathers her brood under her wings.

Priests are to love their churches, their people, and their buildings, as a living sacrament of Christ’s love for the world. But a priest needs to be complemented by a deacon, one whose passion is to get those people to return to their neighbourhoods and workplaces so that they continue to convey the good news.

The priest needs the deacon to remind the people to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” because, if priests were really honest, they would prefer their brood to stay nestling under their wings.

As the Church of England plans for the future, a radical response is needed. Christian tradition has given us a way of meeting this challenge, which is a form of ministry which can be recovered and promoted with a fresh vigour. This is the gift of the distinctive diaconate.

The proposal is this: that the leadership of the Church should put in place a plan for every parish to have a deacon as well as a priest. This should be someone who works in partnership, and in creative tension, with their colleagues, whether stipendiary or self-supporting, with a specific calling to lead the congregation in the breathing out of witness and service.

With this kind of long-term investment in people, recalibrating the way that clergy, congregations, and society interact with each other, there is a real opportunity to bring long-term revival to our churches and dioceses.


The Revd Dr Stephen Spencer is Vice-Principal of the Yorkshire Ministry Course, Mirfield, and the author of Creative Ideas for Seasonal Retreats (Canterbury Press, 2015).

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