Letters to the Editor

by
27 May 2016

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Permanent deacons, Readers, and ministry needs in the C of E

From Mr Nigel Holmes
Sir, — The announcement of the demise of the Central Readers’ Council after almost 100 years, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the revival of the office of Reader ministry, came as a shock (News, 20 May).

The chairman, the Bishop of Sodor & Man, the Rt Revd Robert Paterson, “welcomed the proposal to dissolve the Council”, and yet wrote only recently in The Reader magazine (winter 2015): “I feel frustrated that I have not been able to persuade the Church to move forward much in this direction” (that the Reader movement should become an umbrella for all aspects of lay ministry).

It is interesting that this news came only a week after your article by the Revd Dr Stephen Spencer, in which he maintained that all parishes needed deacons (Comment, 13 May). He failed to suggest where they might be found. Many we might wish for, in their thirties and forties, when the demands of job and family are at their peak, are unlikely to be able to devote time to the required training. We are all too well aware of the tumbling numbers of stipendiary clergy.

There are still 9000 active Readers (LLMs). Eight years ago, 1040 responded to a survey from the Central Readers’ Council. One third said that they felt under-used. The number in favour of some form of seamless ministerial move towards ordination reached seven out of ten, and even more thought that their fellow Readers would welcome such a development (77.8 per cent).

We certainly need to use our existing ministers more effectively. It would help if ministry was seen as dynamic rather than static, so that fewer hurdles were placed between categories of accredited ministry. With developing talent and accumulated experience and the backing of incumbent and PCC it should not be considered abnormal to progress from Reader to deacon to priest.

Twenty years ago, when I ran The Reader, a national magazine, I was invited to speak to a conference on the distinctive diaconate at St George’s House, Windsor. My impression then, and that of a good number of those present, was that the roles of Reader and distinctive deacon were remarkably similar.

Indeed, Canon John Tiller, chief secretary to the Advisory Council for the Church’s Ministry, came to much the same conclusion a generation ago (A Strategy for the Church’s Ministry, CIO, 1983). In many respects, Archdeacon Tiller, as he later became, was ahead of his time. He recognised the “under-employment” of Readers and so recommended that “proven acceptable pastors” be ordained, while others join “the eldership or leadership team”.

The Central Readers’ Council backed those proposals. The House of Bishops did not.

But what is a cause for particular concern now is that a decision appears to have been made to abolish the Central Readers’ Council — without the hint of a referendum in prospect — at the very time the Reform and Renewal initiative has created two task groups on the role of the laity.

Perhaps your readers with both a small “r” and a large will make their views known to the Lay Ministries Task Group (email tim.ling@churchofengland.org) and the Lay Leadership Task Group, email jacqui.philips@churchofengland.org. Both are at Church House, Great Smith Street, Westminster SW1P 3AZ

NIGEL HOLMES
Woodside, Great Corby
Carlisle CA4 8LL

 

From Mr John Griffiths
Sir, — Why is it that, in the face of falling clergy numbers, the Revd Dr Stephen Spencer proposes expanding another clerical order — specifically “whose focus is outward” into the world, and who have the authority of a clerical collar (even though deacons can’t pronounce absolution or preside at the eucharist)?

We already have more than 9000 Readers, the largest body of licensed ministers in the country, whose remit is exactly to bridge the territory between lay experience and that of the clergy. Pioneer ministry is in grave danger of training a predominantly ordained leadership.

It is time to stop creeping clericalism, and to train priests to be priests, and to equip the laity for the work of ministry in the world. The laity have never been better trained and qualified. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: “The way the Church of England treats its laity it doesn’t deserve to have any.”

JOHN GRIFFITHS (Reader)
58 Middlefield Road
Hoddesdon, Herts EN11 9ER

 

From the Revd Corinne Smith
Sir, — “Deacons are not able to preside at the eucharist, and so cannot be diverted into becoming incumbents or housekeepers of the Church itself.” Although I wouldn’t have put it quite like that, I agree in essence with what Dr Spencer was saying.

I was ordained deacon nearly 19 years ago, and while in my curacy was fortunate to have a training incumbent who not only understood the importance of distinctiveness and complementarity between our ministries, but also actively encouraged its development.

His ministry was to “hold the vision” for the ecclesial community for which he had responsibility and for the ways in which the Kingdom of God might be taken forward in that place; and mine was to take responsibility for designing and delivering our “font to funeral” education programme, so that our people were equipped to live out their discipleship in the context of their daily lives.

When I was coming to the end of my (stipendiary) curacy, my incumbent came up with a plan that I might become a “deanery deacon”, so that I could be a resource for a wider area. Sadly, there was no mechanism by which this could happen; but I was fortunate that my vocation took me out of parish ministry and into hospital chaplaincy, where my deacon’s ministry was able to flourish and develop.

When the General Synod has recently decided that the Church’s ministry needs to be “missional, adaptable and collaborative”, Dr Spencer’s proposal that “the leadership for the Church should put in place a plan for every parish to have a deacon as well as a priest” seems very apposite.

As vice-president of the Diaconal Association of the Church of England (DACE), I have observed that the picture across the Church is currently very patchy with regard to the diaconate.

Some dioceses are wholeheartedly embracing the potential which deacons have for creating diaconal churches, for enabling discipleship to be connected to social action, in working for change and making mission practical, and in empowering people to exercise their discipleship in the everyday realities of their lives. Sadly, other dioceses do not seem to get it at all, and deacons, if they are considered at all, are considered in terms of what we can’t do rather than what we can.

Nevertheless, if we can have priests who “love their churches, their people and their buildings, as a living sacrament for the world”, who can serve alongside deacons whose “passion is to get those people to return to their neighbourhoods and workplaces so that they continue to convey the good news”, then who knows what God might be able to do in terms of renewal and revival — not just for the Church, but for the world?

CORINNE SMITH (deacon)
72 Hanson Road
Abingdon OX14 1YL

 

From Canon Mike Parsons
Sir, — The Revd Dr Stephen Spencer’s article identifies the need for the Church to be both inward and outward in its focus, engaging in mission and also nurturing those in the gathered congregation.

The need is clearly stated; but the solution is not, I am afraid, to be found in the distinctive diaconate (and, incidentally, the protomartyr Stephen was not a deacon as often claimed: the order had not been invented then).

The biblical and theological foundations of the diaconate, distinctive or transitional, and its application to the Church of England today are still matters under discussion. Whether we ought to ordain anyone into a transitional diaconate is still a question yet to be properly addressed.

A significant effect of the revival of the use of deacons, whether distinctive or otherwise, has been their clericalisation (because they are clerics). This has led to giving them, whether distinctive or transitional, a part in the liturgy which has displaced the laity and particularly Readers.

Dr Spencer’s article assumes that a distinctive deacon will spend his or her time seeking out the lost; and yet they all would seem to want a part in the liturgy, where very few of the lost are to be found.

In practice, the ministry of deacons is mainly focused on the internal nurture and growth of the church, baptism and marriage preparation, confirmation classes, sick visiting, home communions, etc., and not on seeking out the lost. Readers, in particular, are in danger of being de-skilled and displaced by this rise of liturgical diaconal ministry, which is an innovation in the Church of England, brought in largely from practice in the Roman Catholic Church, when women were ordained as deacons but having to wait an indeterminate time before priesthood might be possible.

You will look in vain for any liturgical function for a deacon in Common Worship, the ASB, or the Prayer Book. References are to “a minister”, who often was a Reader, sometimes another lay person. This has, among other things, clericalised the reading of the Gospel to the detriment of lay involvement — when so often the Gospel reading is far the easiest to read for someone unaccustomed to biblical readings.

The bishop’s declaration before ordaining deacons, in the Ordinal, is superb: “They are to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the Church the needs and hopes of all the people. They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible” — except that this is the ministry of all the baptised, not a clerical subset.

We do, however, already have an order in the Church who do “seek out the poor and weak” and whose mission is to “reach into the forgotten corners of the world”. They are Church Army officers, commissioned to do exactly these things. Some pioneer ministers and youth workers also fulfil this function, as well as wardens of day centres, etc.

I cannot believe the writer is serious in thinking that most priests would rather the congregation stayed safely under their wings in church than went out into the world, and need a deacon to tell them to go. We certainly do need more women and men called to evangelism and mission in the dark corners of our country, whether in the Church Army or other ministries, but the distinctive diaconate is in grave danger of clericalising what should be the ministry of every believer, and making it less likely that we do so.

MIKE PARSONS
6 Spa Villas, Montpellier
Gloucester GL1 1LB

 

From the Revd Dr John Williams
Sir, — I think there is a flaw in the Revd Dr Stephen Spencer’s argument for the distinctive diaconate. He makes a particular point of the fact that “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.”

This serves only to point up the problem for ministry strategy, that everyone has to be classified as falling on one side or the other of the “ordination line”, and that this increasingly fails to match the reality of the array of ministries on offer.

All the three types of minister which Dr Spencer mentions can, and often do, make a valuable contribution to the kind of apostolic “out in the world” ministry that he is commending for the diaconate; beyond these, there are also manifold varieties of chaplaincy ministry, to which the article does not refer; and these of course are very much embedded in secular contexts, and can equally well be ordained or lay.

By all means, then, let the Church invest in a creative, missional, distinctive diaconate, but not without allowing this initiative to challenge conventional thinking about what is “ordained” and what is “lay”. The contested nature of the diaconate in the Church of England is an outlet for a bigger underlying debate about the theology of ordination itself.

JOHN WILLIAMS
Department of Theology and Religious Studies
York St John University
Lord Mayor’s Walk
York YO31 7EX

 

From Leah Bell
Sir, — I was heartened to read Dr Spencer’s piece on the value of the distinctive diaconate. Nevertheless, while his proposal for every parish to have a deacon as well as a priest is worthy, I cannot help but feel that it is — currently — overly optimistic.

Having been discerning a call to the permanent diaconate for years, I have found that the culture of the Church is hostile to the concept. On numerous occasions, I have been asked alternately why I want to be “only a deacon” and not a priest, as though the former were an inferior calling, or why I do not simply become a Reader. As a woman, I am also asked whether I believe I am called to the diaconate solely because I disagree with the priestly ministry of women.

A paradigm shift is required in the culture of the Church of England if a widespread diaconate is to flourish here. When vocations conferences speak solely of priestly ministry, when prospective ordinands are told that their diocese has “no vision for the permanent diaconate”, and when the diaconate is spoken of solely as a year-long preparation for priesthood, is it any wonder that the number of distinctive deacons in the Church is so low?

Dr Spencer is correct, however: the distinctive diaconate, though currently undervalued, is key to the renewal of the Church of England and its mission. If we really are “a Christian presence in every community”, then there is no more appropriate face to that presence than that of the deacon.

LEAH BELL
62 Searle Street
Cambridge CB4 3DB

 

From Canon Keith Pound
Sir, — The idea of the resurgence of the permanent diaconate as a more widely recognised part of the Church’s ministry is to be warmly welcomed. Dr Spencer’s article makes important points, though I fear that those working to this end have a huge mountain to climb.

The thrust of the article — that permanent deacons might find the main emphasis of their ministry as agents of outreach into the community — was to me, and I suspect to many others, new and challenging. Where any recognition at all of the diaconate is currently to be found, it seems to me that the definition of the ministry is primarily liturgical, and to see it redefined as involvement within the “neighbourhood and workplace” is both attractive and challenging, and will need a lot of re-education all round.

I was also interested by the suggestion that every parish should have “a deacon as well as a priest”. Where the functions of ministry are currently focused on one person. then it will not represent much progress to extend this to two. To aim for several deacons might be a forwards move towards a genuinely shared ministry in a spirit of mutual support and encouragement.

How right Dr Spencer is in admitting the fact that priests “prefer their brood to stay nestling under their wings”. Even after years of change in selection and training, it seems that this is still very true, and represents the biggest problem in any renewal of forms of ministry. Much training is still needed in this area to make the primary task of the central figure the development and identification of potential partners in ministry.

It seems that a lot of things have to change before a revitalised diaconate takes its proper place amidst Christian functions and ministries.

KEITH POUND
1 Sinnock Square, Hastings
East Sussex TN34 3HQ

 

Female diaconate in the Early Church

From Mrs Mary P. Roe
Sir, — When ideas or the history of events from a past culture are translated into a modern vernacular, there is almost bound to be some distortion or misunderstanding.

The lack of clarity is compounded when translating from a language in which all nouns (of animate and inanimate objects) are allocated a masculine, feminine or sometimes a neuter gender, into one, such as English, which is gender-free, apart from those nouns that describe a specific gender relationship, e.g. “husband”, “mother”, and a few reminders of the mores of a bygone age which include “actress”, “tailoress”, et al.

Unlike the French and the Germans, we do not have teachers and teacheresses or doctors and doctoresses, etc., and the retention of the word “deaconesses” is a reflection of the Church’s hidden agenda.

In view of the fact that the Italian language retains the different endings for masculine and feminine nouns of its parent Latin, I am surprised that Pope Francis (News, 20 May) has agreed to initiate a study of the role of “deaconesses” in the Early Church. There are no deaconesses, as a specific order, in the New Testament, but only deacons, some of whom are male and some female.

With regard to the injunction in 1 Timothy, that each deacon should have only one wife, this is a reflection of the fact that married women did not hold positions of any sort outside the home. As is grammatically the norm, when more than one are present, the masculine plural is used.

Today’s translators and researchers, like the scribes of the Early Church, are naturally confined to the language and concepts that are current in their own time and place. We must hope that the commission set up by Pope Francis will be open at all times to the Spirit, which will lead them into all truth — even if that includes one or two novel (from their present position) possibilities.

MARY P. ROE
1 The North Lodge
Kings End
Bicester OX26 6NT

 

From Elaine Bishop
Sir, — You report that Pope Francis, speaking to the International Union of Superiors General on the subject of the part played by women in the Early Church, said that he would ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “to tell me if there are studies on this”.

His Holiness would do well to begin with Deaconesses: An historical study by Aimé- Georges Martimort (1911-2000), which was translated into English and available from the Ignatius Press from 1986. Martimort assembled all the evidence impartially, but unfortunately his work gave no comfort to the “feminist lobby”, and was treated with studied neglect.

It deserves an impartial reading.

ELAINE BISHOP
188B Orchard Street
Chichester PO19 1DE

 

Syria: British and US policy is scandalous

From Mr Christopher John Ryecart
Sir, — It beggars belief that, after two failed and illegal Anglo-American attempts at regime change in both Iraq and Libya, the United States and Britain are still committed to a policy of regime change in Syria rather than ending the bloody civil war there.

The US and Britain by their adamant insistence that President Assad must go have done more to perpetuate and prolong the civil war in Syria, while expanding the migrant problem, than any other country, and these are the countries that want to have the least to do with the migrants.

The US and Britain maintain that there can be no military solution to the war in Syria, but this claim cannot be credible so long as they are busy colluding with al-Qaeda affiliate groups, in breach of international law, who are committed to bringing down President Assad militarily. President Putin would appear to be the only international leader who has learned the lessons of Iraq and Libya.This is why he has made it his priority to destroy and remove IS from Syria.

President Putin’s view that the defeat of IS is a sine qua non for peace and a precondition for a political transition is logical, and ought to be embraced by President Obama and Mr Cameron.

The failure of President Obama and, to some extent, Mr Cameron to bury the hatchet with President Putin over Ukraine and to work with him to destroy IS, and other terror groups with the same aims, in order to end the bloody fighting is a luxury that the US and Britain cannot afford. It has already cost too many innocent lives, and has massively escalated the migrant problem in Europe.

Let’s not forget the US and British skeletons in the cupboard when it comes to Iraq and Libya before we point the finger at President Putin over Ukraine, because that would be sheer hypocrisy. The Syrian civil war can be terminated only by the highest co-operation, trust, and respect between Russia and the US and her allies, and the sooner President Obama realises this and acts on it, the sooner the chance for a peace settlement in Syria.

Only when there is peace does it make sense to talk about a new government.

CHRISTOPHER JOHN RYECART
Weinberg 4 Kefermarkt 4292
Upper Austria, Austria

 

Bell and the refugees

From Dr Ruth Hildebrandt Grayson
Sir, — Many thanks to Dr Andrew Chandler for his excellent article (20 May) emphasising the important part played by Bishop George Bell in helping to keep the plight of those falsely accused and persecuted by the Nazi regime, in particular Dr Martin Niemöller, in the public eye throughout the Second World War.

As the daughter of Franz Hildebrandt, Niemöller’s curate in Berlin-Dahlem, who was himself arrested, imprisoned, but fortunately released by the Nazis just before the outbreak of war, I would like to make one additional point.

Bishop Bell set a precedent by the selfless, generous, and often courageous way in which he overcame opposition at home and helped many refugees, like my father, escape persecution and begin a new life in this country. It is a precedent that those in similar positions of influence and authority in the Church of England today would do well to emulate.

RUTH HILDEBRANDT GRAYSON
25 Whitfield Road
Sheffield S10 4GJ

 

Mental illness: further perspective of a patient

From the Revd Michael Allen
Sir, — Your focus on mental health is appreciated, and I respond to one correspondent’s request (Letters, 20 May) for more from people who experience some mental-health crisis. I am mainly prompted to write by the dangerous “We know how to fix you” view of Jamie Summers (Letters, same issue).

For 20 years, I battled through mental disorder with a good doctor and loving support and prayer, but no real improvement. In relation to discussion of violence, I don’t think I was a danger to others, only to myself.

Twenty-three years ago, a psychiatrist painstakingly analysed the pattern of my life and diagnosed the mental disorder for which one of the basic building-chemicals of life, lithium, helps most such people to maintain a more even keel. Besides family’s and friends’ support, I have a web and local support group, where we can help each other manage what is at times disabling, and also see that disorder has enabled some of our achievements.

Well over 25 years ago, I used to go on retreats led by Jean Vanier. These still live with me — especially the insight that those who live with learning difficulties and mental disorder can especially reveal God’s love. The Church can reflect that love, but also there needs to be humility to recognise our Lord in what psychiatrists and people trained in overcoming disease offer in saving lives and helping to maintain people in demanding jobs.

We seek to remove stigma that Mr Summers and others, maybe unwittingly, cause by promoting the view that sufferers are to blame for any mental disorder and for not being faithful enough to be healed by their thoughtless prescription.

MICHAEL ALLEN
8 Grenville Rise, Arnold
Nottingham NG5 8EW

 

Copernicus and the precedents for his ideas

From Dr K. A. P. Walsh
Sir, — I enjoyed Ray Cavanaugh’s timely piece on the work of Copernicus and Kepler and their underlying Christian beliefs (Faith, 20 May), but wish to draw attention to one detail that is often the most-directed focus of such articles.

I think it is absolutely right that the paradigm shift from a geocentric to a heliocentric model can be said to begin with Copernicus, but to describe his work as “radical” is almost the same as suggesting that Isaac Newton “invented” gravity.

Perhaps most famously, the Greek astronomer Aristarchus (c.310-230 BC) outlined such a model, which was later supported by the Babylonian astronomer Seleucus (c.190 BC), though, because of the works of Aristotle and then Ptolemy, the idea was rejected.

The model was, however, also developed in medieval India (Aryabhata, for instance); but it is arguably on the work of the Islamic Maragha School, culminating with Ibn al-Shatir (1375), that Copernicus based his own theory.

It may have been “radical” in the context of his own position as Canon of the Church, but as a scientific suggestion it had well-documented precedents.

K. A. P. WALSH
The Robert Hooke Science Centre
7-9 Dean Bradley Street
London SW1P 3EP

 

The Columba Declaration and Celtic spirituality

From the Principal of St Mary’s College, St Andrews
Sir, — It is good to see such a positive article about the Columba Declaration (Comment, 20 May). As someone who has made the opposite journey from Dr Andrew Hayes’s, having been reared and confirmed in the Church of England, but ordained in the Church of Scotland, which I have served for the past 30 years, I share his enthusiasm for this historic agreement by our two national Churches in the UK.

Dr Hayes writes of some of the benefits that may accrue from the agreement. I hope that increasing contact, cross-fertilisation, and shared ministry will also lead to a greater appreciation of liturgy and spirituality within the Kirk, and a wider acknowledgement in the Church of England of its Protestant and Reformed heritage.

As for bishops and presbyteries, they both have their good and bad points, and I am not quite sure who will benefit more from exposure to different forms of governance and polity. Maybe together we can find new more flexible, supportive, and Christlike structures, drawing on the strengths of both.

One point that Dr Hayes does not mention, but which strikes me as quite significant, is the fact that this historic agreement has been, presumably deliberately, named after one of the great Celtic saints who laid the foundations within our islands of a distinctive British and Irish Christianity, of which many within both the Church of England and Church of Scotland have become increasingly conscious over recent decades.

This shared Celtic Christianity provides an exciting and fruitful basis on which to go forward in our shared pilgrimage, remembering that we are as much, if not more, the heirs of Columba and Aidan as of Augustine of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, or John Knox.

IAN BRADLEY
St Mary’s College, South Street
St Andrews KY16 9JU

 

Three who crossed the ice and sensed a fourth

From Mr Andy Bebington
Sir, — I was sorry to read in the article on the Shackleton expedition (Features, 20 May) that Shackleton had arrived “on foot and alone” at the South Georgia Whaling Station; I am sure that the families of Tom Crean and Frank Worsley, who accompanied him in crossing the unmapped mountainous island, would agree with me.

Your readers may not know, moreover, that all three, on reflection after their safe arrival at the whaling station, independently recorded a feeling that, in crossing the island, there had been a fourth party present. Such is the power of the Spirit?

ANDY BEBINGTON
79 Shirley Way, Shirley
Croydon CR0 8PL

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