THE Revd Liz Carrington, from St Luke’s, York, had been a Reader for five years when she felt called to the distinctive diaconate. “I knew being a Reader wasn’t enough,” she says.
“In the midst of a plethora of new forms of ministry, deacons may well be asked where they fit in. Deacons have been part of the threefold ministry of the Church from its earliest days. Things changed over the centuries as presbyters became more numerous, but the diaconate never entirely disappeared.”
All Church of England ordinands are ordained deacon, but almost all are ordained priest, too, after a year.
“For some of us, being a deacon is the path to which God has called us. It is a vocation in its own right, with its own distinctive characteristics,” Miss Carrington says. “Deacons are stirrers, dancing on the edges of the Church, facing outwards, building bridges and encouraging the baptised to carry out their ministry.
“They take the Church into the community, reaching out to those who rarely encounter it, and take the community and its concerns back to the Church. Deacons have a passion for meeting the needs of the marginalised and seeking justice for those whose voices are not heard. Their focus is on mission and practical service, enabling others to discover and use their gifts.”
Miss Carrington believes that, for years, vocations to the diaconate were not adequately discerned in the diocese of York, or anywhere else in the Church of England. For more than 30 years, in the diocese of York, there was one distinctive deacon — ordained in the diocese of Portsmouth — until 2009, when she herself was ordained. Today, there are 29, and another three are in training.
What is happening in York is reflected elsewhere, she says. Numbers have been rising, but were difficult to monitor until the Church of England began to collect statistics specifically about distinctive deacons.
“We are moving towards 200. York is not the only diocese with larger numbers of distinctive deacons: Chichester has 22; there is a college of nine deacons in the diocese of Exeter.
“In common with many others, I had felt called to something I could not put a name to. I was sure I was not called to priesthood. By default, I was offered Readership. My five years as a Reader were characterised largely by preaching and leading worship for the gathered, which did not represent the heart of my calling. I felt my primary place was outside the church door.
“By chance, I came across a book which described the ministry of deacons, and I recognised it was what I had been searching for. Archbishop Sentamu affirmed my calling, and I was ordained in 2009. A one-off discernment process for Readers in the York diocese, instituted by Archbishop Sentamu, ensured that the omissions of the past were dealt with.
“Over the past five years, and, in particular, the past 12 months, there have been some significant developments in the Church of England with regard to the ministry of distinctive deacons, which I think point to a firmer commitment and a more considered approach. At the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop James [Newcome] of Carlisle has become distinctive deacons’ champion in the House of Bishops.
”There is a new discernment and formation framework for distinctive deacons, based on qualities and evidences which reflect the outward, community focus of their ministry. The potential for positions of oversight is included, which is a new development.”
Miss Carrington and the Revd Gill Kimber, previous Warden of the Exeter diocesan College of Deacons, have met representatives of the National Ministry Team and the heads of theological-training institutions to explore the benefits of providing online material for distinctive deacons, to ensure that they are properly equipped for their ministry. A collaborative approach is envisaged, which would create consistency across dioceses and overcome the problem of economies of scale.
“As the early church Fathers noted, without [deacons] there is a gap,” she says, “a gap which the Church is constantly attempting to fill.”