Thought for the Day: Friendship

In the style of my Lent Book Opening our Lives and Advent Book Real God in the Real World, I will be sharing occasional “thoughts for the day” on various subjects on this blog. Hope you enjoy.

I was flicking through TV channels the other evening and stumbled across a rerun of the TV series Friends. The trials of Joey, Monica, Rachel, Chandler and Ross kept many of us enthralled in the 90s. But I was suddenly struck by the famous theme tune, which sympathises if it has not “been your day, your week, your month, or even your year”.

Over a year now into this pandemic, it’s easy for us to feel that it’s not been our year, that our lives have been put on hold for far too long. The reality is, though, that nothing has really been put in hold and that we have grown, developed and learnt so much about ourselves, our faith, and our world through the pandemic. This is certainly true with how much many of us have learnt about the value and benefit of friendship – perhaps because we have missed our normal times with our friends (sitting, chatting in cafés, for example) or perhaps because we have had friends who have stood by us, bringing hope and joy into our times of worry and darkness.

Over the past few decades, though, most of us have been living increasingly isolated lives. In the US, research shows that one in four people have no close friends, while here in the UK our government is so concerned with social isolation that they have appointed a minister for loneliness. Over in Japan “Rent-a-Friend” companies are proving hugely popular and the trend is catching on elsewhere. Last week, I found myself sitting alone on my sofa, scrolling through social media posts. It dawned on me that I was connected to so many people, but I was not connecting with anyone.

St Augustine pointed out that sin makes us curve inward on ourselves. In other words, it makes us think that we can do it alone, to believe that we don’t need others. Our individualistic cultures make this all the worse – independence is championed, self-made people are praised, the glory of individual achievements is emphasised. And so we misalign our priorities.

Drew Hunter, in a book on the spiritual importance of friendship, powerfully suggests that, at the end of our lives, when we take a thoughtful glance backwards into our past, none of us will say “oh, I wish I’d spent more hours at work” or “oh, I wish I’d spent more time staring at a screen”. But we may well say “I wish I’d spent more time with my friends”. He concludes with a lovely line: “if you ask me what’s best in life, I’m going to give you names”.

Jesus himself came as a person of friendship. In John’s gospel he asserts that he is much more than the Master of his disciples – he is their friend (John 15:14-15). As we are now also his disciples, so his friendship is offered to us. And so it’s no surprise that friendship is so important in our lives, for our God is a God of friendship.

Our own friendships point back to Genesis, when God asserts that it was not good for us to be alone, and they point forward to Revelation, when we will be brought together in a new creation with Jesus. Friendship is, then, a gift from above. It is the ultimate expression of love. As nineteenth-century bishop JC Ryle emphasised: “the brightest sunbeam in the world is a friend – friendship halves our troubles and doubles our joys”.

So, this week, I want to encourage you to contact your friends. Have a chat on the phone, meet in a garden, or go for a walk. Commit yourself to be there for your friends and reassure yourselves they will be there for you. As the Friends theme tune continues: “When it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year, then I’ll be there for you (When the rain starts to pour) I’ll be there for you (Like I’ve been there before) I’ll be there for you (’Cause you’re there for me too)”.

Remember that friendships are holy. And that brings me to the second thing I want to encourage you to remember this week. Many of the words for our relationship with Jesus and God that can seem quite hierarchical. So, God is our father and we are his children, Jesus is a Shepherd and we are his lambs. But let’s not forget that God is also a God of friendship and Jesus offers us his hand of friendship. Reach out and accept that hand, because he is saying to you: “whatever kind of day, week, month, or year you’ve had, I’ll there for you!”.

Thought for the Day: Hanging out with God

In the style of my Lent Book Opening our Lives and Advent Book Real God in the Real World, I will be sharing occasional “thoughts for the day” on various subjects on this blog. Hope you enjoy. The following was originally written for St Padarn’s Institute in Cardiff, Wales, where I am Tutor in Applied Theology. My role at St Padarn’s is as programme leader for the Durham University-validated MA (Theology, Ministry, & Mission).

If someone had told me a few years back that we would be in a pandemic when most of us would be at home for the majority of our time, I would have thought “well, at least it will give us plenty of time for prayer”! As it happens, for so many of us, that hasn’t necessarily been the case. Homeschooling, endless zoom calls, and family duties, not to mention the worry and stress of what we are going through, has meant finding “God time” in our lockdown lives has not always been easy.

The comedian Frank Skinner, in his latest book A Comedian’s Prayer Book, writes about fostering our relationship with God and the need for us to sit or walk, often in silence, with Him. He talks about how Johnny Cash and his best friend Bob Dylan were so close that they would sit fishing, side-by-side, for many hours without speaking and would still feel comfortable with, and uplifted in, each other’s presence. Skinner then prays to God by saying: “I’d like to think you and I are at least as close as Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan”!

Finding moments just “to be” with God is so important for our relationship with Him, whether we are sitting quietly in our living room, chopping vegetables while preparing our dinner, taking a stroll in our local park, waiting for a bus or train to arrive, or simply having our daily shower. Eric Clapton once sung how he had finally found a way to live life to all its fullness – by living “in the presence of the Lord”. Centuries earlier, the seventeenth-century monk Brother Lawrence said a similar thing in urging Christians to “practice the presence of God” in their everyday lives.

Why do we do this? This was a question I faced as I was putting my seven-year-old to bed last week: “what’s the point of praying, daddy?” There’s nothing like a small child to challenge your theology at the end of a long day! I then remembered what Archbishop Desmond Tutu had said about prayer. Spending time with God, I told my son, is like sitting next to a fire on a cold day. We feel the warmth and we take on the attributes of the fire – we become warm. Similarly, when we put ourselves in God’s presence, we somehow take on his attributes. God is love, so we become more like him – less judgemental and more loving. On hearing this, my son snuggled down, wrapped his duvet around himself, thought for a while, and said “hmmm, yes, hanging out with God just makes sense”.

So, this week, I want to encourage you to find some time, in whatever way you can, simply to be with God. Feel close to him. Practice his presence. Rest in the warmth. Embrace his love. Why? Well, because, you know, hanging out with God just makes sense.

What is a Deacon? A Missional Ministry of Love (Ministry Blog Series – 2)

In a change from my normal blog posts, I am sharing a number of papers I wrote for the Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales. Having been a member since it was reestablished around 2007, I became the longest serving member by the late 2010s. Over the years I contributed numerous papers on various theological topics, most of which remain unpublished. This ‘Ministry Blog Series’ allows you to read at least some of those papers.

1. A Fresh Understanding

In 1974, the Church in Wales doctrinal commission published a report on the diaconate.[i] Whilst its conclusions were affirming and positive, its language reflected long-held attitudes to the ministry of the deacon. At the outset the report highlighted that the diaconate had long been a “subordinate” ministry and it rooted the functions of the deacon in the liturgy and menial tasks of service. As was the custom at the time, the report also employed the phrase “permanent diaconate” to refer to those deacons who will not transition to priestly ordination. Both the terms “transitional diaconate” and “permanent diaconate” are, of course, misnomers, as all clergy are permanent deacons in some way, and none are transitional (a priest remains a deacon and a bishop remains a deacon and priest). The term ‘transitional diaconate’ continues to be used today, due to the lack of a better phrase. The term ‘distinctive diaconate’, though, has largely replaced that of ‘permanent diaconate’. It is, however, recent developments in Greek New Testament theology, illuminating, as they do, certain pertinent issues that were not at the fore when the 1974 report was published, that have allowed a fresh understanding on the ministry of the diaconate.

2. The meaning of Diakonos

The diaconate, like all Christian ministry (lay or ordained), is founded on Jesus’s ministry. Deacons articulate a service entrusted to us by Jesus and, by adoption and grace, represent the servant king to those to whom they minister. In this sense, the diaconate is an autonomous ministry that is firmly rooted in the gospel portrayal of the servant Messiah – “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). In the diaconate, though, there is also a reminder of the incarnational paradox that we become the servant Christ to those whom we recognise as Christ – “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

The word used to describe the servanthood of Christ in the writings of the New Testament is diakonos. While the word doulos, which can be translated as “slave”, is also used for Christ’s servanthood (cf Phil 2:7), this is far less frequent. As a result, it was the word diakonos that came to be used in the early church to refer to Christians carrying out compassionate and sacrificial acts of service. In this way, we can still talk about the diaconate of the whole church. Quite early in ecclesial history, though, distinctions within ministry were established and diakonos came to refer to a specific minister carrying out a clearly defined function – exercising a role within the liturgy of worship, caring for church property, and being responsible for social service amongst early communities. In the first centuries, the diaconate was certainly no stepping stone to the presbyterate. 

Traditionally, diakonos has been translated ‘service’, and has come to denote very humble and unassuming work. Recently, however, it has been posited that the traditional translation of diakonos as ‘service’ has led to a distorted emphasis of diaconate as subservient. It is claimed that the word ‘ministry’, rather than ‘service’, is closer to the correct translation. While not the first to question the former consensus, the Australian scholar John N. Collins was certainly the scholar who brought this new perspective into the mainstream.[ii]

While, then, the word diakonos can be translated either as ‘ministry’ or ‘service’, the different overtones of both these words in modern English makes it necessary to clarify where the emphasis lies. Compare, for example, the posts of a ‘civil servant’ and a ‘government minister’. Collins’ work, which has been generally affirmed amongst his fellow New Testament scholars and further popularised through its development in the work of Paula Gooder[iii], reminds us that, in the Greek world, diakonos merely meant carrying out a task on behalf of someone in authority. Sometimes this would have been menial tasks. The “seven” in Acts 6 were chosen to undertake the simple task of caring for those in need. The Apostles seemingly considered it of such import that they appointed specific people, but there was no personal glory inherent in this, the first ministry that the deacon came to undertake. At other times, though, the duties of the deacon would have been a task of considerable responsibility, a high-level ambassadorial role for the faith. What unites all the tasks undertaken by the early deacons is that they were mandated by a person in authority. So, diaconal duties were, and continue to be, carried out on behalf of the bishop, and, as Ignatius of Antioch reminded the early church communities, are ultimately carried out on behalf of Christ – “‘let all men respect the deacons as Jesus Christ”.[iv] After all, as we are reminded in Philippians 2, Christ is himself a God who came in “the form of a servant”.

3. Historical change in attitudes to the diaconate

The English word ‘servant’, then, is a limited translation of diakonos. The role of deacon certainly developed to include more basic duties of humble service, such as special compassionate care for sick, lonely, and oppressed. But deacons, like priests & bishops, also receive a full ministry, relating to word, sacraments, and pastoral care. As 1 Timothy 3:8-10 implies, with its clear implications that not just anyone should be ordained to the diaconate, the order very quickly began to acquire high regard. They held a place of trust and honour amongst the early Christians. Deacons had an assisting role, rather than a presiding role, but this should not diminish the fact that there was no hierarchy of value, as all ministries were regarded are equal in eyes of God. As such, the role of deacons was so important in the early church that they were often directly consecrated as bishops.

During the Middle Ages, however, the diaconate had moved from being a role which was hugely valued in importance with primary allegiance to the episcopate to being “a purely probationary ministry, a mere shade of the diaconate of the patristic age”[v]. This was due to the Church’s increasing emphasis on priestly duties – the celebration of the Mass, giving absolution, and the blessing of people and objects. Still, there were some prominent exceptions to the rule, such as St Francis of Assisi, along with others who remained deacons due to specialised functions, such as ecclesiastical lawyers and royal servants. After the Reformation, the tradition of distinctive deacons all but died out, again with some notable exceptions such as Nicholas Ferrar in the community of Little Gidding. After 1662, when the practice of deacons being appointed incumbents of parishes was outlawed, most deacons were ordained within weeks of ordination, or even on the same day.

In the nineteenth century, the curacy developed to consist of a number of years of continued training within parishes, as it does now. Thus, the diaconate year became regarded primarily as probationary ministry. Ironically, with this move the significance of the diaconate was both heightened, as it came to play a clear role in the professional development of clergy, and weakened, as the concept of the diaconate as a temporary, transitional ministry was reinforced.

4. Restoration of the distinctive diaconate in the Church of England

The beginning of the sea-change in attitudes towards the diaconate in the Church of England came in 1968, as the Lambeth Conference recommended the restoration of a distinctive diaconate. Six years later in 1974, however, the Advisory Committee for the Church’s Ministry recommended abolishing the diaconate completely. In a 1977 debate, the General Synod declined to follow this advice, and, in 1980, the Ordinal in the Alternative Service Book gave greater emphasis on deacon’s role. Soon, in 1987, women were admitted to the diaconate, although, of course, the order of deaconesses had been in existence in the Church of England since 1861, originally formed as part of Church’s response to poor health and social conditions. By 1988, the report ‘Deacons and the Church’ further supported the development of a distinctive diaconate for both men and women, while the Windsor statement of 1997, resulting from the ecumenical Windsor Consultations, affirmed the diaconate as a growing movement internationally.

By the end of twentieth century, there were around 75 distinctive deacons in Church of England. These were a combination of, firstly, those who believed a distinctive diaconal ministry was well-suited to establishing links between the Church and the wider world and, secondly, women who were called to ordained ministry, but on theological grounds did not feel called to be priests. The Diaconal Association of the Church of England called the rediscovery of the distinctive diaconate in the second half of the twentieth century a “revolution”.[vi]

The rediscovery has continued in the twenty-first century, having been aided by two official documents. In 2001 came the report For Such a Time As This from a General Synod Working Party[vii], while six years later the Faith and Order Advisory Group of Church of England produced Mission and Ministry of the Whole Church[viii]. Both documents put the diaconate in the context of mission, maintaining that deacons could, and should, play an important role in reaching out in witness and service to the world. John N. Collins’ work had reminded us that when St Paul speaks of the diakonia, he does so in the context of mission. In both these documents, deacons were, then, regarded as bridging the gap between the Church and the needs of people who are not regular churchgoers. In other words, a deacon is, as For Such a Time as This puts it, a “go-between” person, whose role is pastoral, liturgical, and catechetical[ix]. This is especially important in light of the profound changes that have taken place in British society in the past century. New approaches to mission have been necessary, and the diaconate fits well with present cultural and sociological needs. Fresh expressions initiatives, for example, raise possibilities that deacons could be employed as ordained pioneer ministers.

However, the documents also suggested that clarity is necessary as to how the diaconate relates both to the lay ministries and to the priesthood. Mission and Ministry of the Whole Church, for example, contrasts ordained and non-ordained ministry through a threefold characterisation of ordained ministry: firstly, it is lifelong; secondly, it is recognised nationally & belongs to the universal Church; and, thirdly, it is a comprehensive ministry embracing pastoral care and ministries of word and sacrament.[x] While a commissioned or licensed lay ministry may meet one or even two of these criteria, the report suggested that an ordained ministry must meet all of them.

These two reports conclude that the Church must take the diaconate much more seriously. Deacons, it is noted, are generally a little impatient to be ordained priests, and so it is suggested that clergy could spend longer than a year as deacon to experience and live out what it means to be a deacon. Furthermore, it is suggested that a distinctive diaconate needs to be actively encouraged.

Such moves as these would clearly need a significant transformation in attitudes within the Church in Wales. This would have to begin through further theological appraisal, vocational discernment, and practical engagement and exploration with both transitional and distinctive deacons. Several moves to ordain a distinctive diaconate within Church in Wales dioceses over the past half century have, after all, stalled and many, if not most, of those who were ordained deacon eventually transitioned to the priesthood. However, there are recent signs in Wales that there may be a desire for a reaffirmation and revival of a distinctive diaconate, with the ordination of several distinctive deacons in dioceses in the past few years holding much pastoral, missional, and theological significance.

5. Ecumenical considerations

As the needs of the Church today differ hugely from earlier ages, we should avoid any re-creation of the primitive pattern of the diaconate for nostalgic or antiquarian reasons. Furthermore, any move towards reaffirming a distinctive diaconate must not be to compensate for any perceived weak priesthood or as an answer to a shortage of priests. “Deacons are not substitutes to be brought in where priests are lacking”, writes Walter Kasper.[xi] Still, the elevation of the diaconate, with its emphasis on the importance of service and sacrifice which the World Council of Churches summarised as “a ministry of love within the community”[xii], has the potential to speak powerfully to individuals and communities which are crying out for care and compassion.

Within the Roman Catholic tradition, although the Second Vatican Council affirmed a renewal of the diaconate as a “ministry vitally necessary to the life of the church”[xiii], even half a century later the ministry remains somewhat unclear and continues to be a matter of theological dispute[xiv]. The response of the Church in Wales doctrinal commission to the 1987 report Ministry in a Uniting Church shows a similar state of affairs within the Welsh Church, noting a “considerable confusion in the Church in Wales” with regards the diaconate[xv]. The Church’s Board of Mission in that same year affirmed this, concluding that the contemporary Anglican understanding of the diaconate is “particularly unsatisfactory”[xvi]. The latter suggested the Church in Wales could learn much from the Protestant tradition.

Whilst Protestant denominations vary considerably in the functions of their deacons, both the Wesleyan Methodist and Lutheran traditions have strong theologies of the diaconate. The 2017 joint Methodist and Church of England report Mission and Ministry in Covenant invited the two churches to consider implementing the recommendation that they should “work towards a common understanding of diaconal ministry that will in due course enable the interchangeability of deacons”.[xvii] Historically, both in Britain and abroad, mission and outreach was central to the Wesleyan Deaconess Order,[xviii] which was established in 1890 to meet the physical, social, and spiritual needs of those living in both burgeoning industrial areas and disadvantaged rural communities. A 1986 report of the Methodist Conference, The Ministry of the People of God,[xix] reaffirmed the role of the diaconate. As a result, two years later, the Methodist Diaconal Order, a distinctive diaconate with a clear Rule of Life, was established. Unlike the lay diaconate in the Reformed or Baptist traditions, it is an ordained order, with deacons having a ministerial status equal to presbyters. The primary purpose of the order is to assist lay people to develop their gifts and, thus, to encourage and enable them to live out ministries of servanthood. Sue Jackson uses the image of a midwife to describe the Methodist diaconate – in trust and mutual respect, and in partnership with lay people themselves, deacons help birth new vocations of service and ministry. “As a result,” she concludes, “precious things are brought to birth in the midwife as well as mother”.[xx] The emphasis on the deacon as midwife further affirms that the role of the deacon is not to undertake the tough work of love-in-action on behalf of the Body of Christ, but rather to encourage, inspire, and work alongside the wider Church.

The Lutheran diaconate is, likewise, firmly rooted in missional and social outreach.[xxi] In Sweden, for example, deacons are ordained and salaried, offering a compassionate and practical outreach to those in need and bringing bodily and spiritual comfort to those regarded as weakest in society. In the 1990s, the Church of Sweden had rejected the concept of deacons as, what was called, “half-priests” and affirmed the diaconate as having “a clear caritative identity”[xxii]. In the Church of Denmark, on the other hand, the role of the deacon is not limited by the notion of serving in the world, but instead has a strong eschatological emphasis – the aim of the diaconate is, therefore, to advance the coming of God’s kingdom.[xxiii] Any serious consideration of the distinctive diaconate within the Church in Wales, then, would need to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the diaconate in the Roman Catholic[xxiv], Wesleyan Methodist, and Lutheran Churches, but also in other denominations, both in Wales and worldwide.[xxv]

6. A vocation to loving service

While the language of the 1974 report of the Church in Wales doctrinal commission may have reflected long-held attitudes to the diaconate, its conclusion was far more ground-breaking and radical. It gave a vision of a Church in Wales that truly recognised the spiritual and missional value of its loyal and hard-working members in their wide variety of secular occupations. It could be posited, then, that the ministry of the deacon might indeed start with those who are already in roles that could be regarded as “diaconal” – teachers, doctors, nurses, welfare workers, politicians, vets, environmental workers, and so on. As such, any future consideration of a distinctive diaconate in the Church in Wales could be challenged to consider how such a move would relate to the Anglican five marks of mission. By doing so, it would need to look beyond the local church community to the “secular” work of congregation members and those ministering to specific groups of people who are often at “the margins of God’s territory”[xxvi] – in hospitals, care homes, industries, prisons, refugee hostels, and so on.

Not that the diaconate should ever be regarded as a form of the lay apostolate. Instead, it has the potential to be a special articulation of sacramental ordained ministry. If a distinctive diaconate could be forged and developed in this way, through consideration of members who, in the secular world, carry out loving service for Christ’s sake, then this would broaden our concept of ordained ministry and, in the words of the 1974 report, “act as an example, an inspiration, a catalyst, and initiative, to all; so that all would recognise, and fulfil more adequately, their vocation to service” [xxvii].

In considering the more recent theological work popularised by John N. Collins, though, any further consideration of the ministry of the deacon needs to go beyond mere social or charitable endeavour. “Deacons are not ordained social workers!“ as Walter Kasper puts it[xxviii]. By firmly rooting the call of the deacon in the sacramental act of baptising others, Richard Hainsworth avoids this charge.[xxix] Furthermore, by rooting the episcopal call in the enabling of ordained/licensed ministry (and priests in their eucharistic presidency), Hainsworth puts himself alongside both scripture[xxx] and the patristic tradition[xxxi] in reminding us that the diaconate shares directly in episcopal ministry, collaborating closely with priests only as fellow servants of the bishops[xxxii]. Distinctive deacons, then, have the potential to enkindle and motivate communities through the authority invested in them through the episcopacy and through their incarnational call. This is balm for our broken communities, but also equally healing and inspiring for the Church itself. As Rosalind Brown puts it: “it is the church, as much as the world, that needs a deacon on the threshold to make that margin transgressable”.[xxxiii] If the Church in Wales were to consider further the diaconate, such an episcopally-charged ministry devoted to practical service might forge a distinct and significant missional ministry within the local church, in the secular workplace, and in wider society. This ministry would certainly not remove the wider Church’s caritative responsibilities. Rather, it would function to encourage, motivate, and inspire both lay and ordained to live out their own daily servant ministries.

7. Conclusion

In light of scripture, theology, and praxis, a diaconate is far more than a mere social welfare arm of the Church. Instead, to become a deacon is to engage in a deep relationship with the both the Missio Dei and the servant mysteries and ministry of Christ. The deacon lives out the eucharistic call to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord”. As such, the diaconate cannot be relegated to being a ministry of functionality, viewing it in terms of what it achieves. Rather, deacons can serve to remind the Church of our general call to live out the servanthood of Christ incarnationally, sharing with him in his cross and crown and living as, in Walter Kasper’s words, “pioneers of a new ‘civilisation of love’”[xxxiv]. The diaconate, therefore, holds a special place within the ministry of the baptised, a place that may have diminished over time (in the West, at least[xxxv]) but a place that, if the Church in Wales deemed it worth further exploration, discernment, and investment, still has the potential to hold considerable pastoral, social, liturgical, evangelistic, and catechetical value.

Bibliography

Ronnie Aitchison, The Ministry of a Deacon (Epworth, Peterborough 2003)

Paul Avis, A Ministry Shaped by Mission (T&T Clark, London 2005)

Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry: Faith and Order Paper 111 (WCC, Geneva 1982)

Rosalind Brown, Being a Deacon Today: Exploring a Distinctive Ministry in the Church and in the World (Canterbury Press, Norwich 2005)

Margaret Elizabeth Carrington, A Survey of Good Practice in Diaconal Formation in Ecumenical Perspective (MA dissertation, University of Sheffield 2014)

David Clark, Breaking the Mould of Christendom: Kingdom Community, Diaconal Church, and the Liberation of the Laity (Epworth, Peterborough 2005)

David Clark (ed.), The Diaconal Church: Beyond the Mould of Christendom (Epworth, Peterborough 2008)

John N. Collins, Diakonia: Re-Interpreting the Ancient Sources (OUP, New York 2009)

John N. Collins, Are all Christians Ministers? (Liturgical Press, Collegeville 1992)

John N. Collins, Deacons and the Church: Making Connections Between Old and New (Gracewing, Leominster 2002)

For Such a Time as This: A Renewed Diaconate in the Church of England (Church House Publishing, London 2001)

Foundations for the Renewal of the Permanent Diaconate (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington DC 1993)

Nicholas Gill, The role of the diaconate in the Western Church: an Anglican perspective (MTh dissertation, Cardiff University, 2017)

Paula Gooder, ‘Diakonia in the New Testament: A Dialogue with John N. Collins’, in Ecclesiology 3.1 (2006), 33–56

Richard Hainsworth, ‘Towards a Relational Theology of Ordained Ministry for the Church in Wales Post-2020’ (unpublished paper for the Doctrinal Commission 2019)

Christine Hall (ed.), The Deacon’s Ministry (Gracewing, Leominster 1992)

Walter Kasper, Leadership in the Church: How Traditional Roles can Serve the Christian Community Today (Herder & Herder, New York 2003)

James Keating, The Deacon Reader (Gracewing, Leominster 2006)

James Keating, The Heart of the Diaconate: Communion with the Servant Mysteries of Christ (Paulist Press, New York 2015)

Reports from the Standing Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales, the Ecumenical Affairs Sector of the Board of Mission, and a Working Group of the Provincial Legal Offices on ‘Ministry in a Uniting Church’ (Church in Wales Publications, 1987)

Kenan B. Osborne, The Permanent Diaconate: Its History and Place in the Sacrament of Orders (Paulist Press, New York 2007)

The Ministry of the People of God: A Report Presented to the 1986 Methodist Conference (Methodist Publishing House, 1986)

Mission and Ministry of the Whole Church: Biblical, theological and contemporary perspectives (The Faith and Order Advisory Group of the Church of England, 2007)

The Diaconate: A Report of the Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales (Church in Wales Publications 1974)

Towards Closer Unity: Communion of the Porvoo Churches 20 Years (2016)

Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium: Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (1964)

Francis Young, Inferior Office? A History of Deacons in the Church of England (James Clarke, Cambridge 2015)


[i] Cf. The Diaconate: A Report of the Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales (Church in Wales Publications 1974).

[ii] Cf. John N. Collins, Diakonia: Re-Interpreting the Ancient Sources (OUP, New York 2009); originally published in 1990.

[iii] Gooder builds upon some of the practical implications of Collins’s work and widens his conclusions to bring in the diaconal, loving service to which all God’s people are called; cf. Paula Gooder, ‘Diakonia in the New Testament: A Dialogue with John N. Collins’, in Ecclesiology 3.1 (2006), 33–56; Paula Gooder, ‘Towards a Diaconal Church: Some Reflections on New Testament Material’, in David Clark (ed.), The Diaconal Church: Beyond the Mould of Christendom (Epworth, Werrington 2008).

[iv] ‘The Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians’, in J. B. Lightfoot (ed), The Epistles of St. Ignatius (SCM Press, London 1953).

[v] The Diaconate: A Report of the Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales (Church in Wales Publications 1974), p. 9.

[vi] http://www.dace.org; website now discontinued after The Diaconal Association of the Church of England was dissolved in 2017.

[vii] For Such a Time as This: A Renewed Diaconate in the Church of England (Church House Publishing, London 2001).

[viii] Mission and Ministry of the Whole Church: Biblical, theological and contemporary perspectives (The Faith and Order Advisory Group  of the Church of England, 2007).

[ix] For Such a Time as This, pp. 51-57.

[x] Mission and Ministry of the Whole Church, p. 148.

[xi] Walter Kasper, Leadership in the Church: How Traditional Roles Can Serve the Christian Community Today (Herder & Herder, New York 2003), p. 14.

[xii] Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry: Faith and Order Paper 111 (WCC, Geneva 1982), p. 24.

[xiii] Cf. Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium: Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (1964), p. 29.

[xiv] Cf. Kasper, Leadership in the Church, p. 13.

[xv] Reports from the Standing Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales, the Ecumenical Affairs Sector of the Board of Mission, and a Working Group of the Provincial Legal Offices on ‘Ministry in a Uniting Church’ (Church in Wales Publications, 1987), p. 19.

[xvi] Ibid. p. 8.

[xvii] Mission and Ministry in Covenant: Report from The Faith and Order bodies of the Church of England and the Methodist Church (2017); cf. https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2017-10/mission-and-ministry-in-covenant.pdf, p. 30.

[xviii] Cf. Ronnie Aitchison, The Ministry of a Deacon (Epworth, Peterborough 2003), pp. 55, 111-113.

[xix] The Ministry of the People of God: A Report Presented to the 1986 Methodist Conference (Methodist Publishing House, 1986); cf. https://www.methodist.org.uk/media/2062/fo-statement-the-ministry-of-the-people-of-god-1986.pdf

[xx] Sue Jackson, ‘The Methodist Diaconal Order: A Sign of the Diaconal Church’, in Clark, The Diaconal Church, p. 161.

[xxi] Cf. Towards Closer Unity: Communion of the Porvoo Churches 20 Years (2016).

[xxii] Ragnar Persenius, ‘Towards a Common Understanding of the Diaconal Ministry’, in Towards Closer Unity, p. 130.

[xxiii] Cf. Tiit Padam, ‘Towards a Common Understanding of the Diaconal Ministry? Recent Developments in the Diaconate among the Porvoo Churches’, in Towards Closer Unity, p. 162.

[xxiv] For more on Roman Catholic perspectives on the diaconate, see Foundations for the Renewal of the Permanent Diaconate (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington DC 1993) and James Keating, The Deacon Reader (Gracewing, Leominster 2006).

[xxv] For more on ecumenical perspectives on the diaconate, see Margaret Elizabeth Carrington, A Survey of Good Practice in Diaconal Formation in Ecumenical Perspective (MA dissertation, University of Sheffield 2014).

[xxvi] Rosalind Brown, Being a Deacon Today: Exploring a Distinctive Ministry in the Church and in the World (Canterbury Press, Norwich 2005), p. 31.

[xxvii] The Diaconate, p. 10.

[xxviii] Kasper, Leadership in the Church, p. 21.

[xxix] Richard Hainsworth, ‘Towards a Relational Theology of Ordained Ministry for the Church in Wales Post-2020’ (unpublished paper for the Doctrinal Commission 2019)

[xxx] Phil 1:1.

[xxxi] For example, in the works of Ignatius of Antioch, Jerome, and Hippolytus.

[xxxii] Lumen Gentium, pp. 21, 28, and 29.

[xxxiii] Brown, Being a Deacon Today, p. 31.

[xxxiv] Kasper, Leadership in the Church, p. 44.

[xxxv] For a succinct appraisal of the diaconate in the East, see Kyriaki Kaidoyanes Fitzgerald, ‘A Commentary on the Diaconate in the Contemporary Orthodox Church’ in Christine Hall (ed.), The Deacon’s Ministry (Gracewing, Leominster 1992).

What is a Priest? The Priest as a Bearer of Mystery (Ministry Blog Series – 1)

In a change from my normal blog posts, I will be sharing a number of papers I wrote for the Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales. Having been a member since it was reestablished around 2007, I became the longest serving member by the late 2010s. Over the years I contributed numerous papers on various theological topics, most of which remain unpublished. This ‘Ministry Blog Series’ allows you to read at least some of those papers.

a) Facing the challenge

In recent years, the identity and distinctiveness of priesthood has increasingly been questioned. In functional terms, it has long been recognised that priests require certain gifts and talents to minister effectively. Vocations advisors and directors of ordinands will suggest texts to candidates that list these functions. Such lists can seem daunting to those exploring a call to ordination. In John Pritchard’s The Life and Work of a Priest, one of the principal texts I used to give to my own candidates when I was a diocesan director of ordinands, sixteen distinct functional roles are presented, including “creative leader”, “faith coach”, “wounded companion”, and “spiritual explorer”. Traditionally, theological models of priesthood have grown out of a consideration of such functions. By doing so, such models often forged an ontology of priesthood.

During the twentieth century, the model growing in prominence was the priest as, primarily, a pastoral care giver. In some ecclesial and theological circles, though, there was a sense of uncertainty about this model, with the question posed how much its functional roles actually differ from counseling and social work. By the time I went through the discernment process in the late 1990s, the Church had moved to regarding the principal role of a priest as an empowerer – a nurturer of the gifts of others. Before my own selection board, one priest even gave me the advice “as long as you slip in the word ‘enabler’ at least six times, you’ll sail through”! The concept of enabler certainly fits neatly into the Church in Wales’s 2020 Vision emphasis on collaboration and the flourishing of lay ministries in Ministry Areas. However, questions should still be asked about the primacy of this model. It is, after all, weak in terms of its sacramental rooting and it could lead to priests becoming glorified creative administrators or, worse still, simply talent-spotters. As such, it is difficult to forge an ontology of priesthood from this model alone.

b) Towards a new model

With such uncertainties in theological and ecclesial circles surrounding models of priesthood, it is little wonder that so many candidates struggle to articulate why they feel called to ordained ministry, despite the fact that most of them have read the classic texts of discernment and vocation. The purpose and nature of priesthood certainly needs more thought and clarity. In an issue of The Furrow in 1995, the Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles, Robert Barron suggests a way of viewing priesthood that has certainly assisted in my own discernment of candidates for ordination over the past few years. This model is culturally relevant and spiritually uplifting, as well as firmly rooted in tradition and scripture. It is also a model that could appeal to the plethora of churchpersonships and traditions that make up the Anglican Church in Wales. It can be summed up as the priest as “a bearer of mystery”.

Barron begins his exploration of this model by describing the fundamental loss of confidence within the priesthood in recent years. This he attributes to an underdeveloped and negative theology of ministry. As a result, priests have lost confidence in themselves and their identity. This can lead to a lack focus and orientation, with many questioning what is at the heart of their ministry. While he is writing from his own particular denominational and geographic context, the loss of joy and hope, along with the increase of pessimism and cynicism, is reflective of some areas of our own Church. Rooted in that same loss of priestly identity is the superior, and sometimes arrogant, attitude that is found in other areas of our Church, which looks down condescendingly on what is perceived as the lack of zeal and spiritual fervor of other clergy.

To counter the loss of priestly confidence and identity, Barron therefore presents an image that he believes captures the unique and indispensable quality of a priest. The term “mystagogue” was used in the early church with relation to bringing catechumens into the faith. Barron chooses this word to flesh out the priest’s role in bringing the mystery of God’s being to people’s troubled lives. In other words, the priest’s role is to notice, to announce, or to bring God’s love, hope, peace, and compassion to individuals and communities. He roots this in Thomas Aquinas’s analogia entis, whereby we come to know and experience God through his creation – we experience the otherly other Being through the very tangible being of this world.

In this model, the overriding call of priesthood is to explore and grasp the mystery and then initiate others into it – opening eyes to God’s presence, ears to God’s call, hearts to God’s love, and ways to God’s will. It is in this context that Theilard De Chardin described the priest as a “border walker”, bringing those on earth closer to the kingdom. They stand at the boundaries between the commonplace and the sacred, thus offering the possibility of relationship with the divine. Priests are, therefore, interpreters of Manley-Hopkins’s “grandeur of God”, Von Balthasar’s “patterns of grace”, and Philip Yancey’s “rumours of another world”. They hold, to use William Blake’s phrase, “infinity in the palm of their hand and eternity in an hour” and offer this to those to whom they are ministering.

c) The incarnation and mystery

This model is profoundly incarnational in its scope. Paul Tillich describes preaching as “holding up a picture of Christ”. The mystagogue’s task is related to this image – it is the art of bringing Jesus down to earth by displaying of the wonder, inspiration, and complexity of his icon. We do this through our words, but also through our lives. Meister Eckhart pointed out that the incarnation is worthless and pointless if the Word is not also born in Christians. By stating that “the Word was made flesh” (John 1.14), the Gospel writer uses the inceptive aorist Greek tense which implies an action that has started in the past but is continuing into the present. The phrase might rather be translated as ‘the Word started to become flesh’. Thus, the Word continues to become flesh, even today, as Christians acknowledge that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). The priestly calling is rooted in this and, in this sense at least, all church traditions will be able to affirm the priest as “in persona Christi”. The model of the bearer of mystery therefore allows us model ourselves on the Jesus of the gospels, bringing to our congregations as many questions as we provide answers, telling as many stories as we affirm facts, and challenging as much as we give comfort.

Yet, more than this, this ministry is a paradoxical process of being Christ to people we already regard as Christ. Cistercian Charles de Foucault regarded the recognition that all people are “the greatest treasure of all, Jesus himself” as integral to the priesthood. Likewise, in light of the radical incarnational call of Matthew 25, Alan Ecclestone went as far as to challenge his fellow priests to consider where they bow at the end of each service. They should, he suggested, be bowing where they truly believe Christ is. Rather than bowing to the altar or the host, he urged them to consider bowing to their congregations, where the real body of Christ resides and where the physical real presence is found. With the model of the priest as a bearer of mystery, then, we are compelled to see Christ in both ourselves and others, whoever they may be and however different they are to us.

d) Sacraments and mystery

This model of priesthood is also sacramental to the core. On one hand, priests become witnesses to the wonder of the traditional sacraments, leading others beyond physical matter to spiritual beauty and benefit – to see beyond bread and wine to Christ’s body and blood, beyond the font to the transformational water of life, beyond the temporary joy of a wedding day to a spiritual covenant, and so on. On the other hand, priests become living sacraments themselves. They do this by, firstly, demonstrating, through words and deeds, God’s excessive and unreasonable love and compassion. To use Philip Yancey’s words, priests need to show people what’s so amazing about grace.

Secondly, though, priests become living sacraments by bringing others into engagement with the beauty and wonder of the whole gamut of human experience – theology, literature, film, music, nature, laughter, ecology, spirituality, art, architecture, poetry, and so on. G.K. Chesterton wrote that to see the world properly one must stand on one’s head. The priest’s role is to stand on her or his head, beckoning others to do the same and so to share this distinct, awe-inspiring, and life-giving vision of the world around. It is helping others to recognise the pearl of great price in their seemingly ordinary everyday routines. Karl Rahner, himself often referred to as a ‘mystic of everyday life’, pointed out the importance of leading Christians to God’s active grace in creation, his self-communication in the midst of our everyday lives. This is, to use the words of R.S. Thomas, “the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush, to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once, but is the eternity that awaits you”. Furthermore, there is also a healing aspect to this call to, in the words of Alan Billings, “make God possible”. After all, love, compassion, wisdom, and beauty are not only mystery bearing, but also profoundly healing. Barron employs the ancient term doctor animarum (doctor of the soul) in relation to this aspect of priesthood and relates it directly to the priest’s pastoral calling.

To truly live out this model, though, priests themselves need time and space to connect with God and to engage with, and theologically reflect on, wider culture. The pace of modern ordained ministry, much of which is either non-stipendiary or encompasses the demands of diocesan or provincial roles alongside parish work, rarely allows enough time for study, contemplation, and prayer, thus making St Paul’s command to pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:16) seem a mere aspiration to most clergy.

e) Laity and mystery

With the Church in Wales embracing the healthy process of commissioning and licensing lay people for various roles, it is imperative that we ensure that the priestly role is not devalued. Embracing the model of the bearer of mystery may help give further life and purpose to priestly ministry, as well as to our ordinands and ordination candidates. Priests should certainly never be placed on a spiritual pedestal or elevated over and above the laity. No parts of the body should be elevated above the body itself (1 Corinthians 12). However, there has to be something unique and distinctive about priestly ministry. The concept of priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5) reflects that all Christians share something of the role of Mystagogue, but to the priest this is more than a role or function. Through ordination, it becomes a way of being.

In a further article, in Seminary Journal, Barron tries also to forge a distinctive role for the laity, based upon Papal Encyclicals Lumen Gentium and Apostolicam Actuositatem. Lay people are regarded as subversive world-transfigurers. While the priest explores and proclaims the mysterious communion of Trinitarian love, the layperson brings the power of that communion to bear on their families, their social lives, and their workplaces. While there is much to commend in this image, Barron’s theology of lay ministry continues to be rather hierarchical and one-dimensional. Alongside a priesthood that is lived out in numerous ways, we must affirm countless different lay ministries, all of which are distinctive and important. This allows an organic complementarity between laity and priesthood, where no church ministry is elevated, but each and every call is recognized as unique and distinctive.

f) Bearer of mystery

In reality, there is no ideal model for which we can forge an ontology of priesthood. However, Barron’s model of the priest as bearer of mystery does provide us with a model that is both relevant to our times and rooted in the past. It also has the potential to inspire those who may feel the oars of priesthood have been lost on the shores of our rapidly changing culture. Furthermore, while Alan Billings notes that models of priesthood down the years have very much been defined and embraced by distinct church traditions, this model has the benefit of being accessible to all backgrounds and traditions.

Indeed, John Wesley once described himself as a preacher who set himself on fire and allowed people to watch him burn. This is at the root of this model of priesthood. The primary function of the priest, writes Barron, is not to preach, minister, or counsel. In fact, no function can define or confine priesthood. Rather, a priest is someone who is set on fire to the depths of their being by the mystery of God and then beckons others to draw near and be warmed or set alight by the flame.

Bibliography

Robert E. Barron, “The Priest as Bearer of the Mystery”, in The Furrow Vol. 46, No. 4 (April 1995), pp. 203-209

Robert E. Barron, “Mystagogues, World-Transformers, and Interpreters of Tongues: A Reflection on Collaborative Ministry in the Church”, in Seminary Journal (Summer 1994), pp. 10-13

Robert E. Barron, Bridging the Great Divide: Musings of a Post-Liberal, Post-Conservative Evangelical Catholic (Sheed and Ward,  London 2004)

Robert E. Barron, To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age (Image, New York 2017)

Alan Billings, Making God Possible – The Task of Ordained Ministry Present and Future (SPCK, London 2010)

Charles de Foucauld, Charles de Foucauld: Modern Spiritual Masters (ed. Robert Ellsberg; Orbis, Maryknoll 1999)

Michael Mayne, The Enduring Melody (DLT, London 2006)

John Pritchard, The Life and Work of a Priest (SPCK, London 2007)

R.S. Thomas, Collected Poems: 1945-1990 (Phoenix, London 2004)

Philip Yancey, What’s so Amazing about Grace (Zondervan, Grand Rapids 2002)

Philip Yancey, Rumours of Another World: What on Earth are We Missing? (Zondervan, Grand Rapids 2003)

Easter Sunday – Open our World to your Hope

At the beginning of Barney Norris’s novel Five Rivers on a Wooded Plain, the author reflects on Salisbury Cathedral. He says he’s stared at the cathedral spire every night for a year as he wrote his book. Although he professes no faith himself, he is entranced by the spire, describing it as “cutting the air” like a “diagram of prayer”. He says that the Cathedral has become a symbol of hope in his life, which encourages him to stop, to look up and look beyond the everyday, and to “imagine something greater than we are”. By doing so, he says, “it demands we look outside ourselves”.

There is something in our church buildings that speak of hope, of God’s assurance that he is with us and that his kingdom of love, compassion, and peace is already here among us. No wonder it’s been so difficult for so many when we haven’t been able to enter our buildings freely. But, of course, St Paul also reminded us that we are ourselves are living temples. In other words, each one of us has the potential to be figures of hope to others in our lives. We can, like the spire in Norris’s book, take people beyond their own personal concerns and point to something greater than themselves.

Now, over the past six weeks of Lent, we have been on a journey. This has been an inward journey, as we’ve explored what God’s presence, call, love, will, compassion, and peace means to us personally. But it is also a journey which has radical outward implications. Being transformed into Jesus’s image means we are compelled to view others as he did and treat others as he did. And so now we come to Easter Sunday. The day of resurrection and hope. This hope is for ourselves, yes, but it is also hope that we are invited to share with others, not least at such a difficult time where hope is painfully lacking in so many lives.

So today, in the light of the new life of the resurrection, I want to encourage you to be that hope to others in your life. In the latest Justice League film, Superman says these words: “Hope is like your car key, easy to lose, but, if you dig around, you’ll find it close by”. So many people are digging around, looking for hope at the moment. Be that hope for them. Help people see the light in their lives. Help them see that light both in things familiar and in things long overlooked – in their home, in their families, in their daily walks, in church buildings, in music, in the countryside around them. And open their eyes to new possibilities, new challenges, new life. That is the power of the renewal that Jesus offers. That can change lives, communities, society, and the created world. This is the power of Hope.

This is the transcript of a video recorded for the Diocese of Llandaff. Click here to view video.

Opening our Lives can be purchased at any major online bookstore, including BRF, Amazon, Eden, Independent Booksellers, Church House, and Aslan.

Prayers for the Week

When we’re confronted with emptiness

Lord, we ask you to

Open our world to your hope

When it all goes quiet

Lord, we ask you to

Open our world to your hope

When we want to put away going over the past

Lord, we ask you to

Open our world to your hope

When we want to stop worrying about the future

Lord, we ask you to

Open our world to your hope

When we can’t keep holding our burden

Lord, we ask you to

Open our world to your hope

When we’re convinced nothing will change

Lord, we ask you to

Open our world to your hope

When we’re terrified of losing control

Lord, we ask you to

Open our world to your hope

When we start to be overconcerned about what others say about us

Lord, we ask you to

Open our world to your hope

When we fail to respond to global crises

Lord, we ask you to

Open our world to your hope

When we’re not quick enough to turn to you

Lord, we ask you to

Open our world to your hope

Amen

With thanks to Eleanor Williams, Christ Church, Roath Park, Cardiff for the prayers each week

Lent – Holy Week: Open our Pain to your Peace

Recently, I was sitting on a bench facing our local city lake, Roath Park Lake. I noticed how calm and serene that lake was – the trees around it gently swaying, the ducks and swans gliding in the rippling water, even a heron fishing for his lunch. Peace. And then I glanced at the road around the lake – the hustle and bustle of buses taking people to and from city centre, children screaming and running as they came home from school, police cars with sirens speeding past, frustrated people in cars beeping their horns at each other.

We are now entering Holy Week. A week when Jesus faced betrayal, rejection, torture, pain, and death. And then we will come to the resurrection on Easter Sunday. The risen Jesus repeats two related phrases that can speak into our Holy Week this year. He says “peace be with you” and “do not be afraid” or “fear not”. After all, this journey from the cross to the tomb, and then from the tomb to new life, reassures us of two things. Firstly, it reassures us that Jesus knows what it’s like when we are going through difficult times –and he stands alongside us, with tears in his eyes, when we suffer. But, secondly, Jesus speaks into our pain and suffering – he says “peace be with you, do not be afraid“.

Now in Welsh we have two words for peace – heddwch and tangnefedd. Heddwch is a peace on the outside of us – a peace between people or between nations. Tangnefedd, on the other hand, is internal and eternal, a peace which reaches the depths of our souls. Tangnefedd is what Jesus offers us, “a peace that is beyond understanding”, as St Paul puts it, even when there is no peace outside of us.

And so this week, I want to challenge you, through remembering the suffering and abandonment that Jesus himself felt, to allow his peace to soothe your own worries, your own pain. Even though the stress, busyness, and anxiety of the world continues all around, your hearts and minds can have something of the calm and peaceful Roath Park Lake. It’s not that God’s peace will take away our problems. But it centres us, calms us, and helps us to view those concerns differently.

With everything we have been through over the past year, peace of heart may sometimes seem a distant dream. But Jesus speaks to us through our stress and struggles – he says: “peace be with you… do not be afraid”. Even if the world around us is turbulent and chaotic, our hearts can still be opened to the living water of peace, of tangnefedd. As theologian Andrew Todd put it when reflecting on the pandemic: “this is the peace which touches and holds us when we cannot touch and hold each other”.

This is the transcript of a video recorded for the Diocese of Llandaff. Click here to view video.

Opening our Lives can be purchased at any major online bookstore, including BRF, Amazon, Eden, Independent Booksellers, Church House, and Aslan.

Prayers for the Week

As we wonder about the ups and downs of your final week as a human

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we contemplate the highs and lows in our own lives

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we ask ourselves how we can best use of our days

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we are conscious of our own limitations

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we look upon our own wilderness

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we reflect upon the causes of the world’s suffering

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we call to mind people who are wrongly convicted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we try to identify with those who are betrayed

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we ponder that isolation can occur anywhere

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we think about being transformed by you

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we remember that you are the God who brings peace out of pain, strength out of weakness, triumph out of tragedy

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

Amen

With thanks to Eleanor Williams, Christ Church, Roath Park, Cardiff for the prayers each week

Lent Week 5: Open our Actions to your Compassion

In the most recent version of the film Ben Hur, Pontius Pilate is discussing the threats to the Roman Empire in first-century Palestine. At that time, it was the zealots, the revolutionary Jewish group attempting to overthrow Roman rule, who were the greatest worry to the authorities. But Pilate’s concern was rather an obscure Jewish prophet called Jesus of Nazareth, who was teaching people that love is the true nature of every person. Pilate concludes with these words: “this man calms people with his compassion – he is more dangerous than all of the zealots combined”.

Like the word love, “compassion” is another word that’s rather lost its power in recent years. We so often hear politicians, journalists, and world leaders use the word. Sometimes it can seem a rather insipid and bland way of saying that we should be nice and kind to people. The reality is, though, that the call of compassion is a revolutionary call. Compassion demands that we treat others, whoever they are, whatever they’ve done, as if they were in our families, that we share both their joys and their sorrows. This is a radical way of viewing the world around us. Indeed, it even goes beyond human relationships and challenges our attitudes to the environment and non-human life.

Not that this radical compassion is an easy choice for us to make in our day-to-day lives. So much so, that we often end up sidelining compassion and taking the less-potent steps of charity, sympathy, or pity. I once watched a documentary where Tom Shadyac, the director of the film Bruce Almighty, was interviewing his father, who had founded a hospital for children with cancer. His dad described witnessing so much love and compassion in his church each week. But at the end of the service, so many of the congregation would go out to their cars, go home and just get on with their lives; their compassion will be switched off for the rest of the week. He finishes by describing himself sitting and crying at the end of a service when reflecting on how infrequently we live out God’s compassion. Perhaps we can adapt a quotation by G.K. Chesterton – “it is not that compassion has been tried and found wanting; rather, it has been found difficult and so left untried”.

So I want to challenge you this week to recognise, embrace, and then live out what is radical about compassion. To break through the “us” and “them” attitudes so prevalent in our society. To embrace those who are stigmatised and demonised in our world. To recognise the beauty and worth of God’s creation and of each and every person, whoever they are, whatever their background; to recognise them as our brothers and sisters, to look at them and see Jesus himself looking back at us.

This is the transcript of a video recorded for the Diocese of Llandaff. Click here to view video.

Opening our Lives can be purchased at any major online bookstore, including BRF, Amazon, Eden, Independent Booksellers, Church House, and Aslan.

Prayers for the Week

Because you want us to keep thinking big

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to imagine what other people are going through

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to develop a thin skin

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to contemplate what will happen if we don’t get involved

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to be confident that we can make a difference

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to bring remote issues close

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to reflect on what we can do

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to be stewards of our world

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to look out for those who are on the margins, in the shadows, in too deep, on the brink

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to do all this to help bring in your kingdom

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Amen

With thanks to Eleanor Williams, Christ Church, Roath Park, Cardiff for the prayers each week

Lent Week 4: Open our Ways to your Will

“What are the chances of that happening?” I’ve said that phrase so many times recently that I’ve been researching whether there is any meaning behind coincidences. Not so long ago, a BBC Radio 4 series recounted spectacular coincidences – like in 2001 when 10 year-old Lucy Buxton in Staffordshire released a balloon from her garden with her name and address on it. It landed 140 miles away in Wiltshire in a garden of another 10-year-old girl… who, amazingly, was also called Lucy Buxton! Now, coincidences in our own lives may not be so spectacular, but they can still stop us in our tracks – like when we’re thinking of someone and the phone pings and it’s a text from them. “What are the chances of that happening?” we say.

And I’ve noticed that there have been quite a few posts on social media recently referring to such coincidences. Last week, I read about a friend of mine who was listening to Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you” on his car’s CD Player and he thought to himself “it’s not as good as the original”. So he turned his CD player off and his radio kicked in. What was playing? Yes, Dolly Parton’s original version of “I will always love you”!

Now, such coincidences in our own lives can easily be dismissed as, well, just coincidences. But perhaps, if we open ourselves up, we can recognise these coincidences happening more often in our lives and even recognise meaning behind them. And I’m certainly not the only one to believe this. From the great psychologist Carl Jung to the contemporary Cambridge University biologist Rupert Sheldrake, others have suspected these synchronistic moments have deep meaning. In fact, these may be moments when God reveals himself to us, guides us and speaks to us. One popular book in America suggests this is when God is winking at us, reassuring us of his presence or pointing us in some direction he wants us to take.

So, we can open our ways to his will by noticing him wink at us in all sorts of ways – sometimes this comes through coincidental events, but other times it is through things people say to us, or little signs we notice in our daily routine, or loving thoughts that flash across our minds, or something we read or watch and find inspiring, or perhaps even something we dream about.

So, this week I want to challenge you. Ask yourself… What is God pushing you towards? What little signs has he given you? Are you awake to his movement in your life? Have you noticed him wink at you? How is he guiding you to live out his love and compassion in your life? How does he want you to serve him?

This is the transcript of a video recorded for the Diocese of Llandaff. Click here to view video.

Opening our Lives can be purchased at any major online bookstore, including BRF, Amazon, Eden, Independent Booksellers, Church House, and Aslan.

Prayers for the Week

In the week of Mothering Sunday –

So that we always recall that mothering happens in many places and in many ways

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we recognise the mother in ourselves

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we value the role of all forms of mothering

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we bring our own experiences of mothering to you

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we support those who are mothering

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we learn from mothering

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we recognise that mothering is hard

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we can reassure those who think they’re not cut out for mothering

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we let ourselves be mothered

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we see you as the model of all our mothering

Lord we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

Amen

With thanks to Eleanor Williams, Christ Church, Roath Park, Cardiff for the prayers each week

Lent Week 3: Open our Hearts to your Love

Recently I was introduced to an album called “The Anarchy Arias”. It is a collaboration between the English National Opera, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and Glen Matlock, who was in a famous punk band in the 1970s. These songs are the punk, new wave, and rock songs that I would listen to as a teenager, but played by a wonderful orchestra and sung by talented opera singers. What isn’t there to love about that?! Well, in one particular way, it misses the mark and misses the point. These songs were brash protests against problems that still exist in our society, and now they suddenly seem tame. In this new setting, even the lyrics just don’t have the radical and shocking punch that they had in the 1970s, and much of the power and protest has now been lost.

When I was considering what it means to open our hearts to God’s love, I was reminded of the Anarchy Arias. For two thousand years, Christianity has been known as a faith of love. Jesus’s teaching on love, not to mention his life of love, has inspired groups and individuals to challenge the status quo, to stand up for those are oppressed, to speak for those with no voice, and to lay down their lives for those in need. Yes, people like St Francis, William Wilbourforce, Corrie Ten Boom, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa; but also countless other nameless people who lived out the sacrifice that Christian love demands of us. This call on our lives is radical and revolutionary and it bucks the prevailing individualistic and materialist worldview in today’s world.

The reality is, though, that we’ve probably heard the phrase “God is love” countless times by now. And it’s easy to hear things so often that we just get used to them. The power and inspiration can be drained away from even the most life-giving and profound messages. Just like the Anarchy Arias, Christian love can become something bland and staid, worse still it can become sickly sweet and saccharine.

So, this week, let’s try and recapture something of the radical and revolutionary thing that is Christian love. Imagine that you’ve never even heard of Jesus. And then someone explains, first, that the creator of all loves you completely, unconditionally, so much so that he would die for you. This is a huge comfort. And then they go on to explain that, because God’s love is for all, we’re not simply called to put up with one another, or like each other when it’s convenient, but to love one another. This is a huge challenge. So, this week, embrace the comfort; feel his deep, unwavering love for you. But also embrace the challenge; in whatever way you can, reach out to others in love, help them in practical ways and reassure them of their ultimate worth.

This is the transcript of a video recorded for the Diocese of Llandaff. Click here to view video.

Opening our Lives can be purchased at any major online bookstore, including BRF, Amazon, Eden, Independent Booksellers, Church House, and Aslan.

Prayers for the Week

If we take happiness, health, success for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we take where we’ve come from and where we’re going for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we take our present surroundings for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we take others for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we take ourselves for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we perceive that others take us for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we witness others being taken for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we go along with a system that takes people for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we forget that you never take your creation for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we want to follow you, grant our prayer:

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

Amen

With thanks to Eleanor Williams, Christ Church, Roath Park, Cardiff for the prayers each week

Lent Week 2: Open our Ears to your Call

As a teenager, I vividly remember sitting next to the house phone, with Blondie’s song Call Me blasting out of my tape deck, eagerly waiting for a call from a girl I’d asked on a date. When the call came with the deafening ring of those old phones, I was to be disappointed – the answer was not simply “no, thank you”, it was “no way”.

These days, of course, awaiting a call from a friend or a family member can bring a similar anticipation, especially during a year when we haven’t been able to meet up with as many as we usually do. On top of that, there can be a real excitement about the ping of our mobile phones telling us we have a text or WhatApp message. Scientists tell us we have a rush of dopamine firing around our heads each time we hear our mobile phones ping.

But what about the idea of being called by God? Do you have a similar anticipation of God’s call? Or a similar excitement that he might be speaking to you? It’s important to remember that God’s call is not some scary, supernatural, otherworldly thing that’s restricted to special and holy priests or prophets. God speaks to all of us, he calls all of us – whoever you are, whatever your age, whatever your background, however close you feel to him, however far you feel from him. He’s calling all of us; calling us to use our gifts and talents to bring his kingdom of love to our communities. How exciting is that? Far more exciting than the ring of a phone or the ping of a mobile!

So, the important question is not “is God calling me?”, but rather “am I listening?” The Rule of St Benedict, written in the sixth century, may have been written for monks living in community, but its teaching is as relevant to us now as it was 1500 years ago. And what is the first word of that book? – “listen”. Listen. St Benedict goes on to write: “let us open our ears to the voice from the heavens that every day calls out: if you hear God’s voice today, don’t harden your heart; you have ears to hear, so listen to what the Spirit says”.

So, this week, whoever you are, young or old, lay or ordained, church attender or not, I want to encourage you to open your ears to God’s call. What is he calling you to? Perhaps it’s something big that will mean significant changes is your life. Or perhaps is something small – something loving he wants you to do for someone right now. Remember… the important question is not “is God calling me?”, but rather “am I listening?”

This is the transcript of a video recorded for the Diocese of Llandaff. Click here to view video.

Opening our Lives can be purchased at any major online bookstore, including BRF, Amazon, Eden, Independent Booksellers, Church House, and Aslan.

Prayers for the Week

When you want us to walk before you faithfully

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ears to your call

When you want us to follow you

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ears to your call

When you want to call a crowd to you

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ears to your call

When you want to talk to us individually

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ears to your call

When you want to make us very fruitful

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ears to your call

When you want us to deny ourselves

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ears to your call

When you want us to forfeit the whole world

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ears to your call

When you want us to help change the whole world

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ears to your call

When you want to remind us that your covenant is everlasting

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ears to your call

And when you want to remind us that you are always asking something different of us

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ears to your call

Amen.

With thanks to Eleanor Williams, Christ Church, Roath Park, Cardiff for the prayers each week