What is the theology of safeguarding? Building welcoming communities of love and grace (Ministry Blog Series – 4)

In a change from my normal blog posts, I have been sharing a number of theological papers on ministry that I have written down the years, including for the Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales . This post was written as a blog post for the Diocese of Llandaff in the Church in Wales.

Safeguarding. It’s a word that, to some people, brings to mind another seminar we are made to attend and just another box to tick. When it comes down to it, we sometimes feel we have better things to do than sit through another safeguarding course or read yet another email or article on the subject.

The reality is, though, that safeguarding is absolutely integral to our faith. It’s part of our calling and should be central to our discipleship, ministry, and mission. As Christians, each of us has an important role to play in promoting welfare of children and vulnerable adults. Paying attention to interpersonal boundaries and power imbalances is far from being an inconvenience, but is intrinsic to a life-giving, compassion-filled faith.

Perhaps understanding the theological and biblical roots of safeguarding can inspire and challenge us to a fresh vision of the importance of fostering a culture of safety in our churches. After all, as theologian Krish Kandiah puts it, in the Bible there is “a clear mandate, motivation and mission to ensure that those who are or may be vulnerable are heard, defended, and treated appropriately, effectively, fairly and compassionately”.

The theological foundation for safeguarding stems from our creation in the image of God. Who we know God is, and how we know he acts, sets the precedent to how we should relate to each other. Jewish theologian Martin Buber wrote: “in the beginning was relationship”. In other words, God is relationship and the concept of the loving Trinity, God as ‘three in one’, brings that home to us. So, our call as Christians is to reflect the relationship that God is – loving, affirming, welcoming, caring, and protecting.

After all, in Psalm 121, God himself is described as our “keeper” and the Hebrew word used there (somereka) can be translated as “safeguard”. In fact, even the theological concept of “salvation” relates to this, as the root of the word “salvation” in Greek (soteria) implies safekeeping. So, care and compassion are at the core of God’s very being. As a result, we ourselves are challenged to live out God’s radical care and love, ensuring we advocate for the lowly, the lost, and the least in our communities. As the book of Proverbs puts it (31:8): we “speak up for people who cannot speak for themselves and protect the rights of all who are helpless and defenceless”.

And, of course, this relates to the cross, which stands at the very centre of our faith. By acknowledging the horror and pain of the cross and God’s presence in Jesus’s cries of agony, we are compelled to challenge all forms of manipulation, violence, and suffering. The cross is, as theologian Elaine Brown Crawford puts it, “an eternal statement that humans should not be abused”.

The agony of the cross then leads to the resurrection, which further affirms our commitment to fostering safety for those who are under threat, ushering in transformation, new life, and hope for individuals and communities. And, just as the resurrected Jesus had scars on his body, so we also stand alongside those who bear their own hidden scars, not least those who have been ignored and failed by the Church in the past.

So, churches are mandated to become places that embody a kingdom where the dignity and ultimate worth of all is championed. While the structures and processes of safeguarding may seem inconvenient on occasion, they are an essential part of this mandate. They can become instruments of God’s kingdom, whereupon children and vulnerable people can be helped to flourish and can be provided with the safe places they desire and deserve. As such, safeguarding is not only at the heart of God’s being and will, but is at the heart of our own identity as Christians, underpinning everything we do, everything we stand for, and everything we are. It is through championing the absolute centrality of care and safety in our churches that we can truly build welcoming, hopeful, compassionate communities of love and grace.

Thought for the Day: The Beatles, the Beatitudes, and the God of the Unexpected

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.

Recently, Peter Jackson, most famous as director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, edited footage of the three weeks in 1969 when the Beatles recorded their final album. It’s a marathon of a documentary, almost 9 hours long, but it’s also fascinating. It reveals how the creativity of the Beatles was fuelled by marmalade on toast and it shows how, in their final months as a band, the sometimes-fractious relationships between the Fab Four inspired them to compose some of their most timeless tunes, including “Let it Be” and “Get Back”. Their plan was to end the three weeks by performing in an ancient auditorium in Tripoli. Eventually, though, they simply decide to climb up to the rooftop of their studio in London and play a concert to the astounded people walking past.

As the police desperately try to gain access to the rooftop to put a stop to the concert, the filmmakers interview people on the streets below. Some are unhappy at the music blasting out, while others are excited by the final time the Beatles would ever perform in public. The interviewers then come to an ageing vicar. We might expect him to side with the greying businessmen condemning the loud music. Refreshingly, though, he doesn’t play into the stereotype of the grumpy Christian bemoaning noisy youths. Instead, he looks up to the roof, smiles warmly, and says that rarely do people get anything for free and how wonderful it was that the young people were enjoying it so much!

As I watched that joyful, unpredictable vicar, I was reminded somewhat of the God that he was following. The Bible reveals to us that our God is the God of the unexpected. Jesus’s teaching reveals a God who topples our predictions and confounds our expectations. In particular, he doesn’t side with the people who we think might deserve it. Instead, he embraces the people that our society believes should be side-lined or ignored. This God of ours brings the people on the edges of life to the centre stage – all the lonely people, as the Beatles put it, but also the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the grieving, the depressed, the anxious, the struggling, the lowly, the gentle, the marginalised, the powerless, the hated, the outsider, and the unwanted.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus astonishingly refers to these people as “blessed” (Luke 6:20-26) – or even “happy” as the Greek word used (makarios) can be translated. In God’s eyes, it is the struggling people on the edges of our society who are blessed and happy. This sharply contradicts how our world seems to work – where the rich, the capable, the successful, the powerful, and the famous are glorified, while others are viewed as expendable consumers, to sell things to or to be discarded as unprofitable or useless.

The Beatles famously sang that “all you need is love”. Whatever they meant by that, our faith reminds us that Christian love is something radically different from saccharin-sweet Valentine’s Day love. God’s love destroys the dominant worldview and ushers in a strange kingdom that has dramatic implications on our lives. It demands that we ask ourselves some searching questions. Who do we glorify in our world? Who do we demonise? How do we view certain people and groups? Are we truly living out our upside-down, downside-up, topsy-turvy, flipped-around faith? Or are we simply standing around, like the predictable people in the Beatles documentary, complaining about the noise and looking down with disdain on those who are not like us? And are we too quickly slipping into our comfort zones and descending into the stereotype of how we think a “normal” Christian should behave and react?

One thing is clear – there’s nothing normal about our faith, and neither is there anything comfortable, snug, or predictable. Instead, Jesus introduces us to the God of the unexpected and, by doing so, he rips up and tears apart all the world teaches about human nature. In our faith is a radical, revolutionary call to sacrifice, love, and compassion. Through our faith, and with our help, God can and will transform our broken world.

What is Mission? Being Sent on a Mission from God (Ministry Blog Series – 3)

In a change from my normal blog posts, I have been sharing a number of papers on ministry that I have written down the years for the Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales. This post was rather written as a blog post last year for the Diocese of Llandaff in the Church in Wales. It fits neatly in the series, though, so I hope you enjoy.

When I was director of vocations for the Diocese of Llandaff in the Church in Wales, I used to sit on a comfy seat in my living room chatting over coffee with candidates who felt God was calling them to ministry. There are far worse ways to spend an afternoon! I would chat about their spiritual life and they would tell me about their church worship and private prayer. And I’d then ask whether they had been involved in outreach and mission? At that point there was often a long silence. I can only imagine they were desperately struggling to think of a time they struck up a conversation with a stranger about the life-transforming power of Jesus.

When many of us hear the words “mission” and “evangelism”, we naturally think of people persuading others the truths of their belief. When I think of “mission” I remember the over-enthusiastic UBM people on Llandudno Beach who used to mesmerise us children with puppets and a song about Jesus wanting us to be sunbeams. And I think of the Salvation Army group in my favourite musical Guys and Dolls, persuading gangsters to repent and welcome God into their lives. And I think of Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, where my friends and I would visit to debate our faith with ardent atheists. And I think of films like The Mission and Scorsese’s Silence, about priests baptising new Christians in far away, exotic lands.

But, let me take you back to my living room with my vocations candidates. Sitting there, still struggling to think of examples of when they brought somebody to faith, I would then read to them the Anglican five marks of mission, which were identified with personal evangelism at the Anglican Consultative Council in 1984 and which summarise what “mission” entails. And, yes, the list does include (1) preaching the good news and (2) baptising new believers. But the list doesn’t stop there – it also reminds us that mission involves (3) responding to human need through love, (4) transforming unjust structures in society, challenging violence, and pursuing peace, and (5) caring for God’s creation. On hearing this list, my candidates would suddenly start to detail examples of when they had been working in food banks, or volunteering with the Samaritans, or protesting against climate change or war, or campaigning against inequality, or teaching in schools, or collecting for charities, or visiting the sick or elderly. It was so inspirational to hear that they had been doing mission, in all sorts of wonderful ways!

The Oxford Dictionary defines mission as “an important assignment given to a person or group of people”. By factoring in the origin of the word “mission”, which comes from the Latin missio, meaning ‘to send’, we start to discover Christian outreach is really about. In the gospels, Jesus sends out his disciples two by two (Luke 10-1-9). This was a “mission” – an important assignment given to this band of followers. And Jesus is giving that same mission to us today! But he’s not sending us out to do any old work.

Theologians talk about us being sent to carry out Missio Dei – God’s mission. Jurgen Moltmann writes that “it is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church”. In other words, each time we are doing God’s work, we are doing mission. When we look at what’s lacking in society and we do something about it, we are doing mission. When we look where our world is crying out for peace, compassion and hope and we do something about it, we are doing mission. When we work towards the Kingdom of God, as Jesus commanded his disciples as he sent them out, we are doing mission! As theologian David Bosch puts it: “To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love toward people, since God is a fountain of sending love”.

When the New Testament refers to God’s mission (whether in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) or in Jesus’s first sermon in a synagogue (Luke 4:16–21)), it often does so by looking back at the wonderful vision of the liberation of God’s people in the Old Testament. Isaiah, for example, gives a picture of hope to the Israelites who are suffering far from home on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates in Babylon. They are feeling lost, abandoned, and hopeless, much like so many people feel today in our world. And Isaiah says to them: despite all you are going through, despite the pain and sadness and frustration you feel, remember that there is still great hope for the future – fresh springs of living water will flow where there was once arid desert, those who are oppressed and marginalised will be raised up and liberated, those who are sick or disabled will be revived and made whole, those who are fearful or frustrated will be lifted up in joy, those who are hungry will be satisfied and made full, and creation that is groaning through misuse and greed will be made new and fresh!

This is a picture of what God wants us to bring to this world. We are being sent, each and every one of us. We are being sent to bring God’s light and life to our friends and neighbours. We are being sent to bring reconciliation and healing to our struggling communities. We are being sent to be beacons of hope and joy to our broken world.

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)

“A vicar walks into a bar”: Why would anyone become a member of the clergy?

Rev.jpgIn a recent comprehensive piece of research by the UK Office for National Statistics, 274 jobs were considered as to which gave the most satisfaction. At the top of the list, as the most fulfilling occupation, was being a member of the clergy. Being a priest, vicar, pastor, or minister may not be the best paid financially, but it certainly pays in other ways. On the other hand, the job giving the least satisfaction was the position of a landlord of a public house or a wine bar. So, serving God beats serving pints of beer!

Sad man drinking in barInterestingly, in the hit song ‘Hope on the Rocks’, the American country music star Toby Keith describes the bartender in very priestly terms. People, he claims, go to bars with all sorts of problems – breakups, depression, grief, poverty – and they are desperate to be listened to, to confess, and to be comforted. The bar allows them the freedom to “drown in their sorrow and cry in their beer”. The bartender is, therefore, presented as being there to bring hope to their trials and tribulations. While there may be some amount of truth in this, most bar staff and pub landlords aren’t trained to deal with people’s turbulent lives and they haven’t chosen their livelihood because of a calling to care for people pastorally.

All Christians, of course, have a calling on their lives. God wants to use his people in their workplace and elsewhere, and no occupation is more important than another. Much of the satisfaction that comes through ordination, though, is because clergy are able to live out directly and boldly what they believe God is calling them to be. Before I became a member of the clergy, I lectured at a number of Universities. There was an enormous pressure there to attract new students to the colleges, so as to bring more money and financial stability to the institutions. Church leaders still have to deal with financial pressures, but most of their time is spent bringing God’s love to people who desperately need hope, peace, and comfort, and in showing Christ’s unconditional compassion to those who are struggling in an all too often uncompassionate, materialistic society.

revFor those who watch the ups and downs of parish life that Rev Adam Smallbone goes through in the BBC’s sitcom Rev, the level of satisfaction amongst members of the clergy might be a surprise. There is no doubt that, like the ministry of this fictitious inner-city vicar, most of us clergy go through periods of doubt, frustration, and disillusionment. There are even times when we might want to take off our dog collar and cut it into pieces. “I struck the board, and cried, ‘No more; I will abroad!’”, wrote sixteenth-century cleric George Herbert as he looked at his collar lying on the table.

Wedding vicarBut also like Rev Adam in Rev, those times of frustration fade into near obscurity in comparison with the times of fulfilment and satisfaction that our vocation brings – the times that George Herbert describes as moments when we hear God’s voice affirming our vocation. “As I raved and grew more fierce and wild at every word,” concludes Herbert’s poem The Collar, “me thought I heard one calling, ‘Child!’ And I replied ‘My Lord’”. It is, after all, a wonderful privilege to help people connect with the transcendence of life – to give opportunities for them to recognise that life is more than the hustle and bustle of their busy, competitive, and sometimes tiresome daily existence. It is also a magnificent privilege to be there at both the uplifting and unhappy times of people’s lives; at the ups and downs; at the hospitals and funerals and at the weddings and christenings. We stand alongside others in their tears and tragedy, as well as their joy and jubilation. We shake their hands after they commit their lives in love to another, and we hold their hands at hospital bedsides as they move from this life to the next. As such, our ministry is living out God’s compassion – suffering when others suffer and rejoicing when they are joyful.

THE DOUBLE movieThe recent film The Double, directed by Richard Ayoade and based on Dostoyevsky novella of the same name, may be situated in a dystopic, parallel world but the characters voice feelings that are widespread in today’s world. Jesse Eisenberg describes himself as a lonely and disconnected “Pinocchio”, a “wooden boy, not a real boy” who needs to be brought to life. That disconnect with the world around us, that loneliness and longing for community and connection, remains deep in the heart of humanity. By becoming a vicar, priest, or minister, we have the privilege of offering light and new life to those who come to us, as we support and love them through their journey. The wonderful irony is that, by offering people God’s grace, we are, in turn, offered so much fulfilment and satisfaction ourselves.

If you yourself feel God might be calling you to be a vicar, priest, pastor, or minister, please do talk to your own church leader.

“Camels leaping through needles”: Jesus, Exaggeration, and Hyperbole

hyperbole 1When I was growing up my dad had numerous phrases that used to annoy me – “this house is lit up like a Christmas tree”, “you know money doesn’t grow on trees”, and “if your friend put their hand in the fire would you put yours in?” The one that used to infuriate me more than any other, though, was: “how many thousands of times have I told you not to exaggerate?!” Now I’m older, and my life involves preaching and writing, I realise the dramatic importance of exaggeration and hyperbole. Exaggeration is, of course, not always a good thing, but, as long as we recognise that this technique is being used, it can certainly be helpful. Even as a child, I knew that money didn’t literally grow on trees, but the phrase taught me something about the value of not squandering what we have. And I never literally saw a friend put his hand into a fire, but the phrase help teach me to resist peer pressure. And leaving my bedroom light on doesn’t literally look like dozens of sparkling lights on a Christmas tree, but the phrase helped me to recognise the impact that wasting electricity has on the environment.

Camel 2In the Bible, Jesus uses exaggeration and hyperbole on numerous occasions, as he connected with his listeners by expressing deep truths in a nonliteral manner. He came from a Jewish tradition that was steeped in this technique of writing and speaking. “You are all together beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you”, asserts the Song of Songs in the Old Testament (Song 4:7). I’m sure Solomon’s beloved was stunningly beautiful, but even the very best of us have a couple of flaws! By Jesus’ time, hyperbole was a technique used by some rabbis, the teachers of the day. Jesus, though, particularly employed this technique, often as a way of grabbing his audience’s attention or to shock them into recognising the deep truth he was asserting. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “Christ had even a literary style of his own; the diction used by Christ is quite curiously gigantesque – it is full of camels leaping through needles and mountains hurled into the sea”.

eyesThe Sermon on the Mount has many such examples. When Jesus refers to lust, for example, he says “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell”. This passage clearly shouldn’t be taken literally, not least because its literal fulfilment won’t achieve the desired goal anyway. One of my closest and oldest friends has been blind since childhood, and I remember once discussing this passage with him. “Believe me, Trystan”, he said over his pint of beer, “tearing someone’s eyes out won’t stop them lusting!”

no-means-noWhile such a statement should not be taken literally, it should still be taken seriously. This passage teaches us something far deeper, far more radical about God’s kingdom. Everything we do, Jesus is telling us, has profound effects on both others and ourselves. Objectifying those of the opposite sex is not something that has no consequences. It can hurt and damage people directly, and can also damage society. We are left with daily news reports about sexual abuse, human trafficking, and rape and assault, while young people of both sexes are pressurised into a stereotype of how they should be acting in relationships and are given impossible ideals of how they should be looking.

man-praying1Jesus’ exaggerated statements in the Sermon on the Mount, then, are not to be taken literally. But neither are those statements trying to make us feel guilt or hatred towards ourselves. Instead, they are trying to encourage us to recognise the radical nature of God’s kingdom and the impact that should have on how we think and act. In my last blog post, I emphasised the importance of us looking outside of ourselves to stand alongside those oppressed by gender, race, and ethnicity. But we need also to look inside of ourselves at our own personal issues, be they lust, anger, envy, hatred, selfishness, or material greed. How we think and how we act in our daily lives has an impact, not only on our own wellbeing and on other individuals, but also on our society and on our environment. If we really want to challenge the world, we must start with challenging ourselves. And if we really want to change the world, we must start with changing ourselves.

“A Satsuma is not a Failed Orange”: Listening to God’s call

VocationI live two varied and interesting lives. Don’t worry, this isn’t a confession of a secret life that I live. Rather, I’m referring to the fact that I have two ministries. On the one hand, I am blessed to be vicar of a wonderful church in a picturesque part of Cardiff (Roath Park), and, on the other hand, I have a role for the diocese of Llandaff – the diocesan director of ordinands. When I summarise that part of my job to those who aren’t Christian, I tell them that, in a nutshell, I help people work out whether God is calling them to be a vicar or whether God is calling them to something else, which will be different, but equally as important. Today is, therefore, an important day for me, as it is Vocation Sunday in our diocese – the day that we think about what being “called” actually means.

Little TrysWhen I was a child, I loved the Old Testament story of little Samuel being called by God in the temple at night. In fact, I loved it so much that Little Trys used to lie awake at night, straining to hear his name being called out. Is God calling me, I would ask myself… and I would listen so very carefully. But every night I was disappointed – silence! Then, and this is completely true, one night I finally heard my name – ‘Trystan…’ I thought ‘surely not’. But then I heard it again ‘Trystan…’ I was scared about talking directly to God, but I was also excited, because I knew the answer to this – I’d heard the story of Samuel in Sunday School, so I said confidently the words he had been told to say when he heard God calling him: ‘speak, Lord, your servant is listening’. And, sure enough, the voice replied ‘good, Trystan, because I have such an important task for you… tomorrow you must go out and buy your wonderful older brother the most expensive birthday present you can find him!’ At that point I noticed the shadow of my brother outside my door. I was distraught! I was actually so disappointed that, at that point, I came to the conclusion that God would never call someone like me. He only calls ‘special’ people, I thought – great prophets, very holy people, good people, worthy people.

GiftsBut, the reality is, of course, that, if we look in the Bible, God calls all sorts of people to do his work, from all sorts of backgrounds. So, being “called” is not about being ‘good’, ‘worthy’, or ‘holy’. God actually calls all of us, whoever we are and whatever we’ve done. After all, each and every one of us is a mixture of good and bad. I am the second of five children – my mum and dad kept trying until they got one they liked… (joke, mum!) When I was a child, my older brother was a good rugby player and a talented musician. I rather saw myself as the black sheep of my family, then my younger brother grew up and he was even more of a rebel than I was – and so, in my mind, he took over that mantle as the ‘black sheep’ and I was relegated to the ‘grey sheep’ of the family!

The reality is, though, that all of us are grey sheep. As the theologian Hans Kung put it, ‘a few of us are white sheep, a few of us are black sheep, but, let’s face it, most of us are zebras’. So, each of us also have a rebellious side, which can be selfish and self-centred, but each of us also have various God-given talents and gifts and He can use each of us for his purpose.  ‘Oh here in dust and dirt, O here; The lilies of his love appear’, wrote the seventeenth-century Welsh poet Henry Vaughan.

Despite our weaknesses, then, God calls each and every one of us. So, the question is not ‘is God calling you to do something?’ No, the question is ‘what is God calling you to do?’ So, on this Vocation Sunday, can I suggest that you think about two things:

I am SuperFirstly, why not take time to think how you are being called to use your gifts and talents for God’s glory? Some of our talents are obvious to all (some of us are talented singers, skillful musicians, wonderful actors, or great cake-bakers), but, alongside from our obvious talents, we must also all search for, and work on, our less recognizable gifts (like the gift of being able to talk to people, the gift of smiling at people, the gift of being patient with people who you find to be particularly annoying, or the gift of just being aware when someone needs help or needs a kind word or two). None of these talents are any less important than the others. Someone once said to me that a ‘Satsuma is not a failed orange’! All talents are important and valuable and useful to God and He’s calling you to use your talents. So ask yourself this week – how are you being called to use your gifts and talents to bring light into people’s lives? ‘Oh here in dust and dirt, O here; The lilies of his love appear’.

Ipod PriestBut, secondly, can I urge you to consider, and pray for, those who are feeling called to ordained ministry. You yourself may be feeling called to offer yourself to explore being a priest, a pastor, a vicar. If so, pray about it and talk about it with someone who knows you well and to your parish priest. But, even if you don’t feel such a call, ask yourself one question: do you know anyone who you think would make a great vicar? If so, can I urge you to have a quiet word with him or her and to suggest to them that they might consider exploring such a ministry. What’s the worst that can happen? Yes, they could burst out laughing and say: “you must be joking!” But, on the other hand, your word to them might just be the one thing that makes them start exploring a ministry that is so varied, so wonderful, and so rewarding. ‘Oh here in dust and dirt, O here; The lilies of his love appear’.

And so I finish with the prayer that I put together for the diocese of Llandaff for this Vocation Sunday:

Loving God,

thank you for calling us at baptism to be your people

and for inviting each of us to serve you through the gift of our lives.

In response to your call we again say, “Yes.”

Keep us faithful to your mission and our vocation.

And, gracious Lord, we ask that you inspire more women and men

of faith and compassion to ministry, service, and leadership.

Fill them with your Spirit of wisdom and grace

to proclaim the Good News,

to bring peace and hope into their situations,

and to witness your presence among us.

May those who are already opening themselves to your call

be encouraged and strengthened

to take your love into our communities with joyful and hopeful hearts.

Through Jesus Christ, our Lord,

Amen.

(Parts of this blog post are taken from my book Real God in the Real World: Advent and Christmas Reflections on the Coming of Christ)

Shouting “Love” over Barbed Wire: Some thoughts on Prison Sunday

Hay on Wye Festival 3As a writer, I’ve always dreamed of being invited to speak at the wonderful Hay on Wye book festival. Earlier this year, I received an email out of the blue. My dream had come true, albeit in a very unusual way. The email invited me to speak at the “Hay in the Parc” festival. I had heard of Hay in the Parc, and had always imagined it to be the section of the Hay Festival that takes place in a wonderful park, with everyone sitting around drinking Pimms, eating canapés, and enjoying the sunshine as they listen to famous authors reciting prose and poetry. However, this e-mail informed me that this was far from being the case. The invite was, in fact, far more challenging and interesting. The “Parc” in question was no Hyde Park or Roath Park, but was instead Parc prison, the secure category B jail in Bridgend.

Actor Keith Allen takes part in the 2012 Hay in the Parc literary festival at Parc prison, Bridgend.Hay in the Parc is a sister literary festival to the principal festival in Hay. Its aim is to help inspire prisoners and, ultimately, to change their lives, especially as the majority of whom (according to a recent article in The Guardian) have a reading age below that of a 10-year-old. The festival offers opportunities for prisoners to engage with authors and to attend creative writing classes, and, since it began in 2008, it has touched the lives of around 2,000 prisoners.

prison 11My own visit turned out to be quite an experience. Having written a book on compassion, I thought it would be easy to face this group of prisoners. As I sat in the prison chapel beforehand, the chaplain took the opportunity to brief me (in a non-specific way) of the type of crimes for which prisoners in Parc were being detained. As I talked to her, it dawned on me that many of them were not in prison for speeding offences or petty theft, but, rather, for crimes that I found completely abhorrent. I began to think about the victims of their crimes and it led me to feel angry and upset. I realize now that I was echoing the very attitudes that this group of people must fear they will face on being released back into our community. Writing about (and preaching about) seeing the face of Christ in everyone with whom we come into contact is easy. Living that out in our daily lives is much harder. Yet, once the prisoners were in the room, their humanity, their engagement, their humour, their humility, and their sense of hope, drew me a little way down the path of seeing them as God sees them.

prison 4

In talking with the prisoners about suffering, the theme of my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering that many had read as part of their prison book group, helped me realize the deep pain and suffering each one of them had been through, either before their crime or since their conviction. So much so that I learnt that these prisoners contributed to a moving collection of poetry and prose, entitled “Windows: Christian Writings from HMP Parc”. Throughout the book, their words reflect the sense of abandonment, loneliness, and alienation that they feel. As one of the contributors candidly wrote:

Prison cell“It started like any normal day, but this was the day I died. Yes, I said died, well at the time it felt like I had just died. I no longer had a first name, I was given a number and sat in a room that felt so cold and dark, but looking at the clock on the wall it was saying 2pm, but to me time meant nothing. I had just lost my life, my family, everything I own… I would sit on my bed reflecting on who I was and what I had done before coming to prison and how much better it would be to kill myself; this hell would end. I would close my eyes and I was back home with my family and it would be just a normal day, the wife doing wifely things and the kids just being kids. Then I would open my eyes and I was back in this cold cell that I call hell” (by ‘Will’)

In the foreword to this book, Archbishop Barry Morgan suggests that these prisoners have grasped the essence of the Christian gospel in their writing – that God loves us, unconditionally without any strings attached. On Prison Sunday, with churches across the UK remembering those affected by prison, this is the very message that Christians should be shouting from the rooftops and over barbed wire – God loves all of us, unconditionally without any strings attached.

McVeighIn the illustrated version of Philip Yancey‘s book What’s so Amazing about Grace?, there is one page where the only words printed are “the one God loves”, and, above that, is a small square of mirrored paper, where we look directly at ourselves. Powerfully, as you turn the next page, the words “like me” are printed and, above them, we see a big picture of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber who killed over 160 people. I know that I am loved by God, just as he loves you and he loves all the victims of crime, who certainly need our complete support and care. But the radical thing about God is that he also loves those jailed in Parc Prison and he loves the prisoners in other jails worldwide. Likewise, he loves the families and friends of prisoners whose lives are often torn apart at their conviction.

It’s true that God wants people to change, but God’s love will always come before any action on their part. There are no conditions to God’s love. He does not say “change, and then I will love you”. He loves us anyway in the hope that we will, some day, want to change. Whatever we do, whatever we think, whatever we say, whoever we are, he loves us. That’s the scandal of God’s gracious love. That’s the most difficult thing to accept about God’s love. But that’s also the most unique and beautiful thing about God’s love.

God's love

Most of us will find that hugely challenging, especially when we consider heinous crimes and notorious criminals. Personally, I certainly find it hard to comprehend. But this is not about me, and it’s not about what I feel. It’s not about you, and it’s not about what you feel. It’s about God, and it’s about how he feels. Nothing or no one is beyond his love. This is the reason why one prisoner could write these powerful and peaceful words at the end of his contribution to Parc Prison’s book:

“As I sat in the chapel listening to what was being said something happened to me. I started not to feel alone. This guy who was talking seemed like he was talking to me, even though the room was filled with other prisoners. It felt like he was just telling me a story about a bloke called Jesus. After chapel, I went back to my cell from hell, but this time it felt different. It was the same cell, but it did not feel so cold and I never felt like I was by myself again” (by ‘Will’)

prison 10

See also:

“It could have been me”: Prison and Compassion

Crime and Compassion: Does Mick Philpott Deserve any Compassion?

 

Women Bishops – This is Wales, calling the Church of England

Women Bishops  6To have contributed one vote towards yesterday’s historic “yes” vote for women bishops in the Church in Wales feels special. I was there five years ago when the Church in Wales rejected women bishops, and I saw the pain that so many were feeling at that time – many tears of sorrow and incredulity were cried. Yesterday, though, it was tears of joy that were flowing at the Church in Wales’s Governing Body. For someone like me, it was a happy and jubilant day, which had affirmed an important biblical principle – “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). For many of my colleagues, though, it was the pinnacle of many tireless decades of praying and campaigning.

The debate yesterday was remarkably gracious – with both sides contributing with warmth and humility. Anglicanism, after all, has always been a broad Church, and we already have many different and contrasting voices within our theological and liturgical spectrum. Yesterday’s debate showed that we were no different to any other family – a motley crew of diverse folk held together, most of the time at least, by love and respect.

My own brief contribution to the debate seems a distant memory by now. However, a number of friends and colleagues have asked that I reproduce the words that I spoke from the podium. Below are therefore those words, reprinted in the knowledge that my friends and colleagues in the Church of England might be inspired by the fact that, at the moment that I spoke them, I truly believed that the Governing Body was going to vote “no” and that I was to return back home disheartened again. As it happened, the Bill went through effortlessly, with members of all shades of theology (evangelical, Catholic, traditionalist, liberal, charismatic) voting conclusively for women bishops:

Women Bishops 3“Yesterday, we heard about the rise in the number of children attending our churches. But once they hit their teens, it’s then they really start questioning. I coordinate a group called The Journey in the diocese of Llandaff, for 16 to 24-year-olds. A few months ago, we held an event called Grill-a-Bishop, and Bishop David Wilbourne came to be grilled by a group of over 30 young people. The question of women bishops was the very first issue they wanted to discuss. These young people came from different churches from across the diocese and hailed from a range of theological backgrounds, but all of them seemed to be of the same opinion – that NOW is the time for women bishops.”

“Listening to the discussions of these young people, it was clear that, yes, this is to do with theology, but it is also to do with the health of the Church, it is to do with affirming the ministry of all God’s people, and, with the nations cameras looking on, it is to do with the Church’s credibility in our society. I have no doubt whatsoever that voting against this Bill for women bishops will be extremely damaging to how the vast majority of young people view the Church in Wales – those young people who come to our churches, but also to those on the periphery and to those who do not attend.”

Women Bishops 2“As an outgoing chaplain at a large University and as coordinator of The Journey, I felt I had to try to say something about a group who aren’t represented here today. To the majority of teenagers and young people, continuing to say “no” to women bishops, especially as we already ordain women priests, is seen as nonsensical and backward. It is something an increasingly unbelieving age-group finds unbelievable.”

“And I personally find it unbelievable that I could be going back for this year’s Freshers Week at the University, for my last few weeks as chaplain there, to tell the students that we didn’t pass this Bill. It is certainly true that women bishops are not the answer to our problems as a Church, BUT it is also true that our problems will get a whole lot worse if we keep saying “no” to women bishops.”