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 Over the years I contributed numerous papers on various theological topics, most of which remain unpublished.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).

Reasons to be Thankful: A Year in Review

This year has been a bit of a whirlwind. We welcomed a new little baby into our family, we moved house, I left Cardiff University chaplaincy to become director of ordinands for the diocese of Llandaff and vicar of Christ Church, Roath Park, Cardiff (Wales, UK), and all that on top of writing this blog and having two books published. So, this is a short review of the blog and publications, as I say goodbye to 2013 and welcome in the New Year.

Thank YouFirst, can I say a huge “thank you” to all who have supported my writing over the past year. I especially appreciate those of you who have read the blog, have shared posts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+, have bought or read my books, and have recommended others to read my blog or books. Thank you SO much – I really do appreciate all your support.

The blog: Finding Hope, Meaning, Faith, and Compassion

RunnerUpUACA

When I started the blog in February, I would never have guessed how successful it would have become, culminating, in November, with the runner-up award for the “Up-and-Coming Blog of the Year” at the Christian New Media Awards in London.

Over the past year, many thousands of people have read the pages of this blog, with May and December being the most popular months. It is especially widely read in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, and Germany, but there are also a sizeable number of readers in Brazil, Sweden, and France.

The five most popular blog posts have been, in descending order:

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

4) Crime and Compassion: Does Mick Philpott deserve any compassion?

3) Unto Us a Child is Born: A new baby at Christmas

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

1) “Jesus, do you hate me?” Gay Marriage, the Church and Compassion

The Compassion Quest

The Compassion QuestMy book The Compassion Quest was published in February by SPCK. It was endorsed by Tony Campolo and Graham Tomin, it ended the year with an average of 4.9 stars on Amazon (after 18 reviews), and it was reviewed very favourably in blogs, journals and magazines. For a newly updated blog post detailing the wonderful response that The Compassion Quest received see:

Who else has ever invited Charles de Foucauld, Margaret Thatcher, Philip Pullman and Nick Cave to the same party?

Real God in the Real World

Real God in the Real WorldReal God in the Real World was the official BRF Advent Book for 2013. Again, the response to it were great – an average of 4.8 stars on Amazon (after 9 reviews), excellent reviews in blogs and magazines, and two wonderful endorsements by Alister McGrath and Gerald Kelly. This all meant that 2013 ended on a high, as the book sold out of its first print run after only 2 months and had to be reprinted. It was also great to have a ringing endorsement from a recent review in The Good Bookstall: “Hughes writes with a warmth, authentic insight and real delight. The writing style is fresh and engaging… I am such a fan of Trystan’s other more complex, challenging, and nuanced books… This book is a perfect antidote to the chaos of the Christmas season – a worthy companion in the advent season. Here’s to this and more Rev T O Hughes writing in the not too distant future!”

And to finish…

At the beginning of the year, it was nice surprise to find out that my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering had been quoted by Wm Paul Young (author of The Shack) in his latest book Cross Roads, alongside CS Lewis, Bobby Kennedy, and Paul Simon! Since then, Cross Roads has been translated into many different languages, and so my quotation has been appearing on Twitter and Facebook in many different guises. To finish this short review of 2013, here is that quotation in every form I have, thus far, discovered it on social media sites:

Please feel free to use or share this image

Please feel free to use or share this image

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“El dolor bien puede recordarnos que estamos vivos, pero el amor nos recuerda por qué lo estamos” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Verdriet mag ons er dan wel aan herinneren dat we leven, liefde herinnert ons eraan waarom we leven” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Schmerz erinnert uns daran, dass wir leben, aber die Liebe erinnert uns daran, warum wir leben” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Mae poen yn ein hatgoffa ein bod ni’n fyw, ond cariad sy’n ein hatgoffa pam yr ydym ni’n fyw” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“A dor pode nos fazer lembrar que estamos vivos, mas o amor nos faz lembrar por quê” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Bolest nám možná připomíná, že jsme naživu, ale láska nám připomíná, proč žijeme” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Si la souffrance nous rappelle que nous sommes vivants, c’est l’amour qui nous rappelle pourquoi nous vivons” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Lehet, hogy a fájdalom emlékeztet arra, hogy élünk, a szeretet viszont arra emlékeztet, hogy miért élünk” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Bolest nám možná připomíná, že jsme naživu, ale láska nám připomíná, proč žijeme” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

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.”

“Get down off the cross Jesus, we could use the wood!”: Speaking for those with no voice

crucifixBritish weather is certainly strange. Every time there is a hint that spring is about to burst through, another cold spell brings us right back down to earth! In one of the recent cold spells, I was on a retreat with a friend in a small house in the grounds of a convent outside Monmouth in South Wales. The house was beautiful, but it was freezing cold. I even took to wearing blankets around the house, which I imagine seemed a bit strange to those also on retreat there! At one point, my friend and I were desperately trying to light the fire in the large, icy living room, but the logs and kindling were cold and damp. In a cry for help, my friend looked up at the large crucifix above the fireplace and exclaimed, “get down off the cross Jesus, we could use the wood!”

poverty

Over supper that evening, I asked my friend about his somewhat inappropriate remark. He explained that it was a quotation from a Tom Waits song, later covered by Willie Nelson, and, far from being disrespectful, he maintained that, for him, this little phrase summed up the heart of his faith. After all, he continued, far too often we Christians get too uptight about our worship and our theology. Jesus, on the other hand, would be the first to give up a lofty, privileged view above a beautiful mantelpiece, to help the freezing cold, hungry, poverty-stricken families across the world. As he munched on his cheese-on-toast, my friend lamented that the Church overemphasises the importance of “good” theology and “correct” worship, but forgets how absolutely central our everyday actions should be in our Christian life.

I certainly wouldn’t want to diminish and devalue the centrality of prayer and worship in our faith, and, as a theology lecturer of almost twenty years now, I know that a solid theological underpinning of our beliefs is essential. I can’t help thinking, however, that my friend was making a crucially important point. Both of us agreed that if Jesus were here in front of us in physical form, he would do anything for those who are struggling and suffering. Perhaps we should be adapting the oft-used phrase “What would Jesus do?” (WWJD) to “What would Jesus do for others?” Admittedly, WWJDFO would not be as catchy(!), but the answer would be much more simple. What would Jesus do for others? He would do everything for them… even die for them.

Still Not Love Politics?This should inspire Christians to see it as their duty to speak out for those who have no voice in our society. In the Sunday Telegraph last weekend, 42 Church of England bishops signed an open letter protesting against the Government’s proposed changes to the benefit system – changes that will drive children and families into poverty. This is not an example of a Church interfering with politics, but, rather, is an example of the body of Christ doing exactly what Christ’s literal body would be doing if it were around today in flesh and blood. “We have a duty to support those among us who are vulnerable and in need,” stated the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Devotion to Christ, then, does not mean we become imprisoned behind stained-glass windows, worshipping Christ the King. Rather, it means we minister to those people, broken and impoverished, who need us the most and whom we regard as Christ (Matthew 25:34-45).

BeggingMartin Luther urged his readers to draw Christ into flesh. In other words, we must not spiritualise Jesus into something powerful and ethereal, but we must bring him into even the most mundane and troubling aspects of our everyday lives and of our society. He must be allowed to inject new life into people and structures and to transform individuals and societies. And the only way he can do this is by getting down off his cross of glory, giving the wood to those in need of warmth, and living among us in the hurt, grime, and mess of our everyday lives.

“I was walking down 125th Street, and suddenly I stopped. I looked at everything in amazement. It was like I’d just woken up from a dream that lasted my whole life. And I realised that, if God isn’t somewhere out there in heaven, he’s right here, in the dirt” (Jack Kerouac On the Road)

For more on this theme, see chapter 4 “Bringing Jesus Down to Earth” in The Compassion Quest.