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.

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).

Lent Week 2: Open our Ears to your Call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prayers for the Week

When you want us to walk before you faithfully

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ears to your call

When you want us to follow you

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ears to your call

When you want to call a crowd to you

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ears to your call

When you want to talk to us individually

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ears to your call

When you want to make us very fruitful

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ears to your call

When you want us to deny ourselves

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ears to your call

When you want us to forfeit the whole world

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ears to your call

When you want us to help change the whole world

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ears to your call

When you want to remind us that your covenant is everlasting

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ears to your call

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

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ears to your call

Amen.

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

What has the Trinity got to do with everyday life?

Today is Trinity Sunday, when the Church remembers that God is “one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”. Three in one, one in three. If that has always confused and perplexed you, then welcome to the club! It’s no coincidence that many priests make sure their curate is on the rota to preach on this particular Sunday! But just because it is a complex doctrine, it is far from an outdated or pointless belief. In fact, as much as any other Christian belief, the Trinity gets to the heart of what God is all about and what he expects of us. There are, after all, two important things we can say about the Trinity.

Firstly, the Trinity is a mystery. However much thought goes into it, however much we study, we’ll never fully understand the Trinity. I used to ask my students to think of analogies of what “three in one” could mean – some would follow St Patrick in suggesting shamrocks (three leaves in one sprig), others would suggest water, one element that can be three forms: liquid, steam or ice. And I even remember one group being particularly inventive by suggesting the theology of a creme egg – one sweet in three parts: the chocolate, the sickly sweet white part, and the smooth yellow centre. All this, of course, is not particularly helpful to understanding what is essentially a great mystery about God. And perhaps understanding this mystery is less important than asking why our faith teaches this mystery – what does it mean to us that God is three in one?

Well, that is where we come to second point and this turns everything else about the doctrine upside down. The philosopher Martin Buber wrote: “In the beginning was relationship”. And that little word is at the heart of what the Trinity means – “relationship”. The early church theologians described the Trinity as a dynamic dance of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. After all, love can’t exist in isolation, it can’t exist by itself. So, yes, the Trinity is a mystery. It is, though, a mystery that discloses something very simple about God. It reveals that God, in the very depths of his being, is relationship; God is love.

This has huge implications in our world of suffering, illness, grief, oppression, prejudice, violence, and inequality. It is when we step out of our isolated, selfish selves, it is when we enter into caring, peaceful, and compassionate relationships with each other, with nature, with our environment, that God is revealed to the world. The Christian philosopher Gabriel Marcel talks about “absolute availability”. Because God is relationship, love is not an optional extra for Christians and that has, in our local and global world, far-reaching expectations of each of us. The doctrine of the Trinity demands that availability, responsibility, relationship, care, compassion, and love permeates all that we are and all that we do, whether in person or online, in our thoughts, in our words, or in our actions, in how we spend our money or how we spend our time.

In other words, the Trinity demands that we are “absolutely available” to others, to be a loving and life-enhancing gift to them – to stand alongside them in their pain, to weep with them in their grief, to rejoice with them in their good news, to stand up against oppressive systems that dehumanise them, to shine the light of justice on those who misuse power, to call to account those who blindly ignore our groaning earth, to expose those who pedal lies and falsehoods, to speak up for those whose voices are silenced. After all, it is because God is the Trinity, because God is relationship, that Martin Luther King stated that life’s most persistent question, life’s most urgent and important question, is: “What are you doing for others?” So, I challenge you to reflect on your life and ask yourself that little question – “What are you doing for others?”

A prayer
Father God,
Through the Power of your Spirit,
And the Grace of your Son,
Help us to each to play our part in turning the world upside down
Through your compassion, care, peace, hope, and love.
Amen.

I don’t want to be good: Trump, Brexit, Adam, and Jesus

img_2960My youngest son has hit the terrible twos with vengeance. He has the potential to get rather angry, to say the least. A few nights back, when he was told it was time to pack up his Fireman Sam toys, he saw red and went into a meltdown. I calmly repeated to him that it was his bedtime and he needed to be a good boy. As the tears flooded down his cheeks, he looked directly into my eyes, and said “but, daddy, I don’t want to be a good boy!”

Reflecting on the US election over the past few days I have been thinking about his words. The Christian doctrine of original sin is the belief that all of us are inclined to mess up, just as Adam did in the Garden of Eden. “Everyone who enters the world”, wrote third-century theologian Origen, “may be said to be affected by a kind of contamination”. In other words, all of us are inclined towards faults, frailties, and failures. Sometimes, like my two year old, we just don’t want to be good. Tertullian, another third-century theologian, reminded us original sin is not only a doctrine which explains the flaws of individuals, but also the difficulties faced by families, communities, and societies.

trumpTo some, this doctrine has seemed bleak and lacking in hope. It is little wonder that, down the years, certain theologians ignored or dismissed it and championed the innate goodness of our fellow beings and the inevitability of human progress. The terrible slaughter of the First World War seemed to be the final nail in the coffin of this positive view of human nature. For the past thirty years, though, many of us, whether we are Christian or not, have almost unconsciously tended towards a positive view of progress in politics and society – Soviet Glasnost, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the vision of a new Britain by Tony Blair, the promise of change by Barack Obama, not to mention spectacular breakthroughs in science, medicine and technology. Slowly, though, our hope in human progress has been eroding, culminating in a year when we have seen terror on the streets of Europe, increasingly bloody conflicts in the Middle East, the rise of hateful extremism in a plethora of forms (including, most disturbingly, increasingly “acceptable” forms), a victory for the hostile rhetoric of Brexit, and Donald Trump’s election as US President, with all the threat that holds to minorities, the environment, and world peace.

Certainly complex reasons have led to the situation we are now facing – communities feel disenfranchised, individuals are facing increasing poverty and inequality, there is a distrust of the political class, and there remains real anger towards the greed of financial institutions. But at the heart of our present status quo is the fact that we humans eventually end up being tempted to do what we always end up doing, whether in our personal lives or in our communities and societies – to push the self-destruct button.

createdIn this sense, the doctrine of original sin and the Christian concept of the fall ring true to the reality of the human condition. All of us have a tendency towards selfishness, self-centredness, and sin. If that were the end of the matter, this would leave us hopeless and helpless. But Christian theology holds the tension of fall and redemption, of sin and grace. In other words, just as all are in Adam, all are also within Christ (I Cor. 15:22). We are both sinner and saint. We have been, after all, made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and that “likeness”, as Tertullian put it, can still shine out in our daily actions of peace, hope, and compassion. Our inclination to mess up, in the words of fourth-century theologian St Augustine, “darkens and disables good natural qualities” but those qualities still remain deep within us. The incarnation affirms this, as, through our faith, we become Christ to others (Romans 13:14) and others become Christ to us (Matthew 25:40).

trump-2This is where the Christian faith can offer the radical hope that our broken world needs to truly believe that change is possible – to believe that love and compassion will trump fear and prejudice. The sixteenth-century reformer John Calvin noted that original sin does not mean that sin is a necessity – we can all still choose another way. For us to do this, though, there is a greater challenge. We have to recognize that no one, whoever they are, is beyond redemption. Everyone has the imprint of God on them and should be regarded and treated as God’s children. Christian activist Sara Miles reflects on the uncomfortable challenge of this fact: “the thing that sucks about being a Christian is that God actually lives in other people”. Even those whom we most vehemently disagree with, even those who are hateful, misogynist, narcissistic, and racist, are made in God’s image. Only through this realization can we truly grasp something of the revolutionary hope that Jesus offers to our societies. The doctrine of original sin does not teach us that we are lost to unconscious forces that control us. Rather, it reminds us of our own implication in the evils of the world and reassures us of our beautiful opportunity to transform ourselves, others, events, communities, and societies in the light of God’s hope, compassion, and love.

 

We are Family, all my Brothers, Sisters, and Me!

Who is the most famous person you’ve met? My list is not particularly impressive, although I did once share a few drinks with Terry Jones of Monty Python, in the famous White Horse Tavern in New York. Earlier this week, I asked this same question as I led a Quiet Day in St Michael’s Theological College in Cardiff, Wales. After the college had appeared on the BBC’s Vicar Academy series recently, I was imagining that the students would simply point at each other, but some of the answers I was given were intriguing: Prince Edward, Johnny Depp, Katherine Jenkins, Jonathan Edwards (I presume the triple jumper, not the eighteenth-century evangelist!), Mark from Take That, Simon Cowell, Eddie Izzard, Shadow from the 90s TV show Gladiators (not even sure if that was a man or woman!), and Richard Dawkins… no, wait there, it was Richard Dawkins’ wife!

sixdegsepThese answers all brought to my mind the phrase ‘Six Degrees of Separation’. In 1929, the Hungarian author, Frigyes Karinthy, suggested that you could take any two people in the world and connect them with each other through six steps or fewer. In other words, a chain of ‘a friend of a friend’ statements could be made between you and Barak Obama, just as could be made between you and a factory worker in Beijing. Recent research has shown that our connection to each other may be even closer than six degrees. In 2011, researchers at the University of Milan had concluded, using the data of 721 million Facebook users, that there was, in fact, a mere 3.74 degrees of separation between us. And I can believe that. Facebook, which I see now has over 900 million users, often reveals mutual friendships that leave us startled – ‘how do you know that friend of mine?!’

We are certainly all connected in so many ways. Twitter and Facebook have extended our networks in ways we would never have imagined only a few years ago. I’m guessing blogs take us one step further, in that they allow us to share thoughts, ideas, values, and creativity with each other. Rather than creating false connections with others, as critics of social media would sometimes have us believe (“Facebook friends are not real friends!”), perhaps the world of social media reflects a deeper truth about our desire to connect with each other.

The most frequent word for ‘compassion’ in the Old Testament is related to the Hebrew term for womb, rechem. In other words, Judaism and Christianity teach us that we are all intimately connected as one large family and should treat each other as if we had shared the same womb. The French Cistercian Charles de Foucauld’s wonderful concept of the ‘universal brotherhood’ is rooted in such a realisation. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it: ‘I hope we can accept a wonderful truth – we are family! We are family! If we could get to believe this we would realise that care about ‘the other’ is not really altruistic, but it is the best form of self-interest’.