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For such a time as this: A Renewed Diaconate in the Church of England

A renewed, permanent diaconate could support the flourishing lay ministries of readers, pastoral assistants and evangelists and bridge the gap between the Church and the needs of people who are not regular churchgoers . 'For such a time as this', the report of a working party of the House of Bishops, chaired by the Rt Rev Barry Rogerson, Bishop of Bristol, urges the Church of England to take the diaconate more seriously and to become aware of its untapped potential, especially in mission.

The report, requested by the General Synod in November 1998, makes important proposals for a renewal of the ministry of deacons in the Church of England. It argues that the diaconate can be rediscovered as a distinctive, ongoing ministry for some ordained ministers as well as the fundamental commissioning of all the ordained. Its proposals are intended to enhance the mission of the Church in the community.

The diaconate is one of the three orders of ordained ministry in the Church of England. Like many other churches, it has retained the threefold ministry of deacons, priests and bishops from the early Church. All Church of England clergy are ordained to the diaconate, most are subsequently ordained to the priesthood (presbyterate) and some to the episcopate. There are a number of 'distinctive' deacons in the Church of England and many more in some other churches of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Across the Christian world, there has been much discussion of what deacons are and what they should do. The working party included participants from the Roman Catholic Church and the Methodist Church, both of which have a distinctive diaconate but in slightly different ways. The proposals of the report are close to the model being developed in the Roman Catholic Church. The diaconate is also being studied in the current Formal Conversations between the Methodist Church and the Church of England.

The report reflects three main concerns:
the wide-spread sense that a diaconate that is merely 'transitional' represents an inadequate understanding of the ministry of deacons and the realisation that there is much to learn from the work of distinctive deacons;
the need to take on board recent scholarly interpretation of the term diakonia in the New Testament, where it stands for the fundamental commissioning of persons in the service of God (and therefore in the service of God's people and God's world);
the need for the Church to be more effective in reaching out in a publicly recognised way to people in our society and in bridging the gap between the worship of the Church and the needs of the world.

"Deacons can help to bridge the gap between the Church and the needs and questions, the hopes and fears, of people who are not regular churchgoers," said the Bishop of Bristol. "Deacons are 'go-between' people, linking the Church's worship and teaching with pastoral needs out in the community." Deacons, says the report, have an important role in enabling the people of God to fulfill their baptismal responsibilities.

'For such a time as this' provides biblical and theological resources for a more meaningful diaconate. It also includes a 'job description' or ministerial profile for renewed deacons. This takes three forms: pastoral (bringing compassionate concern and practical help to people and communities); liturgical (linking these concerns with the heart of the Church's worship, the Eucharist or Holy Communion, in various ways including officiating at services and preaching); and catechetical (teaching the Christian faith in various contexts and preparing individuals for baptism and confirmation.).

Deacons have a ministry of the word of God, a ministry of the sacraments (though they do not preside at the Eucharist) and a ministry of pastoral care (though they do not have formal oversight of parishes).

The Working Party was asked by the General Synod to study the diaconate in the light of developing forms of ministry in the Church of England. The report strongly affirms the ministry of lay people, especially of readers, lay pastoral assistants, the Church Army and evangelists, and envisages deacons supporting these flourishing ministries.

"This report aims to help the Church of England to take the diaconate more seriously, in both its transitional and distinctive forms, and to become aware of its untapped potential, especially in mission," said the Bishop of Bristol. "It stands in continuity with the Church of England's existing teaching and does not require legislation. All that it proposes is already possible but needed affirming and undergirding with biblical and ecumenical theology."

The General Synod will debate the report in November and it will be for bishops and diocesan synods to take its recommendations forward as part of their ministry and mission strategy.

'For Such a time as this; a renewed diaconate in the Church of England' is published by Church House Publishing (£5.95) and is available from Church House Bookshop, 31 Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3BN, tel. 020-7898 1300, fax 020-7898 1305.
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FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS Press Conference 1/10/01

Opening statement by the Rt Rev Barry Rogerson

One of the encouraging signs in the ecumenical movement is the way that churches are working together to get the ministry of deacons right. I have been fascinated by the diaconate for many years and have been privileged to discuss this topic with our Scandinavian Lutheran partners in the communion of Porvoo churches and with Methodist colleagues in our current Formal Conversations.

This is the first major piece of work on the diaconate commissioned by the General Synod since it became possible for women to be ordained to the priesthood. It encourages the development of a distinctive, ongoing diaconate for both men and women. It argues that the transitional diaconate (currently the year of ministry before ordination to the priesthood) should continue but should be taken a lot more seriously. That may mean that clergy tend to spend more than a year as deacons in order to experience and live out what it means to be a deacon. But it will be up to individual bishops to decide what should happen in their diocese.

One of the most striking things about the diaconate, as we look at it in the perspective of nearly 2000 years of history, is its flexibility. It has proved that it can adapt to the needs of the time. Deacons have often been in the forefront of the Church's outreach in the community. As the title of the report suggests, we feel that there is some urgency about this today. Deacons can help to bridge the gap between the Church and the needs and questions, the hopes and fears, of people who are not regular churchgoers. Deacons (though not only deacons, of curse) are 'go-between' people, linking the Church's worship and teaching with pastoral needs out in the community.

Though the implications of our report are far-reaching, they build on the Church of England's long standing position, expressed particularly in the ordination service for a deacon. What the report advocates is already possible and in fact exists in embryo. But it needs to be affirmed and encouraged and given theological support. This we believe we have done, drawing on biblical scholarship and the ecumenical theology that is shared by many churches.

The working party was requested by the General Synod nearly three years ago. It is a working party of the House of Bishops within the General Synod because the bishops have oversight of ministry matters. The Synod will debate the report in November and we trust that it will see fit to commend it for study and action in the church at large. It will be up to each diocese and its bishop to carry forward our recommendations to the extent that they choose to do so.

We do not think that a renewed diaconate on its own is a panacea for more effective mission. But we believe it is right that a ministry we have inherited from the earliest days of the Christian Church should now be reformed. We are convinced that a renewed diaconate can play an important part in enabling the Church to minister to the needs of the community and to bring the Gospel of Christ to a nation that needs to hear it.