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BEING A DEACON TODAY
Exploring a distinctive ministry in the Church and in the world
By ROSALIND BROWN
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2005Rosalind Brown
All rights reserved.
The Deacon in the Church
Loving the church
Deacons are rooted in the local church, living out with the people there – whether regular worshippers or not – a life that reflects the love of Christ. In the Church of England there can be no ordination without a title parish in which to serve, because there can be no deacon without a community to love and serve, and with whom to worship God. Deacons speak and act in the church's name whether in the public eye or in private, so that '[a] lonely deacon saying his [sic] Office in an empty church speaks in the name of the Church no less than the bishop pontificating in his cathedral'.
This presupposes that the deacon has a history in the church, a history of being known by the people, of worshipping and praying, of serving and celebrating, of laughing and crying, of studying and relaxing. In the nineteenth-century novel The Little Minister, James Barrie puts these words into the mouth of a retiring minister speaking to his very young successor: 'You must join the family, Mr Dishart, or you are only a minister once a week.' In this instance the words are spoken to a minister moving into a church and they remain true for those deacons who move into a new church upon ordination, but they are a prerequisite of those deacons whose vocation is identified and lived within a church where they are known, tested by the unglamorous routine of daily life lived locally. Being a deacon requires joining the family; it is incarnational. And, as we all know, families can be a source both of joy and irritation. We may love them easily, or we may have to work at it, but love them we must if our ministry is to be Christ-like and not a source of stumbling – congregations have an uncanny knack of knowing if they are loved or merely tolerated. Perhaps the temptation to the latter is greater for those deacons who know that in due course they will move on elsewhere.
Ronnie Aitchison, a Methodist Deacon, writes perceptively:
Ministry must be offered to the body before the body can offer its ministry to the community.... In I John 4.19 it says, 'we love, because he first loved us'. A congregation that does not feel loved will find it difficult to offer love. A deacon, called to represent Christ who serves, has a clear responsibility to enable the congregation to feel loved so that he or she can enable them to love.
However, realism is essential and Eugene Peterson, an American Presbyterian pastor, dispossesses us of any false sense of idealization of the Church when he writes of its local manifestation:
St Paul talked about the foolishness of preaching; I would like to carry on about the foolishness of the congregation. Of all the ways in which to engage in the enterprise of church, this has to be the most absurd – this haphazard collection of people who some how get assembled into pews on Sundays, half- heartedly sing a few songs most of them don't like, tune in and out of a sermon according to the state of their digestion and the preacher's decibels, awkward in their commitments and jerky in their prayers.
But the people in these pews are also people who suffer deeply and find God in their suffering. These are men and women who make love commitments, are faithful to them through trial and temptation, and bear fruits of righteousness, spirit- fruits that bless the people around them....
The congregation is topsoil – seething with energy and organisms that have incredible capacities for assimilating death and participating in resurrection. The only biblical stance is awe. When we see what is before us, really before us, pastors take off their shoes before the shekinah of congregation.
It is this wonderful ragbag of saints that deacons love and serve, and whom they lead in their own love and service. To be a deacon is to share in ministry flowing from the diaconal ministry of Jesus Christ. It is to be caught up in ministry that is incarnational, rooted in place, in time, in life. And it is the privilege of the deacon to be a catalyst for the ministry of all the baptized, encouraging and freeing them by our example to live for the glory of God. The words of Nelson Mandela, not originally about deacons, nevertheless express diaconal ministry that liberates and stirs the church into action:
You are a child of God ...
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us,
It's within everyone.
As we let our lights shine
We unconsciously give other people
Permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear
Our presence automatically liberates others.
Love for the church is integral to our love for God. Thus, writing of the teaching and example of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, Douglas Dales observes:
How Christians relate to the church is part of their relationship with Christ, it is not additional to it. 'Its oneness, in which they share, speaks the truth about him.' It follows then that the more deeply they enter into the reality of the church's life in Christ, the more committed they will become to its essential unity as their consciousness of its mystery grows.
Without this integration of love for God's church with our love for God, we are in danger of either setting our passion for the church above our love for God or acting independently of the church which is the body of Christ. The danger of the first is that we draw people to the church as institution rather than draw people to God, or become pedantic idealists of an institution. The danger of the second is that we draw people to ourselves as God's minister, rather than into the fellowship of the church. Tragically, history bears witness to the damage caused by people who have fallen into these traps. If we do not learn as deacons to love and serve God and the church, all our subsequent ministry will be open to these dangers.
Theologically, what is at stake here is the Trinitarian source of all the Church's life and ministry. At the heart of Trinitarian theology is dynamic mystery. The theological concept of perichoresis points to the interpenetration of one Person of the Trinity in another, coinherence without confusion. The actions of each Person are always co-operative, there is a hinterland to the actions of each Person. Thus whilst each may act in a distinctive way, this is never divorced from the other two Persons who are involved in the action of the other and in the dance of the Trinity (the root of perichoreuo is 'to dance around'). Since in Christ – who was fully human and fully divine – we are caught up in the life and ministry of the Trinity, we are invited to 'join the dance', be drawn into the mystery. And thus love for God embraces love of God's Church, the body of Christ. This is all embodied in the Eucharist when the church gathers to share the Trinitarian life of God. There is no diaconal ministry without service in the Eucharist when the deacon, with others, enables the church to express its identity as God's people. And at the end of the Eucharist when the deacon sends out the worshippers ('the topsoil seething with energy') to 'Go in peace to love and serve the Lord' the deacon articulates and embodies the truth of God's love, and thus our love, not just for the church but the world. The Eucharist leads us straight into each
Excerpted from BEING A DEACON TODAY by ROSALIND BROWN. Copyright © 2005 by Rosalind Brown. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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