Church of England looks to deacons to further its mission

By staff writers
August 28, 2007

In a move which could signal a longer-term shift in the ministry of England's established church, the role of deacons as missionaries to their communities should be taken more seriously, argues a report from the Church of England’s Faith and Order Advisory Group published last week.

It suggests that people exploring a vocation to the priesthood should be encouraged to consider ministering as a deacon – the ‘diaconate’ - as a long-term option, not just as a stage on the journey towards 'proper' ordination, as some see it.

In 2001, the General Synod called for work to be undertaken on providing a theological basis for relating ordained and lay (or unordained) forms of ministry to each other. The request was fuelled by significant growth in the number of different types of ministry being commissioned at a local level within the Church.

As the scope of these ministries has grown in recent years and, in some cases, assumed the functions of deacons, the report – The Mission and Ministry of the Whole Church - seeks to answer questions about the hallmarks and boundaries of ordained ministry.

In addition to exploring the nature and meaning of ordination, and as part of its aim to set out a theological rationale for the orders within the Church of England, the report identifies three ‘hallmarks’ of ministry that can be applied to consider whether a form of ministry can be described as ordained. It proposes that these criteria are that the form of ministry:

* Involves a lifelong commitment that permanently marks a person’s public identity
* Receives national recognition and regulation; and the intention of interchangeability with other churches
* Embraces a comprehensive ministry, including word, sacrament and pastoral care.

Based on a close study of the meaning of ‘ministry’ and ‘service’ in the New Testament, particularly drawing on the work of Dr John N. Collins, the report proposes that the Church shifts its understanding of the term ‘diaconate’ from a term describing primarily a ‘servant’ role to one describing a mission-focused ministry.

“This has profound implications for every aspect of Church life and very particularly for the ministry and ministries, ordained and lay, which express and serve this fundamental purpose of the Church,” it argues.

“If the diaconate is indeed fundamental, nothing is more important and time spent discovering what it means in practice is time well spent… We need to locate the diaconate more centrally in the overall mission of the Church and thus to correct the prevailing assumption that the diaconate is merely a transitional year before priesting, an apprenticeship for the priesthood, and that it is the latter that really matters,” the Group says.

It follows, the report suggests, that those discerning a vocation to ordained ministry should be encouraged to consider their calling to the ‘distinctive diaconate’, and those going on to priesthood after serving as a deacon for a short period should consider whether they should extend the “unique opportunity to engage in primary pastoral work with a missionary intent and with an anchor in the liturgy” that the diaconate offers.

The report also urges the whole Church to celebrate the role of Readers, stressing the value of the “ancient, honourable and vital lay ministry of Readers that has the potential to find new paths of mission” for the Church.

The report suggests that the ministry of Readers “comes close to” meeting the three criteria of ordained ministry, but it does not recommend any extension of the role of Readers in the celebration of the Sacraments – that is, presiding at the Eucharist or conducting baptisms or marriages. The key role that Readers can play in new developments such as ‘Fresh Expressions’ of Church, and the possibility that they may be given the necessary preparation to be designated lay pioneer ministers, is highlighted.

The work of Church Army Evangelists is highlighted for the capacity it has to take the mission of the Church far beyond its own walls; they are in the front line of the Church’s gospel mission.

The 100-page report also affirms the roles of Churchwardens and lay pastoral (or parish) assistants, and provides a theological underpinning for discussions about the scope, limits and the need to encourage these forms of ministry.

The Mission and Ministry of the Whole Church is priced £12.

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