Yesterday, 3rd July, was the 33rd anniversary of my ordination as deacon. Let me tell you a bit of the story behind that.
I was selected to train for the Church’s ministry back in the early 1980s, in the days before women could be ordained at all. The decision to ordain women as deacons (although not yet as priests) was taken during my time at theological college and I was in fact to spend six years as a deacon before it was finally made possible for women to be priested. At the time, that prolonged period of diaconal (deacon’s) ministry felt immensely frustrating for women such as myself. And yet, these days, I look back on those six years as both a gift and a blessing, for the following reason.
Many of the male students who trained alongside us, all those years ago, regarded their deacon’s year (before they were then priested) as a rather tedious but necessary period of probation that had to be endured before they could finally get stuck into what they regarded as the real business of ministry, which was priesthood.
For women like myself that was simply never an option: because we knew that it was entirely possible that we would spend the whole of our ministerial lives as deacons. So, during those years we were able to explore the full meaning, the true depths, and the profound and unique gifts that characterise diaconal ministry. And, as a result, I now understand very clearly why it is that the diaconate both is, and remains, the foundation, the core, and the beating heart of all ordained ministry. All of us who are ordained, whether we are priests, bishops, or archbishops – remain also deacons. And that is immensely important.
Because the ministry of deacons is supremely the ministry of God’s love: indeed, the ordination service describes deacons as ‘agents of God’s purposes of love’. Deacons are called to make the love of God visible, through the ministry of servanthood. It is the ministry that Jesus himself exemplified when he knelt at the feet of his disciples and washed them. It is the ministry of service to God’s people. And the deacon’s ministry is like that because the love of Christ is like that.
When I think back to myself as a newly ordained deacon, I can’t help feeling that I know far less today about ministry than I thought I knew all those years ago. I would say instead, however, that I know a small number of things in much, much greater depth. And, paradoxically, I have found that the more deeply I engage with the challenges and complexities of modern life, the simpler my faith has become: simple, not because it is naïve, but rather because it has been stripped down to its most basic essentials. Long ago I ceased trying to enter dark and difficult places confident that I had all the answers. These days I go there simply with the love of God in my heart. And there is something profoundly diaconal about that.
Because it is love that transforms. It is love that heals. It is love that makes new. It is love that creates light. It is love that brings hope. And that is true for all of us, whatever our role in life; whatever form our Christian calling happens to take – lay or ordained.
Our world has never felt more fragile; our future has never been more uncertain. So much that we had come to assume was simply the way things are, has turned out to be both transient and unstable. We have seen where the world’s way of doing things has led us – and we have yet to begin to see its full consequences for our economy, for our society, for the nations of the world, and for our precious, vulnerable planet.
In a situation such as this, if there is hope that is meaningful it can only lie in a new and different way of living. It can only be a way of life that has self-giving love somewhere at its very heart. And loving is always costly, because alongside its joys, love also makes us vulnerable – to pain, and loss, and disappointment and rejection.
Many theological students of my own generation were profoundly shaped by a book published in the late 1970s, by the Anglican priest and theologian, W.H. Vanstone. I have no idea whether ordinands still read him these days, but my own discipleship and understanding of ministry have been massively informed by his wisdom and insight. Vanstone’s book, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, concludes with a poem, which has since been turned into the words of a hymn, which I shall close by reading to you.
It begins by describing the wonders of God’s many and abundant gifts, so clearly visible in the world around us. And alongside them, the costly love that is so often hidden from view. For me it encapsulates the essence of that love that it is every deacon’s privilege to manifest to the people deacons are called to serve. But it also encapsulates what must surely lie at the very heart of all discipleship:
Morning glory, starlit sky,
Soaring music, scholars’ truth
Flight of swallows, autumn leaves,
Memory’s treasure, grace of youth.
Open are the gifts of God,
Gifts of love to mind and sense;
Hidden is love’s agony,
Love’s endeavour, love’s expense.
Love that gives, gives ever more,
Gives with zeal, with eager hands,
Spares not, keeps not, all outpours,
Ventures all, its all expends.
Drained is love in making full;
Bound in setting others free;
Poor in making many rich;
Weak in giving power to be.
Therefore He who shows us God
Helpless hangs upon the tree,
and the nails and crown of thorns
Tell of what God’s love must be.
Here is God, no monarch he
Throned in easy state to reign;
Here is God, whose arms of love
Aching, spent, the world sustain.