Running about in the Dust

Yesterday in St Mary’s we marked an anniversary – it is 25 years since the Scottish Episcopal Church first ordained people as deacons who happened to be female. One of the first of those deacons was with us yesterday – The Rev Jeanette Jenkins was present at the 11 am service and preached for an expanded congregation of the normal Thursday morning bunch and others from around the diocese.

One thing particularly intrigued me about something that Jeanette said during her homily. She said that she remembered someone telling her that a deacon was someone running about in the dust. I’ve only ever heard that the word deacon meant something to do with being a servant, so I looked it up. Sure enough, the word deacon derives from two greek roots: dia – through and konos – dust. Presumably the servant was someone who dashed about in dusty places raising a cloud of dust behind her.

I rather like that derivation.

Bishop Gregor celebrated at yesterday’s service. (Indeed, I think that it was the first service for a very long time in which the bottoms of the bishop, the dean and the provost were all seated on their correct respective stalls in the Cathedral at the same time). He made mention of the fact that the church is, once again, reflecting on the nature of the diaconate.

This is certainly true. The more we encounter the church in different parts of the world, the more we see the different ways in which the order of deacons has been established. The diaconate is important for me – it seems to me to be quite properly regarded as the foundation of ordained life, something which doesn’t end, no matter what other orders one might be ordained to. There’s far more of my life that is lived out running about in the dust of diaconal life than is spent on exclusively priestly mininistry.

But that isn’t the only way of seeing things. I’ve long admired the social service of the deacons of Scandinavia. There people take on a distinctive ministry which does not ever lead to priesthood and are effectively a way in which churches with a very different relationship with the state to any that pertain in the UK, exercise care in their societies.

Then there was the diaconate that I discovered in Egypt. There, in the Coptic Church, the diaconate has five different orders within it and it is common for children (well, boys, actually) to be admitted to the first of the orders of deacons, which is similar to the way in which we would admit a chorister to the choir, but is in fact regarded as an ordination for life.

Generally speaking we’ve been resistant to different rankings of priests and I guess that the idea of different orders of deacons would not appeal to some people. However, it does appear that there are very different ways of understanding the diaconate in the world church and that the consequence of those different ways of offering loving service is an awful lot of good in the world.

The discussions about the diaconate in the UK sometimes worry me. They can sometimes seem to be yet another form of clericalism. (Some of the things said about the diaconate at our Synod this year seemed to me to be greatly undermining of Lay Readership, for example). I think we need to look more widely afield than our own experience and I suspect that it would be helpful to think about the diaconate without starting from the assumption that there are either 1. Permanent Deacons or 2. Transitional Deacons.

The diaconate seems to me to be much more interesting than that.