Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Servant in Word and Deed

Several weeks ago I was ordained as a deacon in the Anglican Church of Australia. It was in many ways a curious occasion, baffling as much to some who were there as it was to those who watched via the immediacy of social media: 27 men and women dressed in long, flowing robes on a warm, Sydney summers day; a formality in a service amidst a city which does not handle gravitas very well; a seriousness of commitment and vocation from members of a generation who easily default to irony, sarcasm, and cynicism. For all these contradictions it was for me the culmination of 15 years of prayer and discernment, a reminder of God grace calling me out of darkness and into his light, and a delight to share the day with my family and friends.

The office of deacon is an ancient one, originating in the days of the Apostles, with a particular charge to care for the welfare of the church. Whilst the record of the early church testifies to attention of the deacon towards widows and orphans, the rise in prominence of the mass obscured the once prominent role of aid and care in a deacons vocation. One of the recoveries during the reformation in the English Church was to return this purpose to the diaconate. The is was reflected for instance in Book of Common Prayer 1662, whilst deacons where to be placed in local churches to assist in preaching, reading, catechizing, and distributing the Lord's Supper, their peculiar task where applicable was 'to search for the sick, poor, and impotent people of the Parish' that they might be relieved through the parish alms. In many ways this represented the thinking of reformer Martin Bucer, whose presence in England in 1549-1551 left a lasting impact on Cranmer and the production of the second Book of Common Prayer in 1552. Bucer believed that the priority of a deacons work was in the care for the poor of the parish. This formed an integral part of the church's work, rather than a periphery activity, bestowed upon the church by divine right and commandment. This was reflected in the the service for Holy Communion, during which the deacons were to collect alms not for the needs of the church, but the welfare of the poor.

For the Reformers like Bucer and Cranmer, this was in many ways a recovery of the apostolic church's commitment to the gospel, and the priority to preach the gospel in word and deed. The Apostles of course had taught that true faith and a right grasp of Holy Scripture would evidence itself through deeds of mercy (James 2.1-23). Materialism was condemned as a grievous sin (1 Timothy 6.17–19; James 5.1–6), whilst the church would gain a reputation for its love of and care for the poor. A special class of officers—deacons—were established to coordinate the church’s ministry of mercy. We should not be surprised then that the first two sets of church leaders were word-leaders (apostles) and deed-leaders (the diakonoi of Acts 6).

The Acts of the Apostles is a case in point. One way to summarize Acts is as the triumph of the word, as the gospel spreads from Jerusalem outwards into the world, unbound and unhindered even under the nose of Caesar in Rome (Acts 28.30-31). In Acts evangelism is the basic and foundational form of ministry, as the eternal, objective, reality of Christ's Lordship is extended to people's hearts. Nevertheless, in Acts ministries of mercy are inseparably connected to evangelism. So much so that Acts draws a close connection between the sharing of possessions and the multiplication of converts through the preaching of the word. The descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the explosive growth in numbers (Acts 2.41) were connected to radical sharing with the needy (2.44–45). After the ministry of the Seven diakonia was firmly established, 'the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly' (Acts 6.7).

Ministry of the word is the most basic as it is the ministry which most fully remedies the roots of 'the human condition'. Whilst God while redeem both our souls and our bodies, it is the ministry of the word and prayer which cuts to the heart, killing the root of sin and death. However, the Acts of the Apostles teaches that ministries of word and deed are both necessary, inseparable, and interdependent.

Whilst there is always a danger within the threefold order that word will overwhelm deed, it is fitting that within the present arrangements the office of deacon should seek to combine the priority of these three principles; that is the unity of word and deed. The first deacons, Stephen and Philip, are exemplars of this.Thus, the priority of the deacon's vocation within the church is to embody God's provision to the church of ministries both in word and deed.

ALMIGHTY God, who by thy divine providence hast appointed divers Orders of Ministers in thy Church, and didst inspire thine Apostles to choose into the Order of Deacons the first Martyr Saint Stephen, with others: Mercifully behold these thy servants now called to the like office and administration; replenish them so with the truth of thy doctrine, and adorn them with innocency of life, that, both by word and good example, they may faithfully serve thee in this office, to the glory of thy Name, and the edification of thy Church; through the merits of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and for ever. Amen.
       - Collect from the Ordering of Deacons, Book of Common Prayer.

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