The diaconate has a vital role to play for the church in transformative times, Anglican deacons across Canada heard at their latest triennial conference—the first ever held online.
Dislocation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and continuing challenges for the Anglican Church of Canada—particularly in its relationship to Indigenous peoples at a time when unmarked graves continue to be discovered at the sites of former residential schools—pervaded discussion at the 2021 virtual conference, which took place on July 9-10.
The College of Deacons of the Anglican diocese of Niagara organized and hosted the event, which in another first also saw deacons from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) attend.
“We meet in a threshold time,” said Canon Nancy Ford, outgoing president of the Association of Anglican Deacons in Canada, as she welcomed fellow deacons. “We seek a return to normal, yet we know things will be different. We are called to be part of that transformation.”
Reflecting the sense of transition and change that speakers evoked, Anglican deacons at the meeting officially voted to change the name of their national association from the AADC to Anglican Deacons Canada (ADC). The new moniker and a new logo had been adopted unofficially in recent years, with Ford describing ADC as “simpler and more easily identifiable.”
Susan Bell, bishop of the diocese of Niagara, offered opening remarks in which she spoke about the profound “spiritual dislocation” caused by the pandemic, drawing upon the article “Religion After Pandemic” by writer Diana Butler Bass. The latter suggested that the word “religion” comes from the Latin religare, meaning to bind or reconnect.
By virtue of their attachment to particular parishes and neighbourhoods, Bell said, deacons are ideally placed to know their communities in both their negative and positive aspects.
“We know, especially after the last few months, that trust is a very precious commodity these days,” Bell said. “Trust in institutions and people who represent institutions is particularly at a premium. That’s our own fault, and so we have to work doubly hard to deserve people’s trust. So perhaps it’s fitting … that the privileged work of relocation, of reconnection, of binding up, should be front and centre this day.”
Church called to ‘long season of diaconal ministry’: Primate
In her keynote address, Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, expanded on the role she saw deacons as called upon to play in the transformation of the church. The primate described deacons as the “link between the church and the world, helping the world see the love of Christ in action and keeping the proverbial foot in the door of the church so it cannot become self-absorbed” and who “go out into the world to be Christ for others.”
“I think the renewal of the diaconate has been leading us to this very moment in time, when the whole church is being challenged about its life, and it is a deeply painful moment,” Nicholls added.
At the beginning of the pandemic, she said, the church had been focused on the survival of parishes and dioceses in the face of decline. While the church had discovered resilience and new possibilities as it moved activities online, “emerging issues highlighted for us other areas of our life that are not healthy,” she said, such as the persistence of racism, lack of care for underpaid essential workers, and recent revelations about residential school burial sites.
Nicholls added that while the Anglican Church of Canada has not yet been publicly named in this connection, there are unmarked burials on Anglican residential school sites. She acknowledged the rage that has led to churches being threatened or burned down, but also said there was “irony” that such rage is only occurring now despite the injustices of residential schools being known for decades.
The primate grieved for Indigenous Anglicans who have suffered abuse for continuing to believe in Jesus Christ and be part of the church, even as they try to hold the church accountable for its past. She also grieved for the many Anglicans who know little to nothing about the church’s efforts at repentance and reconciliation.
“This is a moment for deep humility from the church, for what we have done and for what we have left undone,” Nicholls said. “The church is being called into a new and deepened servanthood … It is this kind of servanthood that diaconal ministry is meant to proclaim. Deacons, this is your moment. You must be our guides.”
The call of diaconal ministry, the primate said, is to serve those on the margins. That could include those in prison, hospitals or long-term care; those who suffer poverty; or people discriminated against due to differences based on race, development, physical, or sexual identity, or any other factor.
Deacons can guide the church by serving as eyes and ears for the parishes and communities they serve to find out who is marginalized, Nicholls added. They can listen critically to the world and the church, bring others together to find the presence of Jesus in the needs of the community, and provide an honest voice for the church on its shortcomings and what is necessary for change.
“I am convinced that the church is being called into a long season of diaconal ministry,” the primate said.
Deepening relationships with partners
Ecumenical partners of Anglican deacons featured prominently at the conference, especially members of the ELCIC. Lutheran deacons led worship on the second day, and National Bishop Susan Johnson spoke about the formalization of diaconal ministry among Canadian Lutherans in recent decades.
Though Lutheran congregations have long had individuals providing assistance to pastors, it was not until 1993 that the ELCIC officially created a status for diaconal ministry, she said. A subsequent period of study culminated with the ELCIC’s adoption at its 2019 national convention of the document Reimagining Our Church—Public Ministry in the ELCIC.
Currently the Lutherans are developing a common rite for ordination for deacons, pastors and bishops. The fact that Lutheran deacons were invited to participate in the gathering of Anglican deacons, Johnson said, “is another sign of helping us participate with you in this journey for a fuller understanding of what the ministry of deacons is.”
Greetings from Ted Dodd, president of the Diakonia of the Americans and Caribbean, and Tracie Middleton, president of the Association for Episcopal Deacons, underscored the close relationships among Anglican deacons inside and outside of Canada, and with deacons in other Christian denominations.
During the conference, deacons were able to take part in one of three webinars featuring speakers from the diocese of Niagara. The Rev. Antonio Illias, migrant farmworkers missioner, led a discussion on migrant workers; Deirdre Pike, program consultant for justice and outreach, spoke about prejudice and inequality; and Archdeacon for Truth, Reconciliation and Indigenous Ministry Val Kerr focused on truth and reconciliation. In addition, the Rev. Canon Stuart Pike, rector of St. Luke’s in Burlington, led participants in a session on contemplative prayer.
ADC members at their members’ meeting voted to accept essential bylaw changes, a financial report that treasurer Edward Hayley said showed the association was in a “healthy financial position,” new vision and mission statements, and incorporation of the ADC.
Members also accepted a slate of nominees who will serve as ADC board members. In addition to existing board members Archdeacon Kyn Barker, the Rev. Jessica Bickford, the Rev. Lisa Chisholm-Smith and the Rev. Dr. Eileen Scully, the slate included five new members: Hayley, the Rev. Rod McDowell, the Rev. Dr. Bob Mummery, the Rev. Cheryl Rafuse and the Rev. Debbie Wilson. Chisholm-Smith became the new ADC president, while Ford will remain on the board as past president.