While the role of deacon in the church can be traced back to the book of Acts and through a period of flourishing in 100-600 CE, the revival of this ministry in the Anglican church is a fairly recent phenomenon. According to the diocese of New Westminster Deacons Handbook, the 1968 Lambeth conference acknowledged the diaconate as a ministry “necessary to the Church of Christ” and recommended no longer regarding the diaconate as an inferior order. Since then, lifelong or vocational deacons, who are ordained in but not employed by the church, have been a growing presence in the Anglican Church of Canada.
But what exactly does this vocation encompass?
People often ask two questions, says Canon Nancy Ford, president of the Association of Anglican Deacons in Canada (AADC) and deacon to the city at Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria: what is a deacon and what does a deacon do?
“I think being a deacon is more important than what a deacon does,” she says. While there are differences across dioceses in terms of how a deacon functions in a parish, “that liturgical function is only made real through the ministry in community.”
At the heart of being a deacon is collaboration, Ford says. On a basic level, deacons assist in the liturgy—though, Ford notes, she resists the implication in the word “assist” that a deacon is a less active presence at the altar. “We support and pray and are present to not merely assist but to collaborate with the presider.”
Collaboration is also the role of the deacon in engaging with the wider community.
“Deacons encourage, nurture and help the faithful to move into different ways of being, living their baptismal ministry outside the four walls,” she says.
“One image is that we’re sort of standing at the church door, welcoming people in, but also welcoming the church out into the world, facilitating that,” says the Rev. Ron Berezan, a deacon at St. David and St. Paul Anglican Church in Powell River, B.C. Berezan, 57, was ordained in June 2017. He runs a business called The Urban Farmer, through which he teaches gardening and permaculture (a design practice that encourages natural ecosystems), facilitates community food security projects and brings groups to Cuba to see organic farms and agricultural projects. Food security and the environment are also essential parts of his diaconal ministry, and he calls himself an “eco-deacon.”
“I’ll admit that the first time I saw myself in a collar, I almost died—it was so strange! But I’ve come to feel quite comfortable with that symbol…. I feel I’m able to sort of hold that space, to stand in that place of saying, there’s still something alive in this tradition to me, that I want to place myself within it—and I think there are possibilities for it to be positively transformative in the world.”
For many people who eventually become deacons, feeling a call to serve the church is coupled with a desire to perform social justice work. Ford says she has seen, over the years, “a shift from sanctuary focus to seeing—and I still love the language of this—deacons as icons of service in liturgy, rather than a non-stipendiary clergy who’s there to help the priest. For me there’s a real difference. So there’s that whole sense of being called into liturgy but also being called into advocacy and social justice concerns.”
The Rev. Peggy Trendell-Jensen, 53, was ordained as a deacon in June 2018 and serves at St. Clement’s Anglican Church in Lynn Valley, a North Vancouver neighbourhood. There is no “wonderful mountaintop story” about the moment she decided to become a deacon, she tells the Journal in an email. “My ordination was a happy milestone along the way, but it was part of a continuum of my spiritual life.” Trendell-Jensen decided to enter the discernment process halfway through her four-year Education for Ministry program, under the direction of a mentor who was a deacon.
Trendell-Jensen, who works as a decision writer at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C., says her deacon role involves serving in the liturgy, preaching every month or so and being “a regular friendly presence” at a local home for men in recovery. She also manages the parish’s website, newsletter and social media feeds. She is one of Christ Church Cathedral regular compline officiates and plays “an occasional role in diocesan worship services and committees.” She also helps develop programs and awareness activities. “We recently hosted a mocktail competition in the park…. There’s always a lot of variety and new projects to embark on, which I love!”
Being a deacon means “living with a joyful heart,” she says. “I think a well-supported diaconate is a great gift to the [Anglican Church of Canada]; deacons bring a different focus, wide-ranging life experiences, skills from other careers, knowledge from different sectors, and the enthusiasm to put it all to good use!”
For Berezan, becoming a deacon felt like an affirmation of what he was already doing. “Our wonderful Bishop Melissa [Skelton]…said, ‘We really hope that it’s a continuity for people—it’s a way of saying, you are ministering to the church and the world as a deacon, and we would like to ordain you to really bless and affirm that.’ To me that makes a lot of sense…it’s been a deepening and a kind of integrating, I would say, of different threads of my life into a way that is a little more explicitly connected to church and a little more explicitly of service.”
Berezan’s ministry includes a community permaculture project on the church property called Sycamore Commons, as well as serving in the liturgy and facilitating events like a Richard Rohr discussion group and an outdoor, creation-centred liturgy held four to eight times per year.
A former Roman Catholic with a master’s degree in theology, Berezan took two years to complete the discernment process towards ordination.
Berezan believes the outreach and advocacy of deacons is important to the church. “It’s that standing in solidarity, which I think is such an important witness to the world around what a church is…. For me, it’s the urgency of the climate crisis and the prospect of losing one million more species on the planet that, as a faithful person, how can I not attend to that reality?….Our deepest call from our creator, and from our teacher and friend Jesus, is to be with suffering and be with people who are marginalized. There’s some wonderful mystery in that, around encountering the divine there.”
Trendell-Jensen says that the revitalized Anglican diaconate is still evolving and looks different in different parts of the country—one of the reasons why it is understandable that there might be some misconceptions about deacons. “Deacons themselves can have trouble defining their role. I think some people get drawn to the diaconate because they love church—but, as deacons, we have to remember to love the world even more…. [I]t’s important to check in with ourselves to make sure we are being attentive to our ministry in the wider community.”
It’s also important for the church to recognize the specificity of the role. “Being ordained as a deacon isn’t intended to be a prize for having been a great layperson, nor is it second-place finish for wannabe priests…the diaconate is unique in nature and it’s important to make sure it is indeed the ministry through which your gifts are put to best use.”
“I think we’re coming out of a time where deacons were thought to be sort of junior priests-in-waiting or assistants to the priest of a parish, and that’s not at all what it is,” says Berezan. Parishes that are shrinking in size and can’t afford a full-time priest may be tempted to “make up some of that gap with a deacon,” he says, but “that is an inappropriate use of that vocational position.”
In some areas of the church, confusion arises between transitional deacons—future priests who serve temporarily as deacons as part of their vocational path—and vocational deacons. “That…perhaps reinforces the misconception that the diaconate is a stepping stone to the priesthood,” says Berezan.
Ford says the church can help support the diaconate by clearly recognizing it as “a separate and equal order,” and supporting diaconal training programs like the Centre for Christian Studies.
Ford points to the Iona Report on the Diaconate, released by the national church in 2016, as the “gold standard of bringing forward and looking at, with depth and focus, what it is that a deacon is called into.” The report frames a deacon’s role through “competencies,” and lists, with an acknowledgment that these areas of focus deepen over time, benchmarks to be met at selection, at ordination, and through lifelong learning.
Ford estimates that there are around 425 deacons in the Anglican Church of Canada.
“When I started, deacons were rare in the Anglican Church of Canada,” says the Rev. Michael Jackson, 79. Ordained more than 40 years ago, in 1977 (he says he is the church’s longest-serving deacon), Jackson says he’s seen a dramatic change in the number of deacons and acceptance of the diaconate.
The diaconate is important today because we live in a post-Christian society, Jackson says. “The world at large is largely indifferent to the Christian message, and it seems to me that deacons, as people rooted in the Christian community, can make a difference to the outreach and perception of the Christian churches in the world.”
Ford and Jackson both see ecumenical relationships as an important element of the diaconate. The AADC is a member of World Diakonia, a global interdenominational gathering of deacons, and Diakonia of the Americas and Caribbean (DOTAC), one of its member communities.
“These are deacons from different denominations who come together to learn. My experience is, we find a lot of commonalities. We may have some theological differences, but when it comes to the work we do…those things really are brushed to the side as we explore how we do diaconal ministry,” she says.
On a more local level, in her diocese, Ford says, they have interdenominational meetings about once a month with deacons from the Lutheran, United, Presbyterian and Anglican churches.
Last year, Jackson, with the help of a grant from the national church’s Ministry Investment Fund, helped organize an ecumenical conference on the diaconate in partnership with the Roman Catholic and Ukrainian Catholic churches, in the diocese of Qu’Appelle, where he serves. The discussions at the conference led Jackson to edit a book of essays, The Diaconate in Ecumenical Perspective: Ecclesiology, Liturgy and Practice, published August 1 by UK-based Sacristy Press.
The conference covered topics like the theological basis of the diaconate, the issue of the transitional diaconate, the prophetic ministry of the deacon, social action, the deacon in liturgy and women in the diaconate, Jackson says.
Deacons can learn from each other by talking ecumenically, Jackson says. For example, he believes the Anglican church can learn from the Roman Catholic approach to training. “They tend to be much more rigorous in the way they educate and form and train deacons than we are.” Jackson says that the Iona Report is a good start in developing consistent national standards of diaconal formation and training, something he would like to see more of.
The diaconate can lend itself to two extremes, he says—on one hand, a liturgical functionary; on the other a social activist with only “a loose connection” to the church. “In this book and this conference, we said, it’s all of that. [Deacons] have an important liturgical role…and then at the other end, they also have to involved in service to the community, to the marginalized. To those in need.”
Berezan sees the diaconate as a rich, ancient tradition that is still being recovered and that will play a key role in the church’s future. “We are in a time of fantastic change, culturally…. We are already having to reimagine what it means to be faithful and to be church in this time. That’s nothing new; the church has had to do that throughout history. What that’s going to look like, I don’t know. But I’m pretty confident that deacons are going to play a big role.”