Sermon at Matins on Sunday 12 July

12 July 2009 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence

A frequently asked question by people as they leave a service here in Westminster Abbey is: Is this Church Protestant or Catholic?

There is no easy answer to this question. We are Church of England and therefore part of the world wide Anglican Church.

As Anglicans we are Catholic, but not Roman Catholic and as Anglicans many of us would not describe ourselves as Protestant although we are part of the Reformed tradition influenced by the European and English Reformers of the sixteenth century, especially of course by Thomas Cranmer. 

As Anglicans we have retained a significant amount of Catholic Tradition such as the wearing of vestments, the use of candles and incense, and our formal liturgies. Yet the influence of the Reformation can be seen in our use of Bible and in particular in our attitude to authority ~ we do not take our authority from the Pope but from a combination of scripture, tradition and reason.One of the central features of Catholicism though which was retained when the Church of England split from Rome was the threefold order of ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons.

Protestant churches broke away from that tradition, but Anglicans remained wedded to the concept of Episcopal ordination ~ anyone being ordained in the Anglican Church as with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches must have hands laid on them by a Bishop.

It is at this time of year ~ Petertide and the weekends around it that people are traditionally ordained to the diaconate and priesthood, so in these weeks of July in these sermons at Matins I’m going to look briefly at the threefold order of ministry of bishops, priests and deacons.

Today we shall look at the Diaconate ~ at the origin of Deacons, their function and at how this order of ministry might encourage and inspire all of us to a life of service.

To find the origins of the diaconate not surprisingly we need to turn to the New Testament. In the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we come across a story of conflict arising between groups of early Christians because some of those in need were being neglected when it came to the distribution of food.

The Apostles themselves, who by that stage were engaged full time in the preaching of the gospel, suggested that trustworthy men be chosen to take on the ministry of care and service, and Stephen who was to become the first Christian martyr was one of those chosen to be a deacon.

Then if we turn to the pastoral letters thought to have been written by a later follower of St Paul in around 100AD we discover that the diaconate had by then become firmly established. There we have listed the qualities of a deacon, the writer saying:

“Deacons must be serious, not double tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless let them serve as deacons.”

However the origins of the diaconate go back to the ministry of Jesus himself. In St John’s gospel we have the well known account of Jesus taking on the role of a servant and washing his disciples’ feet, telling them that they too must become like servants and wash one another’s feet.

So a ministry of service was commissioned by Christ and it has remained an important part of the Church’s ministry ever since. But how does the way Deacons function in the Church today relate to the function of those early deacons?

In today’s church, deacons fall into two categories: transitional deacons and permanent or distinctive deacons.

Transitional deacons are candidates for the priesthood who normally spend a year as deacons serving with an experienced priest, and if during that time all goes well they are ordained to the priesthood.

Permanent or distinctive deacons on the other hand believe they have a particular calling to a ministry of service and this is often exercised in the secular world possibly in a hospital, school or in a community project. These deacons are committed to remaining in this serving role and do not believe they are called to the priesthood.

In terms of liturgical and pastoral functions though deacons whether transitional or permanent share the same role; as stated at their ordination they are: 

“To serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the Church the needs and hopes of all the people. They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible.

Deacons share in the pastoral ministry of the Church and in leading God’s people in worship. They preach the word and bring the needs of the world before the Church in intercession. They accompany those searching for faith and bring them to baptism. They assist in administering the sacraments; they distribute communion and minister to the sick and housebound”.

If you attend a Eucharist at which a deacon is assisting you will find that they are wearing a stole in a diagonal style ~ symbolising the towel that Jesus tied around himself as he washed the feet of the disciples. The Deacon will normally read the gospel, possibly preach or lead the intercessions, and they will prepare the Altar in preparation for the Eucharistic prayer, but they are not permitted to preside. But as we think about the ministry of those called specifically to the Diaconate, how might their calling and ministry inspire us?

First and foremost we are reminded through the ministry of deacons that the whole Church is called to a ministry of service. Jesus made constant reference to this call as he taught his first disciples, telling them that he had come to serve and not to be served and saying of them:

“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all.”

As we think about Jesus’ teaching and actions, we as a Church need to ask ourselves if we are engaged enough in a ministry of service. Are we seen to be caring for those in need? Reaching out to the outcast and suffering? Putting the needs of others before our own? Or is the Church perceived by others to be more concerned with the respectable, the rich and the powerful? These are challenging questions for us to address as an institution.

But we can also examine our lives as individuals thinking about the opportunities which come our way everyday to serve other people through practical acts of kindness; through generosity to those in need; and through not seeing certain tasks as being beneath us. And we can make the prayer offered for deacons at their ordination a prayer for ourselves:

Make us faithful to serve and constant in advancing your gospel in the world.

May we follow the example of Jesus Christ your Son, who washed the feet of his disciples, and set the needs of others before his own.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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