1 jul 2017

The Ordination of Deacons

Preacher: The Revd Professor Sarah Coakley


To stand before you as preacher on this great day of celebration in the Church is an honour that I cherish, and with deep gratitude to the Dean for the invitation. And so my first duty this morning must be to offer anticipatory and joyous congratulations to all you candidates, about-to-be-deacons, and to all your families and friends who have supported you through your (I know, sometimes arduous and difficult) process of formation and training. Being with you candidates in these last days on retreat has not only been profound and searching for me, but I think for us all; and I want you to know that it has personally given me enormous hope for the future of our Church, especially here in Southwark: such are the diverse and multifarious gifts of these candidates presented here today – theologically, spiritually and practically.

But standing in this pulpit for the first time also reminds me of the special, liminal place that this particular cathedral Church holds for our country right now, the way it has been called to stand on the ambiguous threshold between violence and hope, fear and longing. And it is this that has focussed my thoughts for today’s sermon for you Deacons-to-be, as you prepare to face a year of living precisely on that ‘limen’, that threshold, in service both to the Church and – looking outwards, as you must do as deacons - to those who live ‘on the edge’ in uncertainty, poverty, hopelessness or fear.  For Southwark Cathedral has always been a specially ‘liminal’ place in our nation, it seems to me (I speak as one for whom this has been my cathedral church since birth), not just because, as in any Christian church, it represents the symbolic meeting place between earth and heaven, but because its unique geographical placement, incongruously squashed between railway and river and market and commerce, sucks into its orbit all the intensity of our so-called ‘secular’ culture, its longings and its anxieties. And so much the more now, after the horrific attacks of June 3rd, so painfully close to hand.  No less than in the Second World War, then, when this area was also at the epicentre of repeated German bombings, it seems this place has been called once more to ‘hold’ a national agony, a national vulnerability; and that is an intense and noble spiritual undertaking.

So let us reflect here this morning on what this ‘liminal’ consciousness might mean for our new deacons, as they set out on their new lives as ordained people. Two crucial points, and two points only, come to mind, which happily disgorge themselves from today’s scriptural lection. As ever, it is the ‘strange new world of the Bible’, as Karl Barth famously put it, given to us (whether we like it or not) in the daily lectionary, that always stops us in our tracks and re-directs our thinking.  

First, and in our gospel for today, we learn afresh of an issue of authority that cuts through the teaching and healing-activity of Jesus on how to manage the ‘boundaries’ in society, how to negotiate the ‘ins’ and the ‘outs’, the people supposedly worthy of attention and those that are not.  This, I need hardly say, has huge implications for the life of any deacon, who necessarily works on that boundary; but the question always presses: whom are you deacons here to ‘serve’ on that boundary and who, in contrast, is outside the pale, or beyond your strength? Note that in the story of the Gentile Roman centurion who accosts Jesus – the wandering Jewish teacher - to ask for healing for his beloved servant, Jesus is already (to say the least) having an extremely busy day dealing with his own:  he’s already en route to Peter’s sick mother, it emerges, and crowds more diseased and possessed people are waiting for him too by the evening. What arrests him, though, and what causes him to turn aside with both compassion and approbation, is the centurion’s perfect understanding of how authority rightly works in the matter of service and healing: ‘For I too am a man under authority’, he avers; and thus he understands that there is no need for Jesus actually to come to his house to heal the servant, since simply ‘saying the word’ will suffice.  A man who already understands authority has thus intuitively cognized Jesus’s supreme authority; and this allows him to crash through the usual boundaries of ‘in’ and ‘out’, Jewish and Gentile, to gain Jesus’s full attention and thus his healing power.

This whole question of authority, then, and how it relates to boundaries and ministry to the outsider, is key to the office and vocation of a deacon.  As the ordinal puts it, ‘Deacons are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and the weak, the sick and the lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless … that the love of God may be made visible’. But the discernment of whom to go to, and what to do on that boundary, is always the big question:  on the one hand the deacon is having to learn to operate with a new humility and obedience under the rightful ecclesiastical authority of a training incumbent, just as the centurion understood quite clearly who was his immediate boss. But at the same time, and precisely within that ascetical constraint, the deacon also has to have the courage to recognize the supreme authority of the Jesus who calls him or her on occasion to extraordinary or strange work on the boundaries. Just as the lights were thrown on in the middle of the night in this cathedral last month to welcome in the dazed and the traumatized after the attacks, so likewise there will be times when the deacon reaches more daringly into the ‘forgotten corners of the world’ for the sake of a radical bowing to the authority of a Jesus who came ‘to serve rather than to be served’, and who regularly stepped off his intended course to confront a particularly unexpected demand.

And that, of course, brings us to the second of the lessons for the diaconate that today’s lectionary happily enshrines. For we cannot hear afresh the wonderful story about the Abraham and Sarah at the Oaks of Mamre without a wry smile about what it is to ‘entertain angels unawares’ (Hebrews 13.2). Unexpected visitors – whether friends, foes, or simply mystery beings - are of the essence of work on the boundaries, and they always come, in my experience, at extremely inconvenient moments. Learning how to ‘roll with the punches’ but at the same time not to succumb to a false romanticism of self that can only be the stuff of breakdowns:  that discernment is as much at the heart of the diaconal role as is the new, unworldly renegotiation of one’s sense of authority that we have just discussed. And of course the Genesis story also enshrines a wonderful humour about how difficult it is to know immediately when God is up to something truly wonderful. The sceptical laugh of Sarah is something one can expect to encounter, again and again; the belief that ‘nothing is too wonderful for the Lord’ comes to us, in contrast, initially slowly but with increasing repetition and conviction as one learns to live, with both humour and a certain appropriate detachment, at the edges of the places that the Church more naturally inhabits.

The former Archbishop Rowan Williams has written of late of the danger of the Church today losing its nerve about its national presence, drawing in its horns to protect itself from a seemingly-hostile culture.  But when the Church becomes ‘self-protective’, as Williams puts it, it always risks losing that precious sense of the presence of Christ on the boundaries that it is precisely the deacon’s role to attend to.  Calling on the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s fragmentary work on Ethics (which was hidden in his garden when the Gestapo came to arrest him in 1943), Williams draws afresh on Bonhoeffer’s insights about what goes wrong when the Church becomes ‘self-protective’, as he puts it. What Bonhoeffer realized, even at that moment of profound crisis in Germany, was that the Church [as Williams paraphrases him] ‘doesn’t occupy a territory which it has to police, but tries to guarantee a place where human beings may encounter and experience their own humanity [as Christ’s].’ It follows, as Williams puts it, that ‘The Church’s resistance to the order of the “world” is not a contest for dominance but a stubborn refusal to accept terms for human  … dignity that are defined by anything less than the divine gift and call’ (For God’s Sake:  Re-Imagining Priesthood and Prayer in Changing Church, p.178). Such, we might say, should also be at the heart of what it is the role of the deacon to remind the Church in every generation:  we do not control the boundaries of the Church, but are deflected outwards to find Christ in a thousand unexpected faces.

‘For I also am one under authority’, said the centurion. Learning to operate newly and rightly ‘under authority’, then, both within the Church’s own structures but supremely in response Christ’s prior authority; learning to respond to (often unwanted and inconvenient) surprises, and to encounter God doing wonderful things in them:  these ‘forms of life’ are at the heart of the diaconal ministry lived authentically on the ‘threshold’, that liminal space already so well symbolized by this cathedral church and its ongoing work. As we witness our new deacons making this momentous step into the ordained state today, let us pray that in the coming year, especially, they will authentically keep open that space on the edges where Christ is already waiting to surprise and bless us.   And we give thanks today for all that they have risked in coming to this moment of decision and commitment.