Bishop Tom Frame

The role of deacons in Australia has had a seismic shift in the past 20 years and the Church needs to review, clarify and educate Anglican leaders and members about this distinctive ministry, starting with a revision of the Ordinal, Bishop Tom Frame said in Melbourne recently.

Dr Frame, the Director of St Mark's National Theological Centre in Canberra, said he was increasingly of the view that the distinctiveness of the diaconate would be protected and preserved by a change in the Church’s approach to ordination. There was no Biblical warrant or scriptural injunction for the custom that candidates destined for priesthood be ordained deacons first.

He told the annual gathering of Melbourne deacons at Christ Church South Yarra on 7 August that a critical difference between priestly and diaconal ministries seemed to be evolving, with the former’s emphasis being on the gathered community (ministry) and the latter being most active with those not active in the Church (mission).

“Many parishes, if they were to conduct an audit, would find that 80% or perhaps more of their efforts were directly internally,” Dr Frame said in a speech entitled The diaconate in 2030: What might it look like and how do we get there? “In effect, there is much more ministry than mission.

“But if we have an order of ministry whose focus is beyond the gathered community, we avoid duplication (deacons trying to be priests) and we ensure an outward focus. I am not saying here that deacons do not have a place and a function in the gathered community or that the remit of priests is restricted to those who are Church people. But in wanting to secure a place for the diaconate and to prioritise outreach, I am inviting Anglicans to consider a very broad and general outlook which finds complementary between the roles of deacons and priests.”

Dr Frame said this approach necessitated diaconate-specific education and training centred around mission, outreach and engagement.

He said from the time of the Reformation until perhaps the early 1990s, the Anglican view of the diaconate was uncomplicated: it was transitional, a training and probationary order for those always destined to become priests.

But he said the Church appeared “without fanfare” to have altered its view of the standing and status, place and purpose of deacons within its mission and ministry in the new millennium.

“Put simply: we ought not underestimate the seismic shift in attitude and action over the past 20 years as we now do what would have been deemed unthinkable in the recent past,” Dr Frame said. “A quick survey of dioceses along the eastern seaboard of the continent reveals an incredible array of diaconal ministries that were simply unimaginable in the early 1990s. These ministries span parishes and sectors of enormous diversity, within and beyond the gathered church, exercised by women and men, of different ages with different abilities responding to different calls in response to different needs.

“As an educator and trainer, I despair at the plurality of views (and divergence on whether deacons can and should conduct baptisms and weddings, for instance) in a church that asserts its reformed catholic credentials. At least we can be thankful that theology is now beginning to catch up with practice.

“For now, we need to concede that there is no demonstrably consistent practice and no discernible coherent theology across the dioceses of the Anglican Church of Australia. I would urge bishops and synods to make this a matter for urgent attention because it is one of first order importance. Private whims should not become public policy, as would appear to be the case in some parts of the country.”

Dr Frame said only in the past five to 10 years had Anglicans directed serious attention to the office and work of the three orders of ministry, and what the priesthood of all believers might also mean in a Church that historically had been highly clericalised.

“Where the Church hasn’t been able to provide a stipendiary priesthood, it has resorted to a partially stipended or honorary diaconal ministry,” he said. “Sadly, we have seen the provision of priestly ministry as the industry ‘gold-standard’ and everything else as a compromise. This is partly a function of our doctrine of the church (ecclesiology) and the place it affords to the priesthood and partly a lack of missional imagination.

“The idea of ‘one parish, one priest’ is no longer sustainable in material terms in many places; it is no relevant to a range of contexts which demand a different kind of witness to the coming Kingdom of God. In my view, we still have a hopelessly hierarchical view of ministry that imparts all kinds of crass and counter-Christian  value judgments, such as clergy honorifics. Many people want an intensely priest-focused ministry – dominated by word and sacrament – and this has led them to devalue the ministry of the diaconate and the ministry of the laity… and the work that deacons and lay people are called upon to perform.

“When it comes to the future of the diaconate, the Church’s attention must focus on the authenticity and integrity of this order of ministry and launch an education campaign within and without so that Anglicans are as aware of the distinctive character of diaconal ministry as they are of episcopal ministry. I cannot see any clear future without clarity on the office and work of a deacon – what a deacon is to be and to do. This sounds sensible but it is not straightforward because we are not helped by our foundational documents, particularly the Ordinal.”

Dr Frame said he was a devotee of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and its legacy among Anglicans worldwide but the Ordinal in the 1995 A Prayer Book for Australia needed to be thoroughly reworked, not limited to a gentle revision of the literary and poetic dimensions of the service.

“The context of ministry has changed radically – we no longer enjoy the active patronage of a Christian emperor. The conditions in which ministry is practised have undergone fundamental upheaval – we can no longer rely on popular culture to support and sustain a ‘professional’ ministry class. The BCP and the APBA both fail to set out clearly the distinctive character of the diaconate. I am referring here to the exhortation and the vows.

“The distinctions that it acknowledges are too subtle for most readers. Furthermore, the ordinals in both the 1662 and 1995 books presuppose a Christendom context which simply doesn’t exist any longer.

“So, the future of the diaconate will be served by clarity about the office and work of a deacon and that needs to start with an ordinal that addresses the real world with clear injunctions for those who enter such a ministry and clear insights for those who receive such a ministry. Deacons are not priests spoken about in a muffled voice.”

Dr Frame said raising the profile of the diaconate involved clear instruction and pastoral guidance because Anglicans regarded ordination as a reward or something to which the most enthusiastic resorted to prove their commitment. Neither view was healthy.

He said the appointment and licensing of deacons across the Church was “a bit of a shambles”, with each diocese and each bishop, despite assertions that there was a unified polity based on a legally-binding constitution, doing their own thing. The Anglican Church of Australia was not a national entity “but 23 warring tribes kept apart by a peacekeeping mission known as the General Synod”, with neither dioceses nor bishops displaying much respect for what the others did.

“Nevertheless, I suspect some common themes in the appointment and licensing of deacons will be evident over the next 20 years,” he said.

“I expect that deacons will be appointed to most chaplaincies, social clusters, ethnic groups, industrial and professional bodies, as well as geographic parishes, with increasing regularity. This will be driven by demands from communities that want a Christian minister but cannot afford or do not want a full-time priest, and by the increasingly specialisation of sector ministry. The ‘generalist’ is already in retreat.

“It is vital that every deacon be connected not just to a priest but to a ‘base’ community, be it a parish or some other established worshipping community. While deacons might work on the edge, we don’t want them disappearing over the horizon. Being out of sight means being out of mind which also means being out of prayerful support and possibly out of control. How we support and sustain deacons in their ministries is another area of concern.

“I can easily imagine a future in which there is one or more deacons attached to every parish, taking forward its mission in defined areas; I can easily imagine deacons being active in the traditional health, education and welfare sectors but making their presence felt in workplaces, and among a range of sub-groups in our society ranging from those gathered around sport and leisure to race and culture. It is my prayer that deacons are not seen as a pool of cheap clergy, and it is my hope that their education and training is formalised and regularised.

“I am excited and energised by the circumstances that have obliged the Church to rethink mission and ministry in this new millennium. The focus has shifted from an unhealthy preoccupation with order and structure to outreach and engagement – to reach people for Christ and proclaiming the kingdom in their midst. While the Church is currently being pressed on every side, God is dragging us into a future that we would not have chosen for ourselves. But I am not alarmed or anxious about this because God is already there.”

The Revd Christine Barren, secretary of the Diaconal Committee that forms part of the diocesan Board for Ministry, told TMA that for the first time, the deacons’ gathering included people in the Year of Discernment for ordained ministry and theological students from Ridley Melbourne and Trinity College Theological School.

“Personally, I thought it was very positive for us as deacons to hear at question time that people were thinking that their vocation might be as deacons rather than in priestly ministry,” said Mrs Barren, who is parish deacon at St John the Evangelist Flinders with St Mark’s Balnarring.

“I think it’s important to realise that as deacons, it’s possible to do almost anything.”