Servants in the household of God? A deacon’s view of the Church and the pandemic.
The Rev’d Alice Jolley considers the pandemic and lockdown from the perspective of a deacon anticipating ordination to the priesthood and asks what we learn from it about our Eucharistic identity.
My ember cards have arrived from the printers. “Please pray for all those to be ordained this year” they read, “among them Alice Elizabeth Jolley, to be ordained priest by the Holy Spirit”. Like practically every other transitional deacon in England, I have no idea when or where or by whom I will be priested. And, like most other deacons (I assume), I have also had 3 months without access to holy communion. In this time, I have come to understand some things about the nature of obedience, identity, and honesty.
When Lincoln Cathedral opened for private prayer on Monday 15th June I went to St Hugh’s shrine, where I had taken my oaths of obedience almost a year before. Now, standing before the sculpture of Our Lady of Lincoln, I understand more about obedience than ever, and more about freedom, too. True obedience is consensual, it confers agency on the respondent. I now know that to be truly lived, obedience must also be loved. Obedience cannot be required, only requested. Mary teaches us this. She also teaches us that acceptance of any rule of life may be contingent on asking a few practical questions first – and receiving some answers.
The Ordinal in the Book of Common Prayer states that a deacon should continue in his office for a whole year (unless ‘for reasonable causes which shall otherwise seem good unto the Bishop’) so that ‘he may be perfect and well expert in the things appertaining to the Ecclesiastical Administration’. (1) It also states that:
‘It appertaineth to the office of a Deacon, in the Church where he shall be appointed to serve, to assist the Priest in Divine Service, and specially when he ministereth the holy Communion’. (2)The Book of Common Prayer
We don’t, in general, take a functional view of holy orders, i.e. I am no less a deacon while ill in bed than I am when officiating at a funeral, and I am no less a deacon while prohibited from entering a church building in order to serve at the altar and receive holy communion. But this does not answer all of my questions.
A transitional deacon is a very particular kind of minister, with a fairly narrow functional scope. The Ordinal sets out the ways in which deacons are to serve in the places they are set, so that ‘if he be found faithful and diligent, he may be admitted by his Diocesan to the Order of Priesthood’ – i.e. their role in assisting with the administration of the sacraments is preparatory towards their ordination as priests. It is a year in which much personal honesty is required about in whose strength we minister, and when and how that strength is given us, by grace, in the sacraments.
My work has increased during the pandemic, since everything takes more time. “I’m busier than ever!” typed a fellow deacon in our Curates’ WhatsApp group. Another said “I feel like I don’t know what I’m for anymore”. We are all grieving. I have experienced every phase of grief at the physical loss of the eucharist.
Deacons who are called to be priests have endured 3 months without access to the sacraments, 3 months during which some would normally have attended a daily mass. I compare ministering under these conditions to trying to drive a car with no petrol, and no promise of petrol; you don’t cover much ground, and as time goes on, you are slowly and incrementally weakened by the experience.
My training incumbent and I started mass practice in January, and I was struck by the tenderness of the work. He showed me how to take the bread between the thumb and forefinger of my right hand whilst cradling it in my left, as one would the head of a new-born baby. These preparations were the most honest and raw things; I knew I belonged at that altar, I felt like the altar was somehow part of me, and the space beyond the altar seemed inexplicably magnetic in its terrifying silence.
Deacons are experiencing an enforced eucharistic fast in the final months and weeks before they become in persona Christi; able (and indeed obliged) to preside at the eucharist. Consequently, we are clinging to our ability to live the eucharist in loving action, even whilst longing for the physical sacrament (as expressed so much more eloquently by Bishop Philip North in his YouTube message to the Diocese of Blackburn, 10th June).
My understanding of diaconal honesty and obedience, and my deep grief at the loss of the eucharist, has made me sensitive to irregularities in the Church’s apparent view of her identity during the pandemic.
The cessation of public worship was an act of obedient love towards our neighbours; we did it because we desired their welfare. It was also an act of love towards God, since love of God and love of neighbour are inextricable. We did it for Love, we did not do it because it is an objective good, or in order to appear good citizens (being a good Christian and being a good citizen are often not the same thing). We certainly did not seize the opportunity for release from the trappings of corporate worship, to take up new-found freedom in our living rooms.
Deacons are obedient in their fasting from the eucharist not because it is disposable (the Ordinal makes it clear that eucharistic ministry is essential to the year a deacon spends preparing for priesthood) but because it is the highest sacrifice we are able to make for Love. I am not suggesting that it should not have happened. I suggest that deacons (i.e. clergy ministering to a grieving people, who have themselves not taken part in a physical eucharist for months) are well placed to remind the Church of the cost of this sacrifice.
I therefore suggest that we are very much poorer for our time away from the altar. My fear is that, in the rush to praise the efficacy of online worship, we overlook the long-term spiritual cost of this fast. I believe the danger is that we are not being honest about what we lack about our identity as the gathered and embodied people of God – and this makes liars of us all.
The Revd Alice Jolley
Assistant Curate at St Nicholas Lincoln
- As required in the conclusion of the Ordering of Deacons: https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/book-common-prayer/ordaining-and-consecrating
- See The Ordinal in The Book of Common Prayer