Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Diocese of Virginia delays ordaining deacons

Yesterday we received three emails from the Diocese of Virginia. I have already posted two on the votes by our bishop and Standing Committee declining to consent to the election of Mary Glasspool as suffragan bishop in Los Angeles. Their votes have no practical effect because she received enough elsewhere to go ahead with her consecration as a bishop in May. You can read more about that below.

The other communication received Friday (why do these always come on Fridays?) concerned the future of the vocational diaconate in the Diocese of Virginia. The decision has an unfortunate impact on ministry in this diocese and our parish. I am reprinting that communique below; to slice through the obtuse language, it means that this diocese will not ordain permanent deacons until 2011, if ever.

The Standing Committee's stance is a signal that there is a major vacuum of education in this diocese about the diaconate. Mostly what we've seen in Virginia are transitional deacons who are temporary deacons on their way to becoming a priest, like Heather Warren who is currently serving at St. Paul's in such a role. There are a few vocational deacons here, like Ann Scupholme, who were ordained deacons elsewhere, and they tend to serve as unpaid missioners in small churches.

The authentic role of vocational deacons is to bring the church to the world and the world to the church; to lead us out of our cloisters and into the ministry beyond our walls. As one deacon I know put it: "The role of the priest is to bring the good news to the world. The role of the deacon is to bring the bad news back."

The vocational deacons serve permanently, and in my opinion every congregation should have a deacon. Indeed, all of us are called to be ministers in the church, lay and clergy alike. But we also ordain some to lead us, and through their ordination to highlight the sacramental and incarnational value of our ministry. Priests tend to the flock and grow the flock; deacons are there to pull us out of ourselves and move beyond the flock.

You know the deacons by how they wear their stoles over the left shoulder. Liturgically, they set the table, emphasizing their servant ministry.

In the last two dioceses where I served, I was privileged to serve alongside deacons. I cannot imagine how we would have done our work without the deacons -- they are that important. The vibrancy of the permanent diaconate was infectious, and brought to life everything else we did, from prison ministry to Cursillo, to work in nursing homes and homeless shelters. We could not have done any of it well without the deacons.

By delaying ordaining vocational deacons, the Diocese of Virginia is cutting itself off from this crucial and fruitful ministry. I pray that our leaders will soon discern an understanding of the importance and potential of the diaconate and get on with ordaining vocational deacons.

Below is the communication from the Diocese of Virginia:

April 9, 2010

The Standing Committee, key leaders in diaconal formation and some members of the diocesan Committee on the Diaconate recently gathered for a conversation on the formation process for the vocational diaconate. After the meeting, the Standing Committee made two decisions that affect the process and that will have implications for the formation of future deacons. First, the Standing Committee voted to recommend Candidacy for Holy Orders for the first class of postulants who have completed the Diaconal Formation Institute. "The Standing Committee recognizes candidacy as a time of significant formation and we invite the group to continue in that formation," said Don Metheny, president of the Standing Committee.

The Standing Committee also postponed consideration for ordination of the initial class until all canonical requirements are completed successfully. The five members of the initial class will begin their practicum placements in parishes at the end of May, completing them in late November. The Standing Committee plans to consider the initial class members for ordination at that point.

For the five candidates, this means a second delay of their ordination, which was originally scheduled for January of 2010, then rescheduled for May. The ordinations are now tentatively scheduled for early 2011. The Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, bishop of Virginia, said, "I concur with the Standing Committee in their decision, while standing in support with these five and with all who are in formation for the vocational diaconate."

"These pioneers have been on an emotional roller coaster, but they continue to experience God's call and to feel God's grace," the Rev. Canon Susan Goff, canon to the ordinary, said after sharing the news with them.

In 2008 and 2009, the first two classes of vocational diaconate postulants entered the diocesan Diaconal Formation Institute. Vocational deacons live out their entire ordained ministry as deacons, focusing their energies on a bridge ministry, which is intended to build significant ties between the Church and the world, particularly in service to persons in need.

1 comment:

d00dah said...

First - Jim, I agree with all you have said. I grew up at a time when (other than the religious life) the diaconate was the only route for women in the Episcopal church. As you point out - the function and need they and their male counterparts served has not vanished.
As to the letter (from Bishop Johnston?) . . . There must be something behind this that I am missing - it isn't clear why the decision was made. It's not even clear to me that they are wiping out the vocational diaconate as a calling. Not all priests go through seminary, so it can't be a matter of filling the ranks there. Maybe these five postulants are an unusual batch that has found being a deacon doesn't allow them to serve as they now feel called?
At the end of the letter, I found myself saying, "Okay - and then what?"