The Chalice tag-line says that we support women as deacons, priests and bishops. A few months ago, the Chichester Diocesan Synod passed a motion requesting that Canon C 22:1, which states that an archdeacon has to have been in priests orders for seven years, should be amended so that distinctive deacons may also be appointed as archdeacons. We have had distinctive/permanent deacons in the Church of England since 1987; and some of these are experienced and capable women and men who could admirably take on the role and tasks of archdeacon.
The motion was set as contingency business for July 2011’s General Synod, but not taken; and then set for Wednesday morning in the Feb 2012 agenda. It however got bounced again, when an important emergency debate on Nigeria was placed on Wednesday, and unexpectedly promptly, was finally popped back in to the agenda on Tues afternoon. This is my [Alastair Cutting‘s] personal look at the debate, and some of its shortcomings.
Below are: (if these links aren’t working from the front page, try the full post)
- links to the papers
- a link to the audio recording of the debate
- the text of the introductory speech
- the results of the voting
- the Church Times report is available online as part of their full Synod digest, with just the report of this debate here
- finally, a commentary/reflection from me as to why I think the Church of England still needs distinctive deacons in the Archdeaconate
Alastair Cutting, Chichester, 96
(I was presenting the debate in the absence of Bishop John Hind, who was on duty in the House of Lord’s, as the timing of the debate had been shifted at short notice.)
I had heard of the expected vacancy in the see of Chichester; but I hadn’t expected the bishop’s absence to take effect quite so suddenly… This introduction is partly his – and partly not.
This motion seeks to remove from Canon C22.1 the requirement that an archdeacon must be in priests’ orders, and to clarify that a permanent deacon may be appointed an archdeacon.
The Secretary General has given some of the history. Now I don’t want to argue about what he has written, although I think some of his statements are questionable. Although I shall also say a bit about history, my aim is not antiquarian. I am more concerned for the integrity today of the threefold ministry to which the Church of England lays claim, but which has been obscured for many centuries and to some extent still is.
Some members of General Synod may know the lovely Church of St Saviour in Chora in Istanbul. In the inner narthex there is a mosaic lunette dating from about 1320 representing the restorer and donor of the redecorated church, Theodore Metochites, presenting the church to Christ Pantocrator. Theodore was a statesman, scholar and patron of the arts. More relevant for our purposes, is that his father was George Metochites, archdeacon of Constantinople in the 1270s and 1280s. As a deacon, George served as ambassador to the papal courts and was an important figure in the attempts to heal the great schism between the Greek and Latin churches at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274. A good fairly late example of a diaconal archdeacon of considerable influence.
Thus, while the Secretary General is correct in drawing attention to an increasing tendency for only priests to made archdeacons or for archdeacons to be ordained priests in the latter part of the first millennium, this was only in the western Church where it was actually a culmination of a long process really from about the fourth and fifth centuries in the course of which the dignity and distinctiveness of the diaconate was progressively eroded as the presbyterate came to be seen as the “normal” ministry, thus undermining the earlier pattern of the bishop surrounded by a council of presbyters and assisted by deacons, some of whom alongside liturgical and charitable functions acted as executive officers of the bishop, his emissary, deputy, and even guardian of the see during a vacancy. Sometimes and in some places the term archdeacon was applied to the leading deacon in a church, but the functions were frequently the same regardless of the title.
Deacons or archdeacons were certainly servants of the church and servants of the bishop, but they were certainly not “mere” assistants and even less were they transitory figures, apprentice priests. In fact if they were apprentice anything they were more likely to be apprentice bishops as quite often an archdeacon was elected to succeed the bishop in a vacancy.
From quite early on in the fourth century challenges began to be made to the diaconate particularly by the growing number of presbyters who were appointed to serve remote churches and who were beginning to be seen not so much as the bishop’s counsellors and fellow elders but rather as mini-bishops. They expected the deacons to be their servants rather than the servants of the bishops.
Different churches emphasize different aspects of the deacon’s ministry. For some the focus is liturgical, for others charitable, for some the outreach into wider society and interface with is what is central. The Church of England in its restoration of the distinctive diaconate has attempted to hold these various elements together. But of the functions of deacons in the early Church, their role in discipline, examination of clergy, administration and governance is one that has for the most part not been restored – except that these roles are exercised by presbyteral archdeacons. This motion seeks to address this.
Archdeacons are sometimes described as “the eyes of the bishop.”. That is because this was originally a description of deacons.
There is an overlap and distinction between jurisdiction and oversight, but that is not the same thing. I do not however consider jurisdiction over presbyters a relevant consideration, not least because, as the Secretary General points out, certain lay officers of the church have jurisdiction over clerics.
There is nothing in the Canon specifying the duties of an archdeacon that suggests that being a priest is any advantage or need.
This motion concerns the narrow question of whether archdeacons must be priests. I accept of course the Secretary General’s point that passing this motion would require some consequential amendment of other legislation, but that doesn’t normally stop this Synod when it believes something to be right!
Now that the Church of England has recognised the possibility of vocations to the distinctive diaconate; and a had them for a number of years, it’s appropriate for us to look again at this question.
I was ordained deacon in the Sheffield Diocese in 1987, the first year women were ordained as deacons, and I remember my colleague from theological college, Sue, being ordained alongside me. A year later, as I was ordained priest, she was no longer beside me (she was later, after obstacles were removed).
Since 1987, we have had both women, and men, as part of the distinctive diaconate. The national college of deacons is now numbered in scores [edit – it is over 100]. Good women and men of calibre and gift, but without the call to be ordained priests.
Many in this synod have sought over the years to remove obstacles, glass ceilings in church structures. That is precisely what this motion does – I urge you to support this motion.
[There were 3 speeches in favour, and 5 against the motion, some ranging from suggesting the role could even have lay elements to it, to those insisting it could only be a priestly role as now practised. The use of the phrase ‘only a deacon’, which came a number of times in the secretary general’s notes, was several times observed; and examples of broad-ranging, authoritative and responsible diaconal ministry described.
The summing up concluded with: “The title is Archdeacon, not Archpriest. The clue is in the name. Please vote for this motion.”]
The list of electronic voting results is available here.
So the motion was (thoroughly!) lost in each house. Not bad for a maiden introducing of a motion at General Synod! They won’t be asking me again.
I’m sorry that the debate seemed so shackled in advance. There was considerable resistance to the whole idea, and curiously primarily from those who – in other debates – would be seeking a more liberal approach, wanting to remove ‘ceilings’ to promotion.
Some archdeacons – including several women – said (before, during, and after the debate) they could not imagine how someone who wasn’t a priest could do their job. However, some clearly can imagine it, and within the context of the Chichester Diocese certainly – and probably others, deacons, priests, archdeacons and bishops can all see how it could work, and want to have it as an option for male or female distinctive deacons. The motion was not insisting that all archdeacons should now be distinctive deacons, just that the option not be excluded.
It’s easy after the event to think of clever lines and witty put-downs to other speakers; or consider how perhaps the debate may have gone otherwise. That won’t change the result at this stage. After the debate, a number of laity & clergy raised with me that the debate had raised issues that synod will clearly need to return to, now that we have had distinctive deacons for over 20 years, and not yet had a proper debate on their role. Some guessed – mistakenly – that as it hadn’t been mine I didn’t myself wholeheartedly support the motion; if I gave that impression in anyway, I’m sorry, as I do wholeheartedly support it, and I’m very sorry for individuals and the church at large that it didn’t pass. Another diocesan bishop may well be interested in raising the issue in another way. I hope they do. And I hope synod is perhaps more receptive next time.