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Conference affirms, applauds role of deacons

By Paul Titus

A noteworthy step Conference 2005 took was to affirm the place of deacons within the life the Methodist Church of NZ.

For several years the church has contemplated the role and status of deacons. Last year Conference asked that a report on the topic by its Faith and Order Committee be discussed throughout the church.

As a result of that discussion the Tauiwi section of the church suggested to Conference 2005 that the diaconate continue to be a model of ministry within the church’s life and deacons be received into full connexion.

At an evening session prior to the vote on this proposal president Rev John Salmon asked Conference delegates to break into small groups to discuss two questions. One was whether they see deacons as a relevant part of the church’s ministry in the 21st century. The second was if so, what are the key aspects of diaconal ministry in relation to lay preachers, presbyters, minita-a-iwi and other ministries?

After these discussions, people were invited to share their thoughts with the entire Conference. Speakers expressed a range of opinions, and most voiced strong support for the role deacons play. This was reinforced by the decision the next day to accept them into full connexion, though without the right to administer the sacraments.

National co-ordinator of the church’s Diaconate Task Group Shirley-Joy Barrow says she and other deacons were both surprised and pleased at the amount of support members of the church gave them. The decision to bring them into full connexion does not greatly affect the church’s nine active deacons but she hopes it will enhance their standing.

“When deacons were ordained we took a vow to accept the discipline and polity of the church. Most of us live by this, so being in full connexion changes virtually nothing in that regard.

“It does, however, allow people to see us as real ministers in parallel with presbyters. It is important to understand that the liturgical and diaconal roles are different but equally important. It also enhances the authority with which deacons are sent out to work in the community. This is important to those who receive this servant ministry from the church

“Deacons’ calling is for relationship building. Often that is in the community and though we are not always in the church we come from the church. Many people who have served the church in a diaconal way have not been recognised as deacons. The ministry of chaplains is really more diaconal than presbyteral.”

Dargaville presbyter Rev Anne Stephenson was a deacon for 10 years. She says the diaconate continues to inspire her because deacons know God is much greater than our parishes, our church, our boundaries or even our theologies.

“God is out there and invites us to join in God’s work. This is the humanitarian concern of our God. This is God, where the rubber hits the road. The deacon brings this to the church,” Anne says.

“The diaconate has grown in its understanding of itself. No longer should others be writing their history and telling their stories. No longer should others be telling them what they should or shouldn’t do, especially in regard to taking theology seriously.

“Let the deacons claim their place in full connexion. If they are an uncomfortable presence, it may be this is the tension within the gospels, the challenge to the church.

“Deacon are not primarily concerned about power except for justice issues, and they are more likely to be a prophetic presence. Deacons bring a call to be larger than our systems and structures. In fact deacons call us to be as large as the God we serve, who embraces the world.”