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Deacons – holy stirrers, honoured servants, or marginalized ministers?

By Julia Stuart

You can find the title ‘deacon’ in churches around the world, and New Zealand is no exception.

In at least six of the mainstream denominations – Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and Orthodox – permanent deacons are working out their costly calling in day-to-day service.

They are chaplains, social service workers, teachers, educators and administrators. They are in parishes and beyond them, male and female, married and single.

Integration of the diaconate into the churches’ structures tends to vary by denomination. In the Methodist Church, a deacon is one who ordained by the Church to a ministry shaped by the community whom they are appointed to serve. They can be part- or full-time, and fully, partially or non-stipended.

Deacons became a formal part of the NZ Methodist Church in 1893 with the creation of the Methodist Deaconess Order with a special focus on work with Maori. Over the last 15 years there have been efforts to reclaim Methodist diaconal ministry.

Set up in 1990, the Diaconal Task Group of six started as a group ‘available for consultation’ on matters concerning the Diaconate, though representation was geographically patchy.

After the 2002 Methodist Conference re-affirmed diaconal ministry, the task group expanded to include lay, young and Pacific members. It’s an uphill task, though. There are only nine active Methodist deacons, and of those only two are younger than 60.

In the Anglican Church everyone in transition to the priesthood goes through a stage of being a deacon. Some stay on to become a permanent deacon in the ‘Household of Deacons’.

Coordinator for the Diaconate in the Methodist Church Shirley-Joy Barrow says being part of the international scene is very important.

“It seems to me that the renewal of the Diaconate is happening all over the world. There have been difficulties in this process. Some priests, pastors and presbyters have challenged the need and theological basis for this form of ministry. Lay people may also feel this is their ministry, without any need for ordination.

“Yet from the time of Jesus there has been diaconal ministry – crossing seas, borders, cultures and denominations. Wherever a need is seen, diaconal ministry rises up to serve.

“The question is not ‘if’ the Diakonia fits within the Church, or whether we still need this ministry, but whether the Church could exist without it. A church without deacons is a pretty sick church,” Shirley-Joy says.

The Anglican diocese of Christchurch recently created a position of Archdeacon for the Household of Deacons. The Archdeacon, Anne Russell-Brighty says the Household of 17 meets regularly to support one another and explore the role of deacon.

“The renewal of the diaconate here has been going on for years, with support from the bishop and also the ministry educators,” Anne says.

The growth of the permanent diaconate in Christchurch diocese has accompanied the development of local shared ministry. Through local shared ministry a number of people have been called to deacon roles, and this has strengthened parish understanding of deacons.

“Before a deacon is appointed to a parish, that parish is required to have an understanding of the role and formation of deacons and part of my job is to promote that understanding,” Anne says.

Diakonia Aotearoa New Zealand Association – a new creation

The formation last year of the New Zealand diaconal association DANZA has been a recent highlight for Methodist and Anglican deacons. It is the first ecumenical association in the Diakonia World Federation, and celebrated its admission at the federation’s assembly last year with a Maori-style response.

The culmination of years of talking, sharing and negotiating, DANZA currently brings together deacons from the Methodist and Anglican churches. They have also had conversations with the Lutheran and Catholic Churches and with some members of the Presbyterian Church.

DANZA was formally established as an association with a constitution at the Durham World Assembly last July, and since then has been developing services for members.

Anyone can join. Membership is open to all deacons and those interested in the development of the diaconate. As well as linking up to the Diakonia World Federation, DANZA members get regular newsletters and information as well as the encouragement that goes with feeling part of a unique and important form of ministry.