“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return”. Luke 12:35
On the 30 June 2019, just over a year ago, I was ordained a deacon in the Church of England at York Minster, and officially started as Assistant Curate at Beverley Minster. As well as being excited, I was also a little apprehensive as to what lay ahead in my new role. Having spent over twenty years employed as an academic at the University of York, this was a huge step from a world I knew well into a world where I had, and have, much to learn. And what a year it has been! As many have remarked to me recently, I couldn’t possibly have predicted how all of our lives have been so dramatically affected by the pandemic, and the impact that this would have on our experience as church together at Beverley Minster and the daughter churches.
One of the myriad effects of the lockdown is that my ordination as a priest in the Church of England, which was due to be one of Archbishop Sentamu’s last services at York Minster on 7 June, has had to be delayed. It’s due to be rescheduled for some time this autumn. My planned year as deacon has therefore been extended. I’ve recently been reading the latest book by our new Archbishop of York (Stephen Cottrell) entitled, “On Priesthood: Servants, Messengers, Sentinels and Stewards”. In line with my delayed ordination, I have thus far only read as far as the chapter on Servanthood. He remarks that some may erroneously think that the whole business of a priest in the Church of England being first ordained for a year as a deacon as “a little odd … hopelessly out of date … and a silly waste of resources”. However, he highlights that, “Being a deacon is not a stepping stone, but a foundation stone. It is not the apprenticeship year that has to be endured before the real thing – priesthood – starts.” Just as with Jesus’ parable of the house built on the rock, he highlights the importance and enduring nature of servanthood as the foundation on which ordained ministry is based. This foundation is based on what Christ has taught us. My quote from Luke 12 above talks of servants being ready for the Master. But the twist in the tale, if you read on, is that when the Master returns it is he who serves the servants with a meal. The character of Jesus is the one, “who comes not to serve, but to serve’ (Matthew 20:28).
It has been a privilege for me to begin to learn how to serve in the context of Beverley Minster this year. I could not have anticipated how much of that service over the last few months would have involved my background and familiarity with computers and technology in creating our online worship offerings, but it has been good to be here in this place “for such as time as this”. As Archbishop Stephen remarks, “Much of what a deacon does will be away from the spotlight of presiding at worship, or taking centre stage at meetings or gatherings.” As I’ve edited back-and-forth our online services of Holy Communion, it has almost felt like a modern-day equivalent of deaconing at communion – readying the subtitles in order that those viewing can join in and cueing the musical contributions in order to enable that worship may continue in our homes.
Of course, Jesus’ message of service isn’t reserved for the clergy, for those being ordained. It is a message to the priesthood of all believers. I’m increasingly aware of the ministry of service of many others in our church with whom I work alongside. Without whom, for example, our public-facing online provision and website would not have happened, our churches could not have been safely opened, and our day-to-day administration and finance would have ground to a halt. We serve together and alongside each other because, as Jesus serves, we are called as his church to serve others: to enable Christ’s people in worship, and to extend the hospitality and love of Christ to all as we open our doors and reach out into our community.
As I approach my eventual ordination to the priesthood this autumn I can say with some certainty that I won’t forget my year as a deacon. As Archbishop Stephen suggests, this is almost certainly a good thing.