In less than a month, I will be ordained as priest in the Church of England. It will be my second ordination, as I was ordained deacon nearly a year ago. But what does that actually mean? What does it mean to be a deacon?
In many people's eyes, the ordination as priest is the ultimate goal – you're not seen to be fully fledged or proper until that moment when the bishop lays hands on you and authorises you for such tasks as pronouncing God's forgiveness and blessing over people, and presiding over Communion. The year as a deacon is seen as year spent as an apprentice, L-plates displayed for all to see. It's a year that gives the Church the opportunity to pull the plug in case they realise that ordaining you as priest would be a grave error. It's seen as a strange phenomenon that seems to have little relevance, one of those quirks typical of an Anglican Church that after all has many quirks.
I think I've been guilty of all the above explanations, but I'm not happy with any of them. That's why I've set aside a day to thrash it out for myself. I want to understand what it is God requires of me and how he wants me to serve him and his church. And actually, I've learned something very simple, but significant. It's all about service. This means being prepared to put in the hours of unseen, unglamorous work ("waiting on tables") that keeps the church going (that's what the Deacons were appointed for in Acts 6) – but that's not all. It also means preaching and proclaiming God's word (as Stephen did so eloquently and powerfully in Acts 7). It also means enabling people to worship God and helping to equip them so that they might better serve God. It also means being a bridge between the church and the wider community (as Philip was when he happened to bump into a certain Ethiopian eunuch and shared the Good News with him). It means being an effective administrator – utilising wisely all the resources God has given, whether that's time or money). It also means listening to others – learning their stories and owning them for myself – and listening to God, for his direction in my life and in the life of other people and the whole church community – and putting the need to listen before earning the right to speak. Above all, it means modelling myself on Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many; who lived with humility and integrity.
It's a pretty long list and I can safely say that I've failed in almost every aspect of what being a deacon is all about. I'm selfish, lazy, self-serving and fearful. That's not to say the year's been a failure – but that's because I've been able to rely on a God whose grace is sufficient for me, whose power is made perfect in weakness, who equips those he calls, who doesn't let people down – but it does serve as a reminder that I am a work in progress, that I will never stop learning or growing, that I will fail unless I always rely on God and ask for a constant infilling of the Holy Spirit.
A wise person once said, "Once a deacon, always a deacon." I'm really glad that's the case, because it means I have a whole lifetime ahead of me in which God can fashion me after the image of Christ the servant. Perhaps I'll even be halfway to being a decent deacon by the time I retire!