By Josh Penduck
Last week I posted a poem on this blog called ‘I lack the gifts to be a parish priest’. I was surprised by how much it resonated with people. It was a critique of the administrative demands of current ministry in the Church of England, but it connected with people across the denominations – Catholics, Methodists, Baptists and Pentecostals all wrote to thank me. But making a critique is one thing. Where do we go from here?
Let’s start by asking the question, ‘What am I paid for?’, or to turn the question on its head, ‘What would I have to stop doing in order for my stipend to cease?’ I’ve come to the conclusion that with the demands of the job, that it’s only when I stop doing admin that my stipend as a parish priest would be docked. Administration includes leading PCCs, ensuring good finances, overseeing the church building and the legalities of church life (such as safeguarding, graveyard procedure, faculties), and in some cases school governorship. These alone can take up too much time, and take energy away from the core stuff of ministry – presiding over the sacraments, preaching, teaching, leading baptisms, weddings and funerals, pastoral visiting. If I only did this core stuff of ministry and ignored the admin, then I could still be a priest/presbyter, but I would just be asked to either become a non-paid minister (in Church of England jargon, an ‘OLM’ or an ‘NSM’), or it would be suggested that I become a chaplain (a suggestion which is always a misperception of the amount of admin that chaplaincy usually involves!). In short, to be paid, I have the do the admin or asked to leave parish ministry. For the Church of England this is part of its legal and cultural inheritance. But this is not a good enough excuse for allowing the excessive build up of admin demands (which have been growing since the 19th Century and show no signs of abating, and many signs of getting worse).
What makes this worse is that many priests/presbyters’ gifts are squashed because of the time taken on administrative tasks. At a minister’s training weekend, one of my ministerial colleagues led us in a musically creative time of worship. Afterwards I asked him whether he had any opportunity to put these gifts into practice in parish life. ‘Not once’ he said. If it is the case that ministers are hard pressed for the core stuff of ministry (and the prayer and study that necessarily goes behind it), and well as having their gifts squashed simply by being ministers, no wonder the Church of England is in a dire state, administratively speaking!
But where the Church of England – like many churches – have simply gone wrong is that they haven’t listened to Scripture on a fundamental matter like church order. The Church of England boasts of its three orders of pastoral ministry – deacons, priests/presbyters, and bishops. Yet in reality, the first order, the diaconate, is functionally non-existent. To be a deacon is a stepping stone to being a priest. It’s year-one of a curacy. It’s a formality. Other than a few women in traditional Anglo-Catholic parishes, the idea of being a permanent deacon would be unthinkable and seen as a sign of failure. That this is the case is a travesty to both Scriptural guidelines and how the early church put these guidelines into practice. It downgrades the God-given dignity of the diaconal order, and is disobedient to God-given wisdom.
We see in Acts 6 why the diaconal order was set up:
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve [Apostles] called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.
In order for the Apostles to do the core stuff of ministry (prayer and serving the word), they set up a new order to do the administrative task of looking after the widows. This ‘diaconal’ order, which was charged with the administrative upkeep of the church – however that was understood – grew in the first few centuries of church history. Often, deacons followed after the example of that great diaconal martyr, Stephen, and became preachers and evangelists, and many became priests. But over time the diaconal role was reduced to a liturgical role, or a stepping stone to priesthood. At the Reformation, John Calvin ‘rediscovered’ this God-given order, but it never made much of an impact on the Church of England. This has meant that over the centuries, the ancient orders of deacon and priest have been functionally conflated into a single order – vicar or rector. The modern parish priest is expected to do the work of both deacon and priest. In short, we have thought ourselves wiser than God in thinking that we do not need a permanent and functional separate order of the diaconate.
What I suggest is this: create a permanent – and properly functional – diaconate. This is not simply something dumped on volunteers (such as wardens and PCC secretaries), nor a parish administrator job. Instead, the deacon would receive a stipend and a house – as a parish priest would. There would be a special ordination service to the order of deacon. This helps gives the order its God-given dignity and prestige. Their duties would be to supervise, organise and implement the administrative activities of the parish(es). Thinking diaconally (!), immediately the question is raised: where would the money come from? My suggestion is that would could cut the number of stipendiary priests, or encourage some stipendiary priests to function as a deacon, so that each deanery could have, say, two deacons (depending on the size and needs of the deanery). Each deacon would have oversight – or ‘line management’ – over wardens, parish administrators and the like, and would be a key player in PCC meetings (perhaps functioning as the chair).
The early church gives as a good model of how this order could grow. Larger parishes could have their own deacon. Larger deaneries may require more paid – not necessarily stipendiary – workers to support the role of the deacons. We can call these ‘subdeacons’ (a role invented by the early church, but gradually reduced to a liturgical role in Catholic-minded parishes). And why not call the person who has oversight of deacons an ‘archdeacon’? After all, not only may this release the church to recreate the Medieval role of the archpriest (who would have pastoral oversight of priests, and perhaps meaning that the cleavage and suspicion between diocese and parish is not so great), but it also may mean we don’t need an archdeacon to be a priest in the first place (releasing those whose gifts are not in pastoral care but are great administrators to have a role in the church). The bishop in turn would have oversight over both orders.
What I’m suggesting is in many ways common sense. After all, administration is a necessity, and spiritually important. The Holy Spirit recognised this by guiding the church in creating the diaconal role, and then guiding the church into developing this order (archdeacons, deacons, and subdeacons). By bringing back a permanent diaconal order with economic provisions (i.e. house and stipend) we allow priests/presbysters to reclaim their core ministry, stopping the functional conflation of the two orders into one single order, give those whose gifts are in administration the proper dignity needed for such a holy role, and – most importantly – obeying God’s outline seen in the New Testament for the ordering of the ministries in the church.
It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables.
 When I once brought this up with a lecturer at seminary, I was told that I misunderstood what the Anglican church believed about ministry; if I’m honest, I think that lecturer was missing the wood for the trees and misunderstood ministry per se
 In fact, while we’re at it, why not call parish administrators ‘subdeacons’ too? Surely these should have a commissioning service as well?
 This is functionally equivalent to an ‘area/rural dean’. What I’m suggesting is that the archpriest role becomes a full-time function, equivalent to the wonderfully named ‘protopope’ order in the Orthodox church.
 The Patristic episcopacy required that the individual consecrated had the gifts to oversee both the priestly and diaconal aspects of ministry. I would suggest that by functionally conflating deacon and priest, the modern Church of England is expecting the average parish priest to have the gifts traditionally required of bishops alone. As such, we can argue that despite its boasting about retaining the three orders of ministry, the Church of England has functionally one order – episcopacy – with priests acting as subbishops, archdeacons acting as bishops, and bishops acting as archbishops. In short, the whole thing is a mess. We have joined together what God has divided.