When I was first starting to explore being a deacon and was trying to explain what it meant to me, I talked a lot about doorways. While a priest is at the table, or altar, I saw myself at the doorway making the entrance as wide open as possible. I thought (and still think) my vocation was about making it as easy as possible for people outside the church to engage with what church is about and as easy as possible for people inside the church to engage with what is happening, and what is of God, outside the church. I sometimes compared myself to the enthusiastic restaurant staff who stand on the pavements in seaside resorts enticing you to come in and eat at their establishment.
There has been a bit of that and in the last few months our church has embraced the idea of being a Place of Welcome We have also held a couple of events which have enabled Muslim friends and neighbours to meet Christians in the church, first for an Iftaar, the meal at the end of the Ramadan fast, and secondly for an event in which we shared our perspectives of Mary/Maryam.
But what has surprised me in the last five months is how important the table has become. I struggled with the liturgical role of the deacon, both in training and in my new church. Folding things neatly, pouring carefully, getting things in the right order and remembering to come in with the odd line now and again are not my strong points. Its still not a role I perform with an elegance or ease. But somehow that role in the liturgy and the privilege of giving people communion has made the many other tables at which I sit and eat, talk and learn and listen and change, holy and sacred places.
Through my life and ministry I have had the honour of being present at tables where I am both insider and outsider, host and guest, stranger and convenor. Its a place and a space that I find enriching. Sometimes I am doing nothing more than watching others make connections, sometimes I am receiving hospitality from people who have very little to give, sometimes I am actively bringing together people who would have never before had a chance to talk.
This might all sound a bit abstract and unlikely so I will try and give examples.
The table in the photograph is in the Bader restuarant in Sparkbrook where I invited women who had run Near Neighbours projects to come and gather to meet one another. The women came from many different backgrounds, different faiths and different parts of the city. But gathered round that table there was an incredible degree of trust and openness, an excitement about building deeper friendships and a joy of connecting with others who shared a passion for community driven by faith.
A little while later I was at a Birch project for asylum seeker families dropping off some donated toys. Just as I was leaving one of the women invited me to stay for lunch. A little toddler befriended me and I overheard a beautiful conversation between a volunteer and a guest. Another sacred space and a holy table.
There are others – I had the privilege of being part of the Birmingham Food drive for homeless and hungry people in the town centre – the job I was allocated by the Muslim volunteers was distributing the bread – sometimes the resonances are unmissable. A table of teenagers, some going to their first gig, who needed an adult to accompany them, an event in a restaurant to bring together communities in Kings Heath where I live, a table at the church day centre on the 11th November where war veterans reminisced about their experiences. I could go on.
At these tables I encounter truth, I am shaped and changed, formed and moulded by the people I meet. The theologian Miroslav Volf talks about the impact of communion and allegiance to God to make a Catholic personality. He says;
“When God comes, God brings a whole new world. The Spirit of God breaks through the self enclosed worlds we inhabit: the spirit re-creates us and sets us on the road to what I like to call a “catholic personality,” a personal microcosm of the eschatological new creation. A catholic personality is a personality enriched by otherness, a personality which is what it is only because multiple others have been reflected in it in a particular way. The distance from my own culture that results from being born in the Spirit creates a fissure in me through which others can come in. The Spirit unlatches the doors of my heart saying: “You are not only you; others belong to you too.”
P51. Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf 1996.
So that is doors and tables but what about the word? I still tremble when as a deacon I read the Gospel in the Eucharist. It seems to be such an serious role as you are entrusted as a conduit for God’s holy word. Equally preaching feels to me like the most serious and weighty task I could possibly do. I am nervous for days and weeks before a sermon – whatever and wherever I am preaching. And without the experiences of doorways and tables I know I would have little to say so I rely on the voices of others, the glimpses into other worlds to form something of truth I can share with my fellow travellers, within the catholic community of church, who in their turn are shaping me on my journey.
I don’t know if doorways, tables and words will continue to be the three dimensions of my diaconal ministry or if its just for a season. I don’t know either if I would have different dimensions if I were a priest or a lay minister. But for now they sum up for me what it means to be a deacon – being shaped by others to serve God, being shaped by God to serve others.
Apologies for a self-indulgent blog. A few people have asked for an update on my ministry and I hope this will be a useful summary of my journey of the last five months.