To arrive where we started

“If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all…..

…You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid….

….With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

Extracts from Little Gidding, The Four Quartets  by T S Eliot

This weekend I arrived where I started. Leaving the rough road, I came past that same pig-sty to the dull facade and the tombstone. I arrived where I had started my Christian journey.  Past the  house where I learnt to play and share and discovered hospitality, through the garden where we fell off climbing frames, picked horseradishes and, later, celebrated my sister’s wedding, to the little church where I was baptised in 1970, where I first felt the presence of prayer as a young child, where sacred stillness was etched into my soul over months and years.

We lived at Little Gidding as a family from 1973 to 1977, when my parents started a community there which modelled a life of prayer, hospitality and care for creation. I remember this time as filled with people, animals, singing, shared meals and laughter. It wasn’t a perfect time but it has shaped me deeply.  For another four years we lived in the neighbouring village of Great Gidding where my father was  vicar. And so the Giddings were like a faded canvas, the backdrop to my childhood memories until 2005 when my parents moved back to the same house in Little Gidding for another three year stint as wardens of the retreat centre there.

During that later spell, my children in turn played on the lawn, some of my friends experienced this strange end-of-the -world  place and I had once more the chance from time to time to allow the rhythm of prayer to soak into my soul.

Then this weekend, taking a break from a hedonistic, noisy and vibrant music festival,  I arrived at Little Gidding as a deacon to preach while my father took evening prayer.  This was an immense privilege for me. Not only is the place full of poetic and personal resonances but I was also standing in the footprints of Nicholas Ferrar, one of the most famous deacons in the Anglican church who, with his household, lived a life of prayer, service, faith and compassion. And it’s Nicholas Ferrar who is buried in the tomb outside the church which mentioned by Eliot in the poem.

My texts were the Passover and the Beattitudes, texts core to the identity of Jews and Christians respectively.  And in a place that formed me I talked about the observances that form us in our faith.  In a place where communities of people  have put their faith into practice over 400 years I had the chance to talk about corporate memories of liberation and the promise of God’s blessing for those who practice vulnerability, those who visit places of powerlessness and those who live in solidarity with the poor.

In front of my parents and the gathered saints of that congregation I felt barely able to preach to those who  have lived for many decades in the shadow of Little Gidding and know the truth of living long faithful lives. But what I said seemed to matter little – in that place it was so clear that my sermon  and my service is merely a drop in a wide river of faithful Christian witness that spans centuries and runs so deep that it appears to have no end.

“There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city–
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.”

Little Gidding


Learning with the public sector – what does it mean to be a 21st century public servant

Since I have felt called to the diaconate I have become a bit of a servant-geek. (Possibly because the word deacon comes from the Greek word Diakonia which is often translated as servant.) So when I heard today that the Birmingham University and Birmingham City Council where thinking about the values and attributes of a 21st Century Public servant my geeky heart just skipped a beat.

Here is a visual representation of the characteristics identified in the report:

main themeLooking at this postcard the overlaps were immediately obvious. Weaving and Storytelling are recognised as two key roles of a deacon as both lead to the linking, connecting and bridging which is central to the work of a deacon. Networking too – enabling non heirarchical groups of connected people – is another metaphor for diaconal ministry as is navigator – the deacon at the doorway and on boundaries helping people across thresholds and into new places.

The summary of the report  outlining 10 characteristics of a deacon offers more parallels and challenges the church to hold on to some of what we have learnt over centuries while challenging more negative habits we have picked up on the way.

Here are the characteristics taken from the report about each role and compared with my understanding the role of a deacon in the 21st Century:

“1….is a municipal entrepreneur, undertaking a wide range of roles“. This seems to be about flexibility and also operating on minimum budgets. Both of these are essential for a deacon in the church and almost of the essence of the role. As the ministry of a deacon is being redefined from being about one to one pastoral care and service to the poor to having a wider and prophetic ministry, a kind of ambassador for God, the need to switch roles and modes is an essential part of the job. Improvising, responding creatively to circumstance, making the most creatively of given resources – these seem to me to be essential for a deacon.

“2….engages with citizens in a way that expresses their shared humanity and pooled expertise”. This is a challenge for us in a church which draws  clear boundaries between lay and ordained. I think the deacon has a special role to play in challenging this separation of clergy and people, expert and non-expert,  by being neither a priest or a lay person. Pooled expertise, skilled and articulate lay people, clergy that share their humanity – these are definitely the direction of travel for the Church in the current context. We see churches developing ministry teams, certificates for lay people to study theology, more lay engagement in services and new roles for people who are not ordained such as mission apprentices in Birmingham. In a favourite quote of mine, Dr Rowan Williams says, ‘There is no-one inside or outside the Church who cannot help us read our Bible with more understanding.” Lay or ordained we are all disciples (learners), church-goers or devout atheist we are all made in the image of God and have much to learn from one another.

“3….is recruited and rewarded for generic skills as well as technical expertise.”  One interviewee admits that engaging with citizens is a newish skill for people who work in local authorities. Before we laugh I wonder how many people work for the Church and yet find relationship building in their communities daunting. Deacons are called to relationship inside and outside the Church. According to the Church of England’s guidelines for those selecting someone wanting to train as a deacon has to show they have to show:
• evidence of ability to relate to people of different ages and social contexts
• an instinctive ability to get alongside people and speak their language
• pastoral skills that point to an ability to care for others appropriately.

“4…..builds a career which is fluid across sectors and services”. Many deacons will have to work to get paid. Those paid by the church could find themselves in any number of roles at any given time. The same document for selectors and vocations adviser says the deacon needs to be happy behind the scenes oiling the wheels and in the public eye leading a service, they need to be pastoral enough to get alongside lonely and vulnerable people while being able to challenge injustice and oppression and they have to be a servant without being a doormat and a leader that allows others to lead. Sounds pretty fluid to me.

“5….combines an ethos of publicness with an understanding of commerciality“. Commerciality is probably useful for a church leader who needs to ensure bills are paid, buildings maintained and vital staff get their wages but I am not sure that’s our big tension.  I think the balance for the deacon is the balance between church and world or tradition and innovation. Most deacons see themselves at the doorway. The vocations document places deacons in three places: the church, the world and the boundaries. Balancing the needs of those already in church with the needs of those who might one day come is an inevitable tension of diaconal or any outward-facing ministry. Any institution exerts a pressure – for a local authority it is commerciality, for a church it can be financial, it can be the weight of tradition, it can be theological or it can be maximising scarce resources. Which takes us on to…

“6… rethinking public services to enable them to survive an era of perma-austerity“. Cuts that aren’t going to go away. We’re probably all in the same boat.

“7….needs organisations which are fluid and supportive rather than silo-ed and controlling“. One interviewee said: ‘We are trying to be 21st Century public servants in 19th Century organisations.’ Even an organisation as small as a parish church can have silos – clergy, church councils, choirs, organists, Sunday-school teachers, people on the coffee rota, welcomers etc etc. They don’t all get on all of the time. I think it would be much easier to minister as a deacon in a church where these people were enabled to work together and is part of the ministry to enable these people to work together.

“8….rejects heroic leadership in favour of distributed and collaborative models of leading. Hero leaders aren’t the answer. Rather than emphasising the charisma and control of an individual, new approaches focus on leadership as dispersed throughout the organisation.” This probably my favourite. And this is what the Vocations document says about leadership :

• the ability and willingness to work in a team
• leadership gifts that reflect a willingness to be a leader who assists rather than always takes the lead, and does not unsettle or unseat others who have either long term or short term responsibilities
• a person who is capable of being a public representative person for the church, who is competent and comfortable in the public eye, whether in liturgy or the life of the world
• organisational gifts that equip and free others to do their work well

So not heroic but hopefully enabling.

“9….is rooted in a locality which frames a sense of loyalty and identity” One interviewee suggested that people above a certain pay grade should have to live locally as part of their contract. That has been our practice for some time and I think its an important principle. It is important for us that our ministry in ‘incarnational’ – that we inhabit fully our place of ministry. But how rooted are we as paid clergy? We know we can’t commit to stay for ever as individuals. That is why it is so important that we are not lone ranger heroes. Because the church is not its paid workers – it’s the whole body of people and that body will change its membership but it is there for the long haul.

Today I was talking about working in communities with public sector workers  several of whom had been in post a matter of days or weeks. They were wondering why their services were not connecting with communities. And listening to them I was suddenly grateful for the symbolism of our churches whose grand, solid buildings and soaring spires suggest (among other things) deep foundations and a rooted commitment to a neighbourhood.

“10….reflects on practice and learns from that of others” This is what the Bishop says on the day I am ordained: “Deacons are to seek nourishment from the Scriptures; they are to study them with God’s people that the whole Church may be equipped to live out the gospel in the world. They are to be faithful in prayer, expectant and watchful for the signs of God’s presence, as he reveals his kingdom among us.” If we can’t learn together and from each other our ministry will be seriously impoverished.

So what could the local authorities learn from organisations that have been training deacons or servants for generations:

  • We think deacons are formed as well as trained and taught. What values are necessary to shape the characteristics and attitudes required?
  • Deacons often weave people together as well as resources – how can people learn to be connectors?
  • So far, for me, friendship has been a key motif of my ministry and I am not expecting that to change. Jesus says we are his friends rather than his servants. Could public servants be friends with their neighbours and communities and catalysts for friendships? I believe friendships are at the heart of flourishing communities. We don’t ignore the needs of our friends and we don’t back systems that oppress them.
  • Deacons have a role at the table (the altar) in a Church service. Sharing food together leads to conversation and shared lives – that’s another way to build strong communities. How could hospitable living be a part of the life of a public servant?

Perhaps we could begin to overlap as we train and form servants fit to serve people and God in the 21st Century. Perhaps we could encourage each other not to crave slick institutions, heroic leaders and glossy programmes and perhaps we could celebrate together the invisible work of humble, rooted, committed people who might not share the same faith but most definitely share values and good practice.


Sometimes, in the midst of worship songs, in arguments about the icon of priesthood or in the world of WWJD  (What Would Jesus Do) wristbands, it might be quite possible to forget that our understanding of God includes three persons of the Trinity – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

As someone training for the diaconate I have understood that our icon of ministry comes from the moment Jesus washed his disciples feet whilst the priests take their imagery from Jesus as he presided at the last supper.

But while I worked as a nearly invisible civil servant for the Church of England, devising campaigns or writing press releases that enhanced the ministries of others, I became interested in the idea of the Holy Spirit as my icon of ministry.

Recently I had a conversation with one of the most successful people I know who has an amazing job which allows him to connect all kinds of people, making a real and tangible difference on a global scale. But he said that in church terms he felt like a second-class citizen because he was not ordained and did not wear the badge of authorised church worker.

I believe his work is diaconal – because not all diaconal work is done by ordained deacons (although all deacons have a diaconal ministry.) I believe the work of many of my lay friends is both priestly and diaconal but I think we have become so rooted in a christological (Jesus-centred) view of ministry that we look for the work of incarnate Christ to live on in the Church. Thus when anyone becomes excited about their faith we encourage them into a role which strengthens the life of the church such as a Reader or a priest. (Somehow forgetting that Jesus was a teacher, healer, carpenter, story-teller and a party-goer.)

The incarnate Christ was rooted in a time and place and I think, in our minds and hearts, that time and place has become equated with Church. As disciples we gather to hear from those who have been ordained to represent Jesus and then together we re-enact the Last Supper. The Church somehow captures the presence of Christ and becomes a focus for Jesus’s ongoing ministry.

But the Holy Spirit blows where it will. It gives words to those who need help articulating, it brings life to dry bones, it anoints people to work for justice and it bears witness to Christ. Connecting, articulating, witnessing and working for justice sound a lot like the ministry of a deacon and a lot like much of the work faithful people do outside the walls of the Church because they want to play their part in making God’s world a better place.

I hope we, as church people, can celebrate this work and these people so they do not come to our congregations feeling that they are less than a priest or deacon wearing a dog-collar but knowing they share the ministry and mission of God – and reach the places that could never be reached if all ministry was left to those who are ordained.

Ordained people play a vital and extraordinary role. I know so many wonderful priests whose ministries I would never play down. But we are co-workers and if those of us with a dog-collar are not enabling those of us connected in all corners of the world to join the mission of God then we are missing our calling.

Jesus is our Lord, saviour, friend, example and our pattern for living. But the Holy Spirit also offers us some unique patterns for ministry that could liberate us from the idea that ministry happens in Church and ensure that all our work is seen as sacred and the baptised people of God are seen as equals. I might get myself a new wristband (WWTHSD) What Would the Holy Spirit Do – I hope many of my friends who work outside the church would understand that, like them and through them, the Holy Spirit would be bringing life to the forgotten corners of the world through a myriad of ministries.

Live life to the full – the meaning of vocation

Yesterday I had the privilege of speaking to an older woman called Audrey who has spent the last twenty years or so tirelessly campaigning against injustice and poverty and working with all the faiths in Birmingham to create a movement of compassion for our world.

I was asking for an official quote about something but when we had finished that bit of business she said: “You know what, Jessica. Take every opportunity while you are young. Don’t get too bogged down.”

For the two and a half years I have been spending time with a good friend who has terminal cancer. As she got closer to death she became clearer and clearer that we had a duty to enjoy ourselves, to make the most of what life offers, to do the things that make us happy. She wrote about this is her wonderful blog.

I wanted to believe it and know in my head that Jesus talked about bringing abundant life, life in its all fullness. But another part of me was stuck in the idea that my enjoyment was not important. There is a 70s chorus that rings around my head which goes something like this:
“J-O-Y, J-O-Y surely this must be, Jesus first and yourself last and others in between.” I think, like many people, that my enjoyment is something to be squeezed in after I have done my duty to God and my neighbour.

But on Saturday I had the chance to spend the day with other deacons listeing to Canon Rosalind Brown talk about the spirituality and the theology of being a Deacon.  So much of what she said was enormously helpful but what really stood out was when she said it could be part of the Deacon’s calling to introduce someone to good wine.

I love introducing people to people and I also love introducing people to things – whether it is a brand of skincare, a holiday park, a book, food, a clothes company or wine but I assumed this was completely unrelated to anything as sacred as ministry or my vocation as a deacon.

But it turns out it is not. Thomas Traherne, quoted on Saturday puts in like this:

“You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself  floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world…

“Yet further, you never enjoy the world aright, till you so love the beauty of enjoying it, that you are covetous and earnest to persuade others to enjoy it. And so perfectly hate the abominable corruption of men in despising it, that you had rather suffer the flames of Hell than willingly be guilty of their error. . . . The world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet no man sees it. It is a Temple of Majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of Light and Peace, did not men disquiet it. It is the Paradise of God. It is more to man since he is fallen than it was before. It is the place of Angels and the Gate of Heaven.”

And so, Rosalind concluded, we need to ensure our spiritual life includes enjoyment of God’s world and perhaps it is part of a diaconal (or any) ministry to help others enjoy it too. We should (as my friend said, we have a duty) to enjoy and model enjoying God’s hospitality and take time to marvel. And we should invite our friends and neighbours to go for a walk, appreciate music and where appropriate share a good glass of wine. Our engagements with the tough bits of life need balancing with restorative engagement. And finally, Rosalind reminded us, we don’t have to do it all  alone – we can join with others who are also enjoying God’s hospitality.

So thanks to Audrey, Rosalind, Thomas Traherne and my friend, Libby, I feel the jigsaw is starting to make sense. Perhaps I will take J-O-Y off my mental playlist for a while.

On being a Deacon

I have realised that I have named the blog Distinctive Deacon but not really talked about why or what it means to me.

This week (well a week ago) women across the country were celebrating the 20th anniversary of their ordination to the priesthood in the Church of England. There were some amazing women at that gathering at St Paul’s who faced huge obstacles and opposition as they sought acceptance of their calling to serve as Anglican priests. Some of those amazing women I am really proud to call my friends.

But for many of those women the diaconate (the being a deacon) was where they were parked while the church decided if they thought women could be priests or not. Having been trained and ordained deacon in faith that they could one day be priests they waited in a kind of limbo – unable to preside at the Eucharist or have primary responsibility for the church.

So when I say I want to be a permanent deacon some people find it uncomfortable. How it works is that all priests are deacons for one year – a kind of appprenticeship. After a year they are ordained priest but the ‘deacon’ bit stays part of their priesthood and they combine the two ‘orders’ in one vocation. For me it will not be part, or subsumed – it will be my whole calling. I will be a distinctive deacon.

When I first really heard what a deacon is called to do – at an ordination service about 10 years ago – the hairs on the back of my neck literally stood on end.

This is what I heard: “Deacons are called to work with the Bishop and the priests with whom they serve as heralds of Christ’s kingdom. They are to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, as agents of God’s purposes of love. They are to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the Church the needs and hopes of all the people. They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible.”

There is so much I love about this but  two things stand out. The first is that you do it with others – fellow members – and the second is the phrase ‘forgotten corners of the world.’ There is place for  focussing on ‘low-lying fruits’ – a popular church expression to mean people close to Christianity  – but I also think that God is keen that we get out of our comfort zone and into the dark and dusty corners. And when we get there we’ll be amazed what we find.  I am so glad that this does not say that we take the love of God there because it will already be there – all we can do is make it visible, perhaps give it a name.

When I was exploring all this I was asked where did I see myself in the church building and while many  priests might answer at the altar – my reply was at the door. I see myself like the guys you see on holiday who are outside the restaurant badgering you to come in.

I think this job could be done by someone without a dog collar but I think ordaining people who work outside the church reminds people that their work outside the church is also holy, that the world outside church is holy and that God’s love is not confined to large victorian buildings but is expressed in a myriad ways, by a myriad of people doing a myriad of things.

Female priests anniversary marked