Deacon Sarah Gillard-Faulkner was one of the key note speakers at a Church of England Conference on the Diaconate held in York this weekend.
When often asked what he does for a living, one of my best friends says: I don’t DO dear, I AM!
This particular friend of mine is a priest, and a rather fine one, I promised him I’d say that! And of course he is quite right not just about priestly ministry but about all ministry. We are set apart for ministry because of who we are! We have been chosen by God as identified people set aside through the invocation of the Holy Spirit for the purposes of his will. Of course in reality it means we do actually DO things. I am technically on holiday currently and I’ve been here in York for a few days enjoying the surroundings of somewhere I used to be often as a student as I did a music degree at Ripon and York St John! And frankly I’m rubbish at taking leave! But I think somehow I don’t notice the fact that I need time off, because the gift of my life is that I am just fulfilling who I am. That isn’t, in reality, difficult! When one is being truly oneself it is just an extension of the gift of life that God has granted us. But I have given in! We all need time to recharge and rest! So I will have some more time off next week!
It’s of course, as I am sure, you are all well aware in Acts chapter 6 where the foundations of this historic ministry lay to which I am ordained. The need for people to roll their sleeves up and be practical and yet simultaneously not neglect the word of God, has brought about this amazing style of ministry that at its heart has the one thing: and that is people! But in and through our work as Deacon’s that need and engagement with the rest of human kind is understood in a particularly distinct way in comparison to that of the priesthood, the presbyter or the episcopal ministry. For we have 2 very distinct forms of ministry: that of a liturgical role and what has been termed a ministry of mercy. In its way the diaconate is the ministry that bridges, as a matter of necessity, the church and the world.
I’m sorry if this afternoon I seem a bit random in some of my quoting’s and not having great back up, but sadly I lost my original thoughts and composition for this afternoon when my computer died 10 days ago! So I bring you a great lesson this afternoon – back up everything you do ideally on an external hard drive and in the cloud!
I once read the diaconate described as the chameleon of orders! The Diaconate so easily fits any environment or context in which it finds itself. In the way in which my ministry now functions I think that is a wonderful description!
So what do I do? Well perhaps its best I start with the job titles. Currently I am:
The Parish Deacon of the Parishes of Abergavenny
The SubPrior of the Holywell Community
A Chaplain to Her Majesty’s Prison Service based in Cardiff and Usk and Prescoed.
Well maybe the first of those jobs is quite obvious! Doing the generic work of a Deacon in a parish setting really fulfils a lot of the liturgical role of the Deacon quite well, and also the traditional roles of grace and mercy as they are needed with the people of the communities in the place where I live. Interestingly before I came up here to York on Wednesday I was asked to conduct the funeral of a gentleman whose Son I’m due to marry next year. Now I was asked to preside over their wedding following their attendance of the funeral of a colleagues father I had conducted some 8 months previous. One may say that is just greedy. . . and one may say it’s about personality. . . but I think it says something more about how we are as Deacon’s, in our way of expressing the liturgy that is not over bearing and presidential in its style, but much more in authentic along siding. We read that in the early church their call was to be alongside the Greek widows. . . to see to the needs they had and yet at the same time proclaim the word. Does that mean opening up the bible and sitting and sharing. . . in my opinion not always, but I think it comes into being in Saint Francis of Assisi’s great words “proclaim the gospel always and when necessary use words”. Such a wise man St Francis. . . chose to be ordained Deacon so he could proclaim the gospel!!!
My role in the Holywell community is quite unique.
I guess it would help to have a bit of the history of the community and how it came into being. Around 2011 the parish came in the ownership of a house from the estate of a former parishioner. The legality of which was definitely tied up in only being used for the purposes of the parish. The Priory church of Saint Mary has its foundation in Benedictine tradition. The previous ministry team in the parish had used this as a basis to hone the spirituality of the parish and they regularly held monastic days in that tradition.
It was about this time that I had begun to ask questions of our senior staff in the diocese about provision for encouraging young people into vocation and discipleship. And the same thoughts were going through the mind of Fr Mark Soady, the prior of the community. And so one summer evening on his patio the then ministry team for the parish decided this was a way in which they could use the resources they had to them in continuing to develop the parish spirituality in the Benedictine tradition and offer hospitality to young people trying to test their own vocation and discipleship.
So a little over 2 years ago now the Holywell community was formed as a group of young people with a prior living in the spirit of the rule of Saint Benedict. Its original members were 2 lay people, one male and one female, and the prior. The diocesan bishop was invited and accepted to be the episcopal visitor to the community and this is strangely how I came to be added to the number. As his liturgical chaplain I accompanied Bishop Richard to the final day of their retreat leading into the inauguration of the community over which he would preside. When we gathered at their retreat there were 2 very nervous young people, the prior and their retreat leader sat in a room not really talking to each other! It’s the inevitable outcome of sticking a load of introverts together. And so my bishop and I come bounding in and start enlivening the situation. And then an older lady turned up. The Prior introduced this lady as a sort of house mother. . . someone who the lay members could turn to if they needed someone to talk to in confidence. Oh well thought out we thought. So the conversation turned to modern technology as the Sam, the male lay member had recently completed a degree in robotics! And we started talking about Apps! Well this lovely lady didn’t have a clue what on earth we were talking about.
Well bishop Richard and I got back into the car – which I was always charged to drive, apparently that was the modern interpretation of waiting at table! – and conversation turned to the community and the hopes he had for it. In my mind questions had started to be raised about appropriate nature of an along sider who didn’t understand the world in which these young people inhabited. He agreed with me and the next thing I knew I had a new job!!!
Yes it was almost like a light had gone off between us and we’d found the next thing for me. There was an empty house, a job that needed doing and the right ministerial expression once again to let the Diaconate thrive! Within 8 weeks I was licensed and actively ministering in Abergavenny! The quickest appointment in Anglican terms ever I think!!
But I’m there to serve quite a few purposes in the community. I suppose I’m the maternal one of the young people. One of our members described it to me in this way “Provide care for those who need it in whatever form you can.”
So what does that mean in practice? I function quite like the novice master of a monastic community. In that I come alongside to see to the needs of the lay members so that their focus can be on the monastic life. This sees me doing a huge range of different service tasks from taking them to buy duvets to accompanying them to medical appointments! From praying with them to cooking for them when they are tired and low. I really see that role as one that is so multifaceted. But in essence its one to ensure that they are well supported so that they can live this chosen life to the best of their ability.
That is not about taking from them the necessities of their lives that they have to deal with. In the words of one of the lay members they describe my role in this way: “You provide a comfortable space for us all to just be, you support each of us and encourage us to find ourselves you make the community a family and a home for people who probably not only would never have crossed paths but wouldn’t have given each other the time of day You make me laugh and smile and can take my mind of whatever problems are troubling me”
I also within the community setting have a catechetic a teaching role, helping them fine tune skills for ministry be it putting it liturgy together for specific occasions, helping to plan and extend ideas for the mother and toddler group we run, to expoloring with them and making a reality the new ideas of ministry in a context call “church without walls”.
Well that is half my life. . . what about the other bit of it??
Well yes I work at Her Majesty’s Pleasure! And yet again as is the way with me I fell into it completely by accident and need. Isn’t it strange how the Lord works in mysterious ways? Just like my coming into the Holywell community so was my story for joining the civil service! Four years ago now my spiritual director was the managing chaplain of HMP Cardiff and said to me, “well I’m not having you sat around doing nothing with your life!” as my curacy had come to an end and so he offered me 4 hours a fortnight to work in the prison on a Saturday morning. It wasn’t exactly the thing I thought I’d find myself doing, but for the need of something to do and the money I went along with this grand plan! 6 months later I was working half the week!
Well the role of chaplain with in the service is possibly not one you may expect. It with the role of the governor and the medical officer is enshrine in the prisons act of 1952. It has a two level required need. One of faith specific provision and also of pastoral care. And within that there are certain statutory duties that a chaplain has to complete by law every day. Those duties include seeing all those who are segregated from the main population and seeing each prisoner within 48 hours of their arrival in to a new prison. In terms of faith provision we are to provide Anglican worship every week in adherence to the prison statutory instructions.
Now within in that framework a whole manor of other things get thrown into the mix in terms of the needs of prisoners in regard to pastoral care. The need to contact home, the goings on of family life that continues whilst a prisoner is inside. It is often the chaplaincy staff who inform prisoners of the hatches and despatches of a family. I think it would be fair to say that I inform prisoners almost once a week that a loved one in their family unit has died.
But not only does it work that way it also works the other. In the last year I’ve become involved with 2 families following the death of their loved one whilst in custody. The later one was quite an experience. When there occurs such an incident there are key members of the establishment who visits the family of the deceased and such was my privilege back in May of this year. It was an interesting encounter to say the least and one that you wouldn’t quite experience from a parish perspective likely. But the safety and care of prisoners is paramount to the governor of any establishment and so when these happenings take place, the governor, with a family liaison worker and a chaplain often attend. And here comes the numb of why the along siding work is so important, not only for families but for staff to. The governor I attended with on that particular day reflected this: “Chaplains are also a massive resource to Governors in the event of certain operational events that affect prisons. While it’s somewhat cliche to turn to death and end of life, my own experience is that my Chaplaincy Colleagues have an approach, attitude and experience that us operational folk simply cannot hope to match. The way in which we inform, support and care for those affected by death or illness in the custodial setting is a bell-weather for the prison. I know that I have achieved better outcomes for families and men in custody because of the skills that my chaplains possess
But the needs of the prisoner differ in the institutions I work in. HMP Cardiff is a local B Category prison, so the majority of prisoners there are on very short term sentences or are remanded in custody. Here they seem to be much needier of things immediately such as phone calls home because they haven’t sorted out their weekly budget of money well! The number of times I’ve said: “no checking if your recent girlfriend has dumped you is not a matter of life and death!” is unbelievable! But, that is our normal. Not quite the nice sitting down having a cup of tea and discussing reasonably the merits of Paul’s letter to the Romans! The needs of men there differ from the C and D cat prisons I work with in my own diocese at Usk and Prescoed, where prisoners are much longer term men.
Prescoed is an open prison, where men have less than 2 years to serve of their sentence, so here the needs are about how to we help resettle men ready for re-joining of society. I remember a distinct conversation with a man in Prescoed some time ago, he had been in prison for 17 years, he had been home for a visit prior to his release and he didn’t recognise the world he had gone out to. There were houses where there used to be fields, the technology he had encountered on that 4 day visit had completely blown his mind, and he came back into prison and sat in an almost daze at all he had encountered and we spent a long time talking this experience through.
As a chaplain in this secular place though one doesn’t only give support and help to prisoners but also to staff. As I’ve become more established in the establishments in which I find myself I have become more and more a sounding board for senior management with in them:
“Governors know that their Chaplains play a pivotal role within the prison, fulfilling a range of roles, functions and acting as counter-points and counsel in equal measure.”
I have to say though as a person I’m a slight enigma to the staff! I’m not archetypical “vicar” material!! And somehow that works in this context. . . And here particularly in this way I think it impossible to distinguish the person from the ministry. . . I AM a deacon. That is my personality, my body shape, by spirit! One member of staff, in Cardiff who is constantly trying to get me to go out on the lash, says to me “oh, you’re only a vicar 9 – 5”! Well no I’m not! There can be no switching on and off who you are! My collar doesn’t provide me with an alter ego! But the presence of the “vicar” in such a place can be quite contradictory in some ways. As one of our officers said of me recently: “A lot of officers don’t think religion has a place in prisons but you don’t shove it in people’s faces so you are accepted by a lot more people” The deacon is there to alongside. . . not to slam the fear of God into people. . .!!!
This for me is the joy thought of the ministry in which I inhabit! The diaconate gives me the joy to be able to in the power of the Holy Spirit proclaim his gospel in so many and varied ways that frankly its scary. Try presiding over a communion by extension at 6pm in a vulnerable prisoners establishment and then setting up for a toddlers group at 9pm the same night!! That is pretty odd!
I recognise that my story as everybody’s story is quite unique and I’m certainly an enigma wrapped up in a mystery!! But I return to my original points about this wonderful ministry. The Deacon is the one who responds to the needs of the world they inhabit the context in which they find themselves. Being the chameleon that blends in the community in which they find themselves. Being the bridge between the community of the church and the wider world to engage the body of Christ to respond to the needs of those who are yet to hear of the good news of the gospel, is what those first deacons were called to do and what we are still charged to do today. If anything we have a massive role in reminding our faith community that, that is what we are called to do and not be unfulfilled priests or presbyters.