The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Discerning A Diaconal Call

So, a series of discussions with friends and in the official discernment process have led me to consider whether I should put myself forward as a candidate for the diaconate, as my instinct has been trending, or, instead, as a candidate for the priesthood.

Now, the notion of me entering Holy Orders as all is a shocker to many who have known me only superficially, but my closer friends react more by nodding and saying "hmmm..." which I take to denote mild astonishment coupled with a sort of "yes, I can see it, now that you mention it" reaction. A surprising number of people have urged me to aspire to the priesthood, saying that they see my intellectual gifts not used to best effect as a deacon, and that I would love seminary (I'm sure that last part's true!). These objections came mainly from academics, priests, and candidates for the priesthood--people for whom I have great respect and affection, and whose opinions I value.

And yet--

I can't help but feel that these objections don't quite fit where I am, and the call I feel. The pragmatics certainly fit the diaconate: My life has fallen out in such a way that I could commit the hours needed to be a deacon, combine my work with my ministry, and have the two interrelate. It's very doable. The priesthood, by contrast, would require me to withdraw from all I've done until now, and start fresh. I'd have to find scholarships or stipends, and can't see myself taking on new loans.

And yet, if I felt that was the next right step, I'd do it. With some trepidation, but I would. I'd at least go into the committee with the priestly vocation as the focus, and let that conversation unfold. But somehow, it doesn't seem quite right.

Not just because I know several deacons who are tremendous sources of inspiration (although I do), and not because I would model my ministry on theirs (not quite; I have different life experience and skill sets and could not do what they do--admire them though I do). No, I was groping for a way of articulating the tug to the diaconate and failed to do so well, until I happened on Nora Gallagher's book, Practicing Resurrection. (i had bought it some months ago when Gallagher did a reading at my church). Gallagher's own struggle to discern whether she was called to priestly ordination or to a lay vocation is the subject of that book, and led me to some reflection. Some passages of hers that helped me get a better handle on my own call:
The priesthood had become a "profession," like the law or medecine, and was subject to the same corruption. "The more we advocate the professional image the greater the gap between our theology and our implied intentions in ministry," wrote [Urban] Holmes. . . Or, to take it a step further, professionalizing corrupts a call because it changes it from being for the benefit of others to accruing benefits for the self.

You begin with a simple need. . . and then it becomes a way to have power, to keep others out, and it ends up separating everyone, even the leaders themselves, from the vitality of the community.


The problem also comes, I think, not just from those who are on top. We are taught to revere the king, or the president, or the analyst or the priest in a way that makes us natural followers, wanting to be led. Our own natural impetus to know, to strive toward, to lead is diminished by our need to have someowne to follow.
Practicing Resurrection at 158-159.

Now,, I don't identify with all of this--although I do think some priests fall into what we can call the power trap--the desire to feed one's own insecurity with what Susan Howatch once called "the most delectable food" for an ego in the grip of any kind of arrogance--power. Far more, though, are separated from their parishoners, and from their neighbors generally speaking, by their calling. The expectation of the priest that he or she perform the role of shaman leads to a setting apart that is virtually impossible to avoid. As Gallagher exlains further:
If I was ordained [a priest], I might lose track of the needs of laypeople, because needs arise from experience....Separation from laypeople was key to the priesthood, at least as it was presently practiced....As a writer, I had guarded my marginality, knowing that with margins come freedom and perspective. The freedom to see what others are afraid to see, the freedom to write what others have a stake in not admitting.
Practicing Resurrection at 158-159.

I undertand what Gallagher means about the power trap, and the utility of being a creature of the margins. Yet, like Gallagher, I find that "to continue life as a layperson felt, now, to be incomplete." The deeper my involvement with study and worship, the more I feel drawn in, and that I need to integrate service, to the church and to the world, with my professional skills and academic researches. And, in the present time of conflict, I feel the tug of one other element of the call to ordination, as identified by Christopher Bryant in The Heart in Pilgrimage (1980) at 89:
Anyone who seriously decides to make the following of Christ, the walking in the Spirit, the journey to the land of wholeness, the major aim of his life may well feel impelled to commit himself in a special sense, both to burn his bridges and to bear signal witness to the priority of God, the presence of Christ and the power of the Kingdom.
As to the power trap, and the burden of separateness, the deacon's order by design helps him or herto largely dodge that bullet. A deacon remains in the world by profession, and the stress and duties of worldly obligations and meeting others in mufti on a daily basis--all these militate against exclusion from the vitality of the community, and protect against the mana of their office and the resultant, rather terrible separateness.

The diaconate, on the other hand, is "a full and equal order" (a point well and often made by Ormonde Plater), but it is different. As Gallagher puts it:
Deacons are meant to go out from the church to the poor or the marginal--originally they were sent out to bring the Eucharist and food and clothing to widows and orphans--and to bring back to the church news of those on the margins. They are supposed to remind the larger church of its duty to those who are silenced and powerless,and to bring to them the comforts of the church and the shelter of its influence and power.
Practicing Resurrection at 185.

Deacons are inhabitants of the margins, then, both by the nature of their ministry and by the fact that almost all deacons are non-stipendiary, and are required to maintain careers outside of the church as well as within. Ideally, those careers can be integrated and support each other, rather than becoming a source of tension and division. But, at the end of the day, a deacon, like a writer, is limited in power but freed to be frank, freed to concentrate on the concrete, and called to teach as well as to model the servanthood of Christ. That focus on the margins, living in the world as a worker among workers, as well as at the intersection of the church and those she serves, provides great opportunity to provide a grounded Christian servant-leadership.

And that is where I feel called to be, insofar as I have come to understand that call.


ROBERTA said...

what a strange world we inhabit! Less than 5 minutes ago i was cleaning out a bookshelf and was reading excerpts of "Practicing Resurrection"!

i too am in the discerning process - though i'm leaning more towards the priesthood...and yet i find all sorts of reasons to doubt...and yet...the call has not one day at a time, one foot in front of the other -

thanks for sharing your thoughts on this - it's very helpful.

Anglocat said...

Thank you, Roberta--I'm glad to meet another on the journey; please let me know how your discernment goes.

I'd just add that my thinking (especially re what I call the "power trap") is based on my own psychology, strengths and weakness. For example, I can be intellectually arrogant, and so could be one of those priests who accept power as his due and get subverted by it. Or, at any rate, I would need grace and direction to avoid that trap. But that's just me.

And I'm glad you found the entry helpful, I was afraid I was being too subjective.