Eric Lobsinger exhorts us to remember how we serve as well as whom we worship
To prepare for today’s sermon, I thought it would be nice to know a bit about each of the candidates being ordained. Now, I was told the names of the candidates: William Hamilton-Box, Alan Rimmer, Angus Beattie, Mike Still, and Yaroslav Walker. But information beyond that could not be given me because of GDPR (ordination sermons, apparently, are another unintended consequence of Parliament’s legislation). Well, seeing that all five candidates are before us today, I will have to make certain assumptions that I cannot independently verify. One assumption is that they made it through the Church of England’s discernment process known as the Bishop’s Advisory Panel. Additionally, I assume they have each undertaken steps to fulfill the criteria for holy orders. The very fact that they now sit before us, ready to be ordained by Bishop Jonathan, suggests that they have satisfied the criteria for ordination into the ministry that they are about to undertake.
What exactly are those criteria and how have the candidates fulfilled them? Well, as noted, GDPR prevents me from saying anything about the candidates as a matter of personal knowledge, but I assume that over the last several years, the five candidates before us have spoken in words and have spoken through their lives that they are ready to give themselves over to God to serve him. Specifically, they have offered themselves to be servants in holy orders.
Servants in holy orders… This, of course, is topical when we celebrate the solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, which most churches will do tomorrow. After all, we have no better example of what it means to be servants in holy orders than to examine the lives of Peter and Paul. Both men were flawed with human weakness. Peter denied Christ three times when Christ was arrested and placed on trial; Paul persecuted the early church with vengeance, even giving his approval to the murder of St Stephen the Deacon, the first martyr of the church—and yet Christ revealed his power by transforming these flawed men into saints, saints who would go on to serve God and his church with unwavering love, even to the point of sacrificing their own lives for the gospel. The Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, nine years ago on the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul described the ministry of service as always being sacrificial, and precisely because it is sacrificial it is true freedom—freedom from fear of the world, for servants of God place their full confidence in Christ, whom the world cannot conquer.
Of course, all Christians, by virtue of their baptism, are called to a life of service to God, but what the five candidates are doing today is committing themselves to a particular kind of service that has the characteristics of visibility and direct accountability to the Church, especially to their bishop. The Church is both visible and invisible, human and divine, an imitation of the incarnate Word of God. Today, upon ordination, our new deacons will exercise a ministry of service that contributes greatly to the visibility of the Church’s ministry, whilst they are nourished through the Church’s invisible nature of divine authority, presence, and grace.
God willing, our five candidates will be ordained to the priesthood in about a year’s time, but the Church ordains them today as deacons, which is expressly described by the Second Vatican Council document Lumen Gentium as ‘a ministry of service.’ As deacons, they are to be dedicated to duties of charity and administration of sacraments. As servants who have received the sacramental grace of ordination, whose chief visible role is servant ministry, deacons serve as a bridge between the sacramental life of the Church with the servant life of the Church, both of which fundamentally require sacrifice. Our reading this morning from the Book of Numbers (3:5–9) provides a foreshadowing of the liturgical and communal ministry of deacons in the Church. The Levites’ ministry of service to the community of Israel was grounded—as well as reflected—in their ministry of service in the worship of God’s presence in the tabernacle. Even though none of us here were around at the time of the Levites ministry, this ancient account that links holy orders, worship, and service, all bound up in sacrifice, should sound familiar to us. After all, Christ, being the sacrificial lamb prophesied by ancient Israel, has authorized his Church—his bride—to exercise ministry that likewise links holy orders, worship, and service.
So, what does that ministry of service look like for deacons? Well, two days ago, I went to the Royal Opera House to see the opera Boris Godunov. It’s a story that takes place in Russia during the time of the Tsars. As such, Russian Orthodox clergy and monks play a big part of the plot. There’s a scene in the opera when the Russian Patriarch denounces a pretender to the Russian throne, and immediately a deacon pops out of Moscow’s St Basil’s Cathedral and in bold, gravely operatic fashion begins singing the pretender’s name, followed by the word ‘anathema.’ And let me tell you, the deacon without losing any breath repeats, and repeats, and repeats the word ‘anathema’; singing liturgical bits posed no problem for this operatic deacon! Due to his performance, there’s no question about the status of the pretender: the people of Russia are convinced, and the pretender no longer wields influence.
I’m sure our candidates today would love to have a similar opportunity to declare operatically an enemy of church and state anathema—just give them a few more voice lessons, assuming they need any. That, however, was the fictional life of the stage. This is real life, and real life is actually far more exciting than what any stage can offer. In the real world and real time our parishes occupy, we are confronted with the real and messy drama of homelessness, broken families, unemployment, emotional troubles, debilitating health, and death. We also have the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Mass. Just to use my parish as an example, over the last month we have had the sudden deaths of two devout parishioners, the steep fall of health conditions of several other parishioners, and a noticeable increase in requests for help by the homeless and mentally ill at the church and vicarage door. While all that may sound dismaying, at the end of the day we as a parish are empowered to address even the most distressing matters because we have God with us in the sacraments. Deacons, by virtue of their order, are called to stand right at the crossroads of the sacraments and of service—in other words, deacons are at the very centre of the Church visible and invisible in all her sacrificial glory. Deacons serve the distressed in the world because they embody service in the liturgy of the Mass. The final act of the Mass—the dismissal or the ite, missa est—is reserved for the deacon to say or sing in order to connect what we have just received from the altar to what we are called to do when we depart the church. The Rt Revd Frank Weston, Bishop of Zanzibar, gave a powerful address at the Anglo-Catholic Conference of 1923 that spelled out this connection: ‘You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.’
This exhortation is directed to all Christians who worship and adore Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, but perhaps it might not be too much of a stretch to suggest it reminds us that deacons bear a particular responsibility to ensure that the Church does not forget the innate relationship between whom we worship and how we serve. Indeed, deacons must call the Church to be part and parcel of the lived-out reality of the embodied existence. We would do well to heed the words of Pope Francis in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium where he states: ‘Today, our challenge is not so much atheism as the need to respond adequately to many people’s thirst for God, lest they try to satisfy it with alienating solutions or with a disembodied Jesus who demands nothing of us with regard to others.’ In their visible ministry of service at the altar and on the parish streets, deacons ensure that the Church isn’t simply an insular club of lofty ideals and abstractions, nor is the Church simply a social service agency, but the Church calls everyone into a sacrificial relationship with God and with one another. Only by doing this can the Church evangelize faithfully.
William, Alan, Angus, Mike, Yaroslav—I now pose to you what I began with: what criteria have you fulfilled to be ordained into the sacred order of deacons in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church? Are you prepared to receive the indelible, ontological change that will make you literally, in the Greek, diakonos (or servants)? Let me warn you, that change upon your very soul will place demands on you. At times that demand will be joyful, but at other times you will feel the cost. In every moment, you will be called to sacrifice yourself to conform to the servanthood of Christ. You are now on the precipice between who you have been and who you are to become. My prayer for you is that above all other criteria you possess a willingness to take a giant leap of faith, trusting that God will transform you—like he’s done to Peter, Paul, and all saints throughout the ages—into ready servants for his kingdom. The rest is up to God. And my advice? I can’t offer anything more succinct or as relevant as what was advised to deacons 1,900 years ago by the great Church Father St Polycarp: ‘Be merciful, diligent, walking according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all.’
The Revd Eric J. Lobsinger is vicar of St Mary’s, South Ruislip. This homily was preached at the Ordination of Deacons by the Bishop of Fulham at St Andrew’s Church, Holborn on Saturday 29th June 2019.