A Fresh Appraisal of the Permanent Diaconate
As the Church marks the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, it is an opportune time to take stock of the deacon’s ministry. Its restoration as a permanent Holy Order was heralded in 1964 in one of the most significant documents of the Council – the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Baptising Babies and Clearing Gutters: A Fresh Appraisal of the Permanent Diaconate explores the theological impact in a way which is readily understood by the “nonspecialist”.
It also offers questions for personal reflection and group discussions in parishes. This interactive element will be particularly helpful for those discerning whether they might have a call to the permanent diaconate, and also for parish groups supporting aspirant deacons in formation. It addresses the current dearth of adult formation resources on the deacon’s ministry and plots a trajectory for the way ahead.
“Permanent Diaconate, gifted to the church through the 2nd Vatican Council, although almost 50 years old, is still in its infancy. Bridie Stringer’s research is a substantial contribution to our reflections on the nature of diaconate, and its practice and how it could develop for the benefit of Christ’s Church. I thoroughly recommend it to you.”
Rt Rev Christopher Budd, Bishop of Plymouth
“I am very happy to commend Dr Stringer’s book. She has done extensive research into the diaconate and its place in the life of the Church in this country and draws on extensive and perceptive pastoral experience. This will be an important guide for laypeople, deacons, priests and bishops for many years to come.”
Fr Ashley Beck, Dean of Studies,
Diaconate Formation Programme for southern England and Wales
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Bridie Stringer is a visiting lecturer in pastoral theology at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham and an active catechist and facilitator in the diocese of Portsmouth.
Mgr Jeremy Garratt, Rector, St John’s Seminary, Wonersh
In the early years after the restoration of the permanent diaconate, a newly-minted deacon moved, for reasons of work, from one diocese to another with his wife and family. The receiving diocese seemed to be completely perplexed as to what to make of him. His parish priest refused to allow him any function within the parish on the grounds that he was married and would give scandal to the simple faithful, and when he turned up at the cathedral and asked to ‘deacon’ at the Chrism Mass, no one knew what his liturgical functions should be and he ended up, like a senior altar boy, leading the procession in and out as cross-bearer. His understandable protestations fell on deaf ears and ‘Diocesan Crucifer’ remained his sole ‘diaconal’ function for the ensuing two years until someone eventually wised up to his status and allowed him to appropriate his legitimate ministry.
From those early days, nearly fifty years ago now, the local church has undergone a steep learning curve in its appreciation and assimilation of the role and function of the permanent diaconate. In her illuminating study, Dr Stringer has charted every aspect of that process in clear and thorough detail. In a way, the title, Baptising Babies and Clearing Gutters, is a fairly typical articulation of the way the role has been seen for much of that time. It comes from a comment made by one of the many deacons Dr Stringer interviewed in a comprehensive study she carried out as part of her doctoral research among permanent deacons ordained for the Southwark Province since the Order was restored as a permanent ministry in the 1970s. The book is based on that research and is a most valuable addition to works on the permanent diaconate.
The author traces the development of the diaconate from its scriptural roots through the patristic period and its decline when it disappeared as a permanent ministry remaining only as a transitional stage on the path to priesthood. She investigates the Second Vatican Council’s intentions in restoring the Order in its permanent form chiefly in recognition of the growing need to extend the Church’s pastoral and charitable outreach which could no longer be adequately met by the priesthood alone. Dr
Stringer unpacks the questions and dilemmas this decision has raised in relation to the renewed role and ministry of the laity, the relationship between permanent deacons and their bishop, and the widely varying response of the priests they work with. In her extensive survey, she leaves no stone unturned in exploring the effect of the restored permanent diaconate on the local Church, the reality of its implementation on the ground, the aspirations of those called to it, the expectations of bishops, priests and laity and, by no means least, the impact on a married deacon’s wife and family. She is thorough and fearless in facing all the more sensitive and problematic issues posed by the restored Order, including the question of the possibility of the ordination of women as deacons, stating clearly and objectively the
historical precedents and the arguments that have been advanced for and against.
All in all, Dr Stringer presents a hopeful picture of the future for the permanent diaconate, a future already taking shape in the way it continues to evolve and become more professional and more responsive to the needs and challenges of the Church today. The permanent diaconate has its own special character, which is developing, and draws on the deacon’s particular experience of marriage and family life, and engagement in the workplace and public life. As Dr Stringer comments in her final chapter, ‘[The permanent diaconate] is not only a restored ancient office, but a ministry reconstituted for its own time and characterised by an energetic engagement in the world in a way which is impossible for either priest or bishop. It is a ministry which can be moulded around the giftedness of the individual deacon so that all aspects
of his life – home, parish and profession can witness to the call of Christ.’
Baptising Babies and Clearing Gutters is a serious work but is written in an engaging and accessible way which makes it an ideal study book for any parish supporting or looking forward to a permanent deacon, and, indeed, any group within the Church looking for suitable subject matter for discussion and reflection. The two concise questions at the end of each chapter will readily facilitate this use, and the questions posed are relevant and challenging. This book will make a very significant contribution to the debate around the permanent diaconate and is an important addition to the genre.
Sister Victoria Hummell
I have to confess to having been rather sceptical about the permanent diaconate, whilst respecting the choice of those men who fulfil this role. However on reading Baptising Babies and Clearing Gutters, I have most certainly changed my mind. The title is very apt and engaging , Bridie describes the image of a deacon as ‘the minister with dirty hands’
Bridie Stringer takes the reader through the scriptural basis, theology of this vocation and the role of the deacon in today’s Church. This is accomplished with academic rigour and yet in a clear and accessible way. The author’s creditability is without question, this is not a book of theories. Bridie teaches on diaconal formation programmes and has used the deacons’ own reflections on their experience and the perceptions of the parish priest and parishioners of this role.
The scriptural account calls upon recent Biblical scholarship to make links with sacred service in the New Testament and that of commissioning in the Old Testament. There is a clear account of what may be understood about the role of deacons in the early Church and how it declined around the third century, as Christianity grew beyond the city and the role of the priest was further developed. It was the reasons for the restoration of the permanent diaconate following Vatican II that I found most compelling.
It is helpful to understand the very thorough training that a would be deacon undergoes, that will give confident to those who engage with them. The reported ministries of the deacon are varied, with the preparation for marriage often being dominate, which seems a very apt role for the married deacon.
The book enables the reader to better understand other roles within the Church, that of the bishop, the priest and the Extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. Women are not forgotten and Bridie tackles the controversial issue of the admission of women to Holy Orders. She includes some well researched and thoughtful study concerning women’s diaconal ministry
It is likely that in future in parishes, hospital and schools chaplaincies etc., we will meet more deacons and it is important that everyone understands the true nature of this calling. I would highly recommend Baptising Babies and Clearing Gutters. It is an excellent means of understanding, not only of the deaconate but also the role of the priest, bishop and the faithful. It will clear up many misconceptions. It is very well written, engaging and an easily readable analysis of the history, ministry and role of the deacon in today’s Church. The helpful points for personal reflection or group discussion at the end of each chapter brings a praxis to the reading