As I have written before, in the Church of England we have three orders of ordination; Deacon, Priest (or Presbyter), and Bishop. The usual pattern for those expecting to be ordained priest is to serve the first year as a deacon, and then be ordained priest the following year. The diaconal year is an opportunity to focus on the servant aspect of being ordained, which is, in many ways, the foundational aspect of ministry, and never changes.
That said, I found it a slightly odd year, which felt for me personally to be more about what I wasn’t allowed to do! From a purely functional perspective, there wasn’t an awful lot to distinguish what I was doing as a deacon compared with what I’d been doing for the last 20 years!! I could spend the next 5 or 10 posts unpacking this, but even I would find that boring – so I’ll move on. Suffice to say for now that I am in no way diminishing the ministry of a deacon, or suggesting that the year was wasted or pointless.
What did catch me out a bit though was just how special my priesting ordination felt. In fact, at one point on my priesting retreat, late on the Saturday evening, I was a heartbeat away from phoning up the bishop to tell her I couldn’t go through with it!! But it was just a wobble, and after much prayer (and tears!) I finally went to sleep, and did indeed turn up at the cathedral the next day.
Reflecting upon it, I suppose there’s a number of elements going on which combined to make it feel the way it did.
Firstly there’s the sense of completing a journey (or at least a leg of the journey), of passing a milestone. Becoming a deacon had a temporary or transient feel to it, whereas last summer was reaching a waypoint to which I had been journeying probably since I was 19 or 20. It’s not the end of the journey by any means in terms of ministry, but it almost certainly is the ‘highest’ Order I will receive (I can’t imagine a scenario where I’d be ordained bishop!). There is no “next step” in that sense – this is now my life.
Secondly, on the day itself I felt a strong sense of commissioning and authority, in a way that I didn’t as a deacon. That I was receiving the full authority of the bishop (and the church) to minister, serve, and lead in the parish, as a Clerk in Holy Orders, and a Priest. That I can bless, absolve, and preside at Communion in Jesus name. Wowzers! I know a lot of this happened at my deaconing, but somehow last summer it felt a lot more real than the summer before, and it was scary, humbling, and exciting. I suspect a part of it was having had a year of being a “rev”, and coming to terms with what the means in practice. Which is in itself still very much a work in progress.
Finally, it was amazing and wonderful to preside at Holy Communion the following day. In one sense, the Eucharist is what sets us, as the Christian church, apart from all other religions and social clubs. That we break bread and share wine together in Jesus’ name is to my mind the defining characteristic of who we are and what we do. And be able to lead us all in this act of worship is an incredible joy and privilege.
I’m not wild about the term “priest” (except when it is used to mean the priesthood of all believers), and I am deeply uncomfortable with any cultic undertones or suggestion that my role shares anything other than name with the Levitical priesthood. I am not offering sacrifices, making atonement, or mediating between humanity and God – that job is already done. But I am perhaps helping us remember that this job has been done, and to help us pass on this good news to the world.