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Reflection on the diaconate in the Diocese of Arundel & Brighton

The Place of the Deacon in the Diocese of Arundel & Brighton, England – A Personal Perspective. Mark Woods

Mark Woods, communications officer, assistant director for Diaconate Formation Mark Woods, communications officer, assistant director for Diaconate Formation This reflection on the diaconate in the Diocese of Arundel & Brighton is a personal one, but as the Communications Officer for the diocese I have a wide knowledge of the life of the Church across the whole diocese. I am also one of the assistant directors for Diaconate Formation so am able to be involved with those preparing for ordination and how they are received in their parishes.

A Bit of History
The Diocese of Arundel & Brighton situated in the south east of England was founded in 1965 as a child of the Second Vatican Council. It covers the majority of the county of Surrey and the counties of East and West Sussex together with the City of Brighton and Hove. There about 40,000 Mass going Catholics in about 95 parishes with approximately 100 priests.

The diocese covers one of the wealthiest parts of the country, but there are, as ever, pockets of both rural and urban poverty to be found even in this well off diocese. In terms of the Catholic population, there has, as elsewhere in the country, been a large influx of immigrants especially from Poland, the Philippines and India, but also from elsewhere especially Africa.

Yet, this is nothing new for the Church in England and Wales has since 19th century been a Church of immigrants initially from Ireland and then after Second World War from Poland, the Ukraine and Italy. All this provides some of the context into which the diaconate in the diocese exists and help to shape and challenge it.

The Diaconate has a long history in the diocese, comparatively speaking, as Eric Kilminster (now deceased), the first deacon for Arundel & Brighton and second ever in England and Wales, was ordained by Bishop (now Cardinal) Cormac in 1976, though his initial ministry was in the Gulf state of Bahrain. The diaconate formation process in the diocese did not begin in earnest until 1981 when four men began training of which three were to eventually be ordained.
Since Eric’s ordination the place and role of the diaconate has grown and deepened in the diocese. At the time of the silver jubilee of the diocese in 1990 there were 10 deacons. As we approach the golden jubilee of the diocese in 2015 there are four times that number. Currently there are 36 active deacons in the diocese with 9 retired deacons. The majority of deacons are married though we have two celibate deacons, one a widower at ordination and the other single.

There are currently six men in training with 2 of them to be ordained this year. A recent Deacon Information Day brought along 9 interested men of which a couple are moving forward to possible selection for the diaconate and others are still praying and reflecting on the possibility of a diaconate vocation. In terms of its organisation the Diaconate Formation Team has been run by Deacons rather than priests for about 8 years now though with a priest as an adviser on the Formation Team. Diaconate Formation takes place with 6 other diocese at the Diocesan Seminary near Guildford, Surrey over a period of 4 years with a fifth year, post-ordination, for those who go on to complete a Masters degree in theology. Alongside the studies pastoral input also takes place as part of the training and in the diocese and local parish.

The deacon in the parish
The majority of deacons in the diocese exercise their main ministry in a local parish and mainly in the parish they had previously attended before ordination. Unlike many other European countries very few of deacons in this diocese are in paid parish positions. There is currently only one deacon who is a paid pastoral assistant. The majority of deacons carry out their ministry whilst working full or part-time or in retirement.

In a parish a deacon in this diocese could be involved in all sorts of roles from sacramental ones such as baptisms, funerals and marriages to catechetical ones leading formation programmes, from ecumenical engagement to assisting with parish social action projects such as food banks. A few deacons are working in parishes other than their own original parish. One deacon felt his original parish already had a deacon so the Bishop gave him permission to work in a different parish especially as that deanery had few deacons and the particular parish had many social needs to which the deacon could bring his knowledge and experience to from the world of work. Indeed as the number of deacons grows it is more likely that this type of agreed reassignment will be more common.

The deacon outside the parish
There is a growing role of the deacon from this diocese in ministry outside the parish. In this diocese we have deacons who are chaplains at Gatwick airport, in a prison, at the ports on the south coast, in hospitals and to the ambulance service. There are also many who work outside the parish proper as chaplains to Catholic organisations such the Deaf Service, Lourdes Pilgrimage, men’s organisations and Caritas organisations. These ministries are a growing role for deacons not just in replacing priests who used to carry out these roles, but actually involving themselves in ministries in which priests were generally never involved such as chaplaincy to public service organisations such as the ambulance, police and fire service. Indeed as the number of deacons grows there will increasing be a role for deacons in these important ministries.

The deacon in the diocese
Bishop Kieran Conry, deacon Stephen Sharpe and deacon Richard Edwards Bishop Kieran Conry, deacon Stephen Sharpe and deacon Richard Edwards There are also a number of deacons in key roles working for the diocese itself so that I am the Communications Officer, a deacon is leading the Diocesan Pastoral Team and another is the Director of the Lourdes Pilgrimage Team. All have been appointed on merit to these paid roles, but they bring not just their work skills to the role, but also the sense of ministry which makes them more than just another job. Again this will, in all likelihood, be a growing area of involvement for deacons as the diocese seeks to make use of their work and ministerial skills. This does not mean the role of the laity is diminished. Indeed in this diocese lay people play a key role along side deacons and priests in working to support the mission of the diocese at the service of the local Church and community.

The challenges for the diaconate in this diocese
Most deacons find that their ministry is welcomed in the parish and that there is great support from both priests and parishioners. The Bishop, Kieran Conry is also very supportive of the deacons’ ministry and offers good support to deacons and understands their value for the diocese.
There is, however, still a sense that people do not always understand the role of the deacon, being used to full-time celibate clergy only. Many people, for example, do not realise that those below retirement age receive no salary from the parish and must earn a living. This can lead to a conflict of expectation as to time and availability and the deacon needs to manage this.

There are occasions on which priest and deacon do not work well together, but this usually due to a breakdown in communication. Very occasionally it is not possible to restore a proper understanding which usually means that the deacon will move parish or will just have to stick it out and wait for a new priest to eventually come. Fortunately this is now rare, and is tackled during formation by supporting deacon and priest in developing an agreed plan for their ministry, once ordained.

There are other challenges that face both the Church and deacon. A growing inequality, especially in this wealthy part of the country, and globally requires the deacon to respond in charity to help support the parish and diocese in challenging society to action and change of policy.

The influx of new immigrants also raises questions for the diaconate. Immigration brings both joys and challenges to many parishes and much work to bring these new immigrant Catholics into the life of the parish whilst remaining alive to the cultural and social life and practice of these communities. At the moment no men from these new immigrant communities are yet in formation for the diaconate.

Overall since that first ordination in 1976 the diaconate has grown and developed and now seems an integral part of the life of the diocese. There are, however, challenges and opportunities as we approach our Golden Jubilee as we try to understand anew this order of the Church with ancient roots and its place and role in the diocese for the future.

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