Earlier this week CCS principal Maylanne Maybee was given an honorary doctorate by Trinity College for her life-long work toward the restoration of the diaconate. Here is her address at the convocation: …
Chancellor, Provost, fellow Honorary Graduands, Matriculating Class, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Thank you for this honour. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to earn an honorary doctorate. There are many, many here this evening, and many others, who should be standing up here with me.
The Trinity website says that I am receiving this award “in recognition of my unique contributions to the church’s order of Deacons.”
HOW DID I GET HERE?
As a pious teenager in the 1960s, I once heard a sermon given on “Vocation Sunday” encouraging young men to think about becoming a priest. When I asked the preacher what a girl could do, he suggested I could study music or home economics and become a nun or a missionary or marry a priest. I did think about some of those things and try others.
In the early 1970s it was still very controversial for women to be ordained, especially to the priesthood, and I didn’t particularly want to wage that battle. Ever since that sight of Port Said in Egypt, I was more interested in dealing with poverty and injustice in the world, and in Canada, than doing parish ministry. So I wasn’t sure where I was being called.
It makes me think of a line from a play written by Scott Douglas, a colleague at the Centre for Christian Studies where I now work, that had Samuel as one of the characters. Here’s a clip of Samuel’s side of a dialogue with God when he thought he was being called: “What? What did you say? No, I didn’t hear it… No, it’s because you mumble. You do! You slur your words and… My hearing is as good as it’s always been, I’ll have you know.”
In any case, as I was wrestling with this, my classmate Alison Kemper put in my mind that there was this order called deacons and you didn’t have to just pass through it. In 1981 she drove me with three month old Richard, protected from the sun by a diaper draped over his head (Richard of Arabia), to Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana for a conference about “The Deacon” that changed my life. When I found out that there was a movement to restore the diaconate, I knew instantly and profoundly that that was where I belonged.
WHAT WAS I THINKING?
I decided to write my M.Div. thesis on the origins and development of the diaconate and the reasons it should continue and be renewed as a distinctive order of ministry.
I was drawn to the idea of liminality, articulated by the anthropologist Victor Turner – that place at the margins of social systems inhabited by poets and monks and street people and clowns. It’s a threshold place of “energy from the edges” that is characterized by communitas, an unstructured community where people are equal and experience the spirit of community. I saw a renewed diaconate as a state of sustained liminality that might invite equality and community among unlike people, especially those excluded by the Church as it was presently structured.
The French philosopher Simone Weil echoed this notion in her life and thought. Though a brilliant academic, she chose to teach high school, to work in a car factory, labour in vineyards, to be alongside ordinary, working people. She was raised in a Jewish family and converted to Christianity in early adulthood. It is said that she chose not to be baptized, or at least resisted the idea for a while, because she wanted to remain in solidarity with those whom the Church had rejected. There was something about that gesture that spoke to me.
I was also fascinated to discover in a book called Ministry, leadership in the community of Jesus Christ (1981) by the Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, that there was great variety and unevenness in the evolution of orders, and that contrary to the BCP, it was not at all evident that Bishops, Priests and Deacons existed from the Apostles’ time. Bishops and deacons perhaps, but priests not so much!
In his book I discovered that “priesthood” was about a Christic quality that is conferred at baptism and belongs to the whole assembly; that the subject, the “I” of the Eucharistic prayer, was not the presider, but the assembled People of God on whose behalf the presider spoke. That’s why some, including me, prefer the word “presbyter” (or elder), to distinguish it from the priesthood of our baptism. It was important for me, as it gave me full permission NOT to become a priest or presbyter, and yet to seek authorized leadership through ordination.
If presbyters feel called to preside at the altar, I felt called to stir up and lead outward, to explore and live into diakonia, the practical aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry that lead to transformation and communitas – his manner of listening and healing and touching and teaching, of paying attention to the cries and voices of Bartimaus and the Syro-phoenician woman, and to the tired, dirty feet of his disciples.
WHAT HAVE I LEARNED?
I learned that to serve the “poor and the weak” you have to deal with people of privilege and power. As I sought opportunities to practise diakonia through involvement in urban, social ministry, I met up with Bill Bosworth, a friend and classmate from undergraduate days who was working with something called the Single Displaced Persons Project. From him I learned about the difference between justice and charity, and the importance of directing our efforts for social change NOT toward the “poor and the weak” who know very well how to fend for themselves, but toward those with resources and influence who are in a position to make a difference.
I learned that church administration matters. Later, when I moved on to Church House, I learned about other aspects of diakonia from my colleagues Michael Peers, Jim Boyles, Alyson Barnett-Cowan, Esther Wesley, Ellie Johnson — about partnership as a different way of doing mission, about the importance of doing church administration and dong it well, about becoming aware of one’s privilege, about making the shift from local to global, but never losing sight of the local.
I learned that the essence of diakonia is ecumenical, especially since becoming principal of a United and Anglican theological school. To my United Church friends, I have come deeply to respect your church’s commitment to the principles of the social gospel, your struggle for theological integrity, your hunger and thirst for justice, your wide, warm embrace of sexual and racial diversity, your joyful, Spirit-filled worship. On a recent trip to China as part of a United Church delegation my eyes were opened wider to your vision of being a united and uniting church, and to the even greater possibilities of living into a post-denominational Christianity. I consider this ecumenical direction a vital mark of diakonia.
I learned that “servanthood” is a culturally specific understanding of diakonia. When I wrote my M. Div. thesis, the title I gave it was “The Diaconate: A Ministry of Servanthood and Leadership.” From a former student of the Centre for Christian Studies, the late Jung-Hee Park, originally from Korea, I came to see the cultural limitation of the terms “servant” and “servanthood.” Jung-Hee put it like this: “our focus is on creating a more just world, in which neither we nor anyone else bends the knee to a lower class or tiptoes to the powerful … I prefer to use and hear “ministry” rather than “service” as a translation of the Greek diakonia, and the words “partnership” and “friendship” rather than “servanthood.”
Her thoughts ring true to me. Along the way, I have discovered that diakonia is a paradox of self-emptying and raising up, of stepping aside and stepping up. It is a dynamic of creating the conditions for friendship and mutuality- either by voluntary displacement of one’s privilege, or by the courageous assertion of one’s gifts.
I confess that those many years ago I thought the Church would change more substantially than it has. I thought that the diaconate would thrive, that there would be a more level playing field for deacons and priests, some paid, some non-stipendiary, that as our congregations became smaller, it would open its buildings for social housing and community meals. I imagined that a renewed diaconate would provide balance to a priest-centred church and pull us–far more quickly and radically than it has — toward our citizenship in the world.
I sometimes think that God was indeed slurring words and I didn’t hear right– that maybe this idea of a renewed diaconate was badly timed and I just made an odd, one off choice that isn’t ultimately going to take hold in our Church. But even if I got the middle part wrong, I know I wasn’t wrong about the desired destination.
I dreamed about restoring the Order of Deacons, because I thought it would help us become a diaconal Church, a vulnerable and involved church that uses our resources for the common good, that brings our deep gladness to the places of the world’s deep hunger–for economic justice, racial justice, gender justice, for peace, for the reconciliation of peoples, for care of the Earth, our island home. That is the deeper and truer and more important dream, and you don’t need to be a deacon to pursue it.
WHAT DO I WANT TO LEAVE YOU WITH?
I’d like to end on a lighter note. The late Bishop Tim Matthews of Quebec once gave me a little poem he wrote on the back of an envelope. It clarified for me the distinctive role of deacons in liturgy and life. (He wrote it in the days when deacons were usually young, male curates, until their “ordination day” to the priesthood.) It might speak to you this evening.
He called it “The Deacon’s Plea to the Rector.”
I am the deacon, full of hopes and fears
Standing at the threshold of the years.
Give me the cup, that’s by tradition mine,
The deacon’s cup of Everlasting Wine.
The gospel too, that blessed word divine
is mine to read for you.
Give me the poor, the unbaptized, the ill —
these are the deacon’s charge until
my ordination day.
Till then I pray, that when my deacon’s days are through
I don’t become a busy priest like you!