Expanding diaconal sacramental theology
by Michelle Owens
When I was at the DOTAC gathering in Vancouver this week (Diakonia of the Americas and Caribbean), we celebrated communion together. With one of the Deaconesses of the Wesleyan Methodist Order presiding, we celebrated with gluten free bread and grape juice – the familiar ritual intentionally opening space so that the divine presence in the elements might connect with the divine presence inside each of us – the Spirit indwelling.
Or perhaps your sacramental theology is different: sacrificial, or memorial, or centred on the body of Christ broken in bread and yet gathered in community?
My experience is that a discussion of sacraments can stir up a lot of emotions for diaconal ministers – particularly when we consider the denominational rule-making about sacramental authority. For some diaconal communities, a specific role belongs to the deacon at the communion table. In others, the authority is unclear or transitory. For some, presiding at sacraments is off limits.
I remember the joy of celebrating communion and baptisms with the congregations in my settlement charge. And I remember the arguments about where my ‘license’ to preside was valid: in any three of the congregations I served as minister, but neither of the two I supervised. The practice of licensing began to adapt, and for many diaconal ministers the license became for the duration of the pastoral relationship and within the bounds of the presbytery. At the 2012 General Council meeting of The United Church of Canada in Ottawa, a proposal to grant sacramental authority to diaconal ministers was included in the consent docket – prompting a request to have it pulled from consent, and sparking a lively and considered conversation on the Diakonia of the United Church (DUCC) facebook page.
It’s almost a truism to say that United Church diaconal ministers are not of one mind with regard to sacramental authority. And it’s also true that the discussion stirs up deep emotions and touches our sense of call, pastoral identity and understanding of ministry. Sacramental authority is entwined with power and staus in our church culture (if not explicitly in our polity). For many, the markers of ‘real’ ministry include the automatic right to perform sacraments granted to ordained ministers. Personally, I strongly suspect that one root of the exclusion of the diaconate from sacramental ministry lies in gender bias from the time of deaconesses.
I am tentatively hopeful that the newest shift in policy will provide more space for diaconal ministers to continue to shape our ministry practice in ways that best fit our contexts. I’m heartened that denominational staff came to hear our perspective on the proposal at last year’s DUCC meeting before taking it to the General Council in Oshawa. I’m excited to expand a diaconal sacramental theology – one that reflects on our sacramental practice, interrogates our context and celebrates the presence and action of God in our lives.
Michelle Owens is principal at the Centre for Christian Studies.