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An argument for broadening the scope of the diaconate in the UCA

 

Jason John,       Deacon candidate, Qld Synod

July 1996, 2nd edition July 1997

  Sorry about the formattig, this is a really old file...

Abstract

Deacons are ordained by the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) to work primarily with marginalised and disadvantaged people.  Deacons often work outside the church, and encourage and equip other UCA members to do likewise.  This ministry of service often brings great, and unforeseen blessings to the participants.

The diaconate should broaden its scope to engage in ministry to the marginalised creation around us.  This is not a change in direction for the diaconate, but the logical extension of its focus, and a practical response to the 1988 Assembly Statement to the Nation, and 1991 Assembly resolutions regarding the environment. Those deacons working in environmental areas will organise and encourage members of the UCA who are already involved in this area, and will be a bridge between the UCA, the environment, and other environmental groups.  In intentionally engaging with the environment, the UCA will discover, individually and corporately, how enriching the creation is to our Christian life.

 

Deacons today: on mission to humanity

The establishment of the renewed diaconate by the Assembly in 1985 (85:54:1), expressed the UCA's desire to ordain ministers to work "particularly among people who are marginalised, oppressed, suffering, the forgotten, the unlovely."[1]

Clearly, the intention is that deacons will "work for the most part outside the institutions of the church"[2]."being in places and among people where [UCA members] rarely go."[3]  However, the deacon does not simply do the mission work of the church on its behalf.  Rather, the deacon is an interface between the church and the rest of society.

Deacons, "hold before the church the model of service among those who suffer, and call the members to engage in such service."[4]  Deacons are called to be, "along with the scattered members of the congregation, a sign of the presence of God in the everyday world."  Deacons are to release those gifts in church members "that will enable them to share in this ministry of caring, serving, healing, restoring, making peace and advocating justice as they go about their daily lives."

Deacons not only work in the community, and help other church members to do so.  Through ordination they come to represent the church to the wider society, and the wider society to the church.  That is, deacons not only speak for the church when working outside, but also speak for the community to the church, making known the community's needs, issues, and insights.

As this two way flow develops, the church discovers that not only has it something to offer, but that it has something to receive from the wider world.  This has both a personal and corporate dimension.

Personally, as church members form significant relationships with others, they learn that not only are they blessed through the satisfaction they get from offering concrete help, but that those they set out to help have something to offer.  Real humility comes in being able to accept that help.

Corporately, the UCA, as it listens to other voices in the community, is challenged to rethink, refine, and represent its theology.  This process leads to a vibrant faith, and to many uncomfortable moments as we struggle to express it.

 

Broadening the scope: Deacons on mission to the world

The above section summarises the foundational thinking regarding the ministry of Deacon. It is vital to remember that the Assembly task group was "convinced that flexible patterns are needed to revitalise the historic ministry of deacon."  The task group hoped to provide a "permissive and liberating"[5] framework.  It is essential that the diaconate remains open to whatever forms of ministry God may initiate.  The following proposal is, I believe, entirely consistent with the UCA's hopes for the diaconate, and the Assembly's own declarations on environmental issues.

Deacons are to work with the "marginalised, oppressed, suffering, the forgotten, the unlovely."  That such people exist, and that there is hope for change, was the basis of the renewal of the diaconate.  It is not only people, however, who fall into those categories.  Nobody who reads a paper, or watches documentaries, could fail to acknowledge that the environment itself has been pushed to the margins of society's consciousness until recent decades.  Defenceless individuals and communities in the animal and plant kingdoms continue to be oppressed, and to suffer.  The cute species, and the beautiful landscapes often survive, but the unlovely ones are soon forgotten.

Many environmentalists take for granted that the exploitation of the earth is significantly if not entirely due to the so called Judeo-Christian ethic of the West.  This is, however, a very simplistic understanding, and several recent works attest to the strong thread of environmental responsibility, and love for the environment, in both the Scriptures and Christian tradition[6]. They argue that the creation stories present humanity as intimately connected to creation, being made from earth, and charged to be good stewards, rather than exploiters of creation.  The creation is very good, it was created by Christ himself, and nothing in it is unclean. John testified against the gnostics that created matter was good.  Francis of Assisi and many of the mystics give ample testimony to their special reverence for the whole of creation.  An increasing number of Christians in Australia believe that their treatment of the environment is a reflection on their relationship with God. 

If we are to convince others that Christianity is not responsible for, and is indeed opposed to exploitation of the environment, then we must be seen to act.   That the UCA accepts a responsibility to creation is made clear in the following statement to the nation:

  Assembly Resolution 91.14.18 "Rights of Nature and Rights of Future Generations" [7]

"In view of the fact that [God's covenant with creation] is being undermined by lack of human moderation. We support the attribution of rights not only to humans but also to nature, God's creation, and we reject the view that animate and inanimate nature are mere objects which stand at the arbitrary disposal of the human

We call upon the churches to make room for God's covenant with creation within the realm of law by committing themselves at all levels to recognition of the following "Rights of Future Generations" and "Rights of Nature.

1.Nature .animate or inanimate .has a right to preservation and development.

2.Nature has a right to protection.

5.Disturbances of nature require a justification. Damaged nature is to be restored whenever and wherever possible."

  Bold as this statement may be, it represents a weakening of the position outlined in the 1977 and 1988 Statements to the Nation.

  "We will challenge values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed.

We. will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth's resources                                                                       (1977)

We affirm our belief that the natural world is God's creation; good in God's eyes, good in itself, and good in sustaining human life. Recognising the vulnerability of the life and resources of creation, we will work to promote the responsible management, use and occupation of the earth by human societies.

We will seek to identify and challenge all structures and attitudes which perpetuate and compound the destruction of creation."

   

In the 1988 Statement, the UCA committed itself to action, whereas the 1991 document lays responsibility with government.  Surely, however, it would be hypocritical to lay such obligations on the rest of society while backing away from the costly action it promised in 1988.  Since the UCA's members benefit from the exploitation of the rest of creation, surely we have a corporate responsibility to make amends.

 The weakening of the Assembly position on paper, and, for example, the inability of the SA Synod to enact all but the most conservative of its environmental resolutions (appendix 1)[8], bodes poorly for any meaningful input of the structural, visible, UCA body into the environmental/creation care movement.  The deafening silence of the 1997 Assembly on environmental matters affirms that we need people, authorised by the Assembly and Synods, to hold before them their bold commitments, and to push for action.  We need to set aside recognised, and adequately resourced, leaders who are able to move, in both church and environmental circles.

 The focus of the diaconate, as outlined at the start of this paper, makes deacons an obvious choice as leaders in the church's mission to the rest of creation.  Exactly how that will work in practice is, of course, flexible, but the summary presented in the first section provides a useful framework.

 Deacons will "work for the most part outside the institutions of the church".  Indeed, "At times they may be given permission to take up positions in community or government agencies in which their diaconal ministry can be exercised."[9]  It is therefore possible that deacons could be partly or fully employed by any  non church conservation organisation which was willing to have a deacon on the staff.  Even if employed by the church, consultation and cooperation with such agencies will clearly be desirable.

 Deacons don't only work for the church, they empower church members to be involved.  There are already many UCA members interested and involved in environmental issues.  One function of environmental deacons could be to coordinate, resource and network such people to provide an atmosphere of mutual encouragement, and allow for larger, more efficient projects to be undertaken.  They will also bring the work of such people to the attention of the wider church.

 As somebody with a mandate to move within and without the church, deacons are well placed to encourage cooperation between church and non church environmental groups.  One task is to facilitate the exchange of information and assistance between the church and the wider environmental movement.  A specific task will likely be to foster understanding between those who blame the church for the environmental crisis, and some Christians who interpret any sign of awe for creation as New Ageism.  Deacons will not only speak for environmentalists within the church, but for the environment itself.

As with working with people, Christians will discover, possibly to their surprise, how much we gain from joining the struggle for the environment:

As individuals, we will join Paul in experiencing the groaning of creation, and the creation's attestation of the glory of God.  We will see more deeply just how much the rest of the creation gives to us, how vital it is for our survival.  In meeting non Christians with a shared interest in the environment we will be reminded that Christians are not the only ones with passion and the ability to do good, sacrificial deeds.

 Corporately, our worship will be enhanced as we bring a greater awe of the creation with us, and experiment with new ways of allowing the creation to speak to us of God's glory, and our frailty.  In grappling with the charges of other groups, we will find ourselves rethinking, refining and representing our theology and faith. 

The church's engagement with the environment and environmental issues has already begun amongst individual members, deacons are well placed to ensure that the UCA structures encourage and resource them.

   

References

 

Bertel, R., Dyer, K., Gray, B., Is Christianity Green?  A critique of some accepted views of the relationship between Christianity and environmentalism: A discussion paper.  Mawson Graduate Centre for Environmental Studies, University of Adelaide, Occasional Paper No. 8. 1995.

 Task Group on Ministry of the Church, Report on Ministry in the Uniting Church in Australia (Uniting Church Assembly Communications Unit 1991).

 Uniting Church In Australia , Rights of Nature and Rights of Future Generations,  Resolution  91.14.18 (1991).

 Wansbrough, A., Environmental Issues - Review of Uniting Church in Australia policy and action,

Assembly/NSW Synod Environmental Task Group, May 3, 1994.

 

Appendix 1: SA Synod resolutions on the environment

 1989 Synod

     8. Environmental Issues

 

     That the Synod:

     8.1 recognising that the critical state of the world's environment demands a serious and urgent

     response from the Christian community,

     a. draw the attention of the whole church to the church's participation in destroying the environment

     and the need for us to affirm in word and life:

          i. the sacredness of all creation and God's passionate concern for its care and well being;

          ii. the redemptive work of Jesus Christ which is for all the created order;

          iii. God's call for us to participate with Him in healing the earth and proclaiming the recreation

          and reconciliation of all life through Jesus Christ;

          iv. the consequent need for a re-orientation of our theology and its practice, in ways which

          express our respect for creation and all people and which do not place development and our

          respect for creation in conflict.

     b. endorse the One World Declaration and urge parishes, Presbyteries and Synod agencies to sign it

     before the end of November 1989, and explore the implications of such an endorsements for their

     own life and witness.

     c. request Standing Committee to appoint a person or persons to conduct worship preparation

     seminars related to environmental concerns and associated theological and spiritual issues, and tied

     to the lectionary, for use on a number of Sundays up to Synod 1990.

     d. request Business Committee to allocate a portion of the 1990 Synod to a further review of

     environmental issues, such a segment to include:

 

     i. sharing on how parts of the church have responded to clauses 8.1 b and c, and the insights gained

     and impact made;

     ii. a corporate act of repentance and re-dedication in terms of clause 8.1a.

 

     e. request Standing Committee to canvass further ideas and submissions, to assist the church in its

     reflecting and acting on this issue. (89.43)

 

     8.2 to provide a model for other church committees and agencies and, in recognising that to tackle

     the big issues we often have to start small, undertake as far as possible to:

 

     a. minimise the use of paper and other resources and use recycled paper for printing purposes.

     b. use washable, not disposable, cups, plates and utensils.

     c. use paper envelopes, not plastic bags, for mailing purposes.

 

     8.3 encourage the performance of the practices outlined in clauses 8.2 and other practical measures

     for the responsible use of our environment and resources in all sections of our church. (89.45)

 

As far as I have been able to ascertain, the only resolutions that were ever acted on were those in 8.2, in the Synod building itself.



[1] Task Group on Ministry of the Church, Report on Ministry in the UCA,  (1991) p. 40.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid p. 45.

[4] Ibid, p. 40.

[5] Ibid p. 46.

[6] Bertel et al, Is Christianity Green?, contains both summaries of the attacks on Christianity, and the defences mounted.

 

[7]  Uniting Church In Australia, Rights of Nature and Rights of Future Generations,  Resolution  91.14.18 (1991).

[8] Details of other Synods can be found in Environmental Issues - Review of Uniting Church in Australia policy and action, by Ann Wansbrough, on behalf of Assembly/NSW Synod Environmental Task Group (May 3, 1994).  Victoria appears to have been most active, but overall the situation is characterised by the generation of lots of paper, and little concrete action at a Synod or Assembly level, or funds to resource congregations or small groups to do anything.

 

[9] Report on Ministry, p. 44.