The Permanent Diaconate in the UK and Ireland - an overview

 (A shorter version of this article appears in this week's Tablet) Forty years after the Vatican Council called for the restoration of the Permanent Diaconate, in Lumen Gentium, the ministry is gradually becoming established across Great Britain and Ireland. The first ordination to the permanent Diaconate in the UK took place in 1980. There are now 778 working in England and Wales. This year 34 men began training. In 2005, 57 ordinations are expected. Next year around 59 are being ordained. The first ordination in Scotland took place in 1986. There are now 30 Scottish deacons in place with a further 30 men in training. The Irish Church is in the final stages of receiving approval from the Vatican to establish their own Diaconate programme. While there has been a common application form since 2003, training for the Permanent Diaconate varies a great deal - although it is in all cases a mix of distance learning, weekend courses and week-long summer schools spread over three or four years. Birmingham and Hexham and Newcastle dioceses run their own programmes. St Bede's at Ushaw College in Durham is about to introduce a new course and Wonersh currently runs a Permanent Diaconate course for nine dioceses in the south of England. Scotland has its own nationwide diaconate training programme. There is a huge variation in numbers of deacons around England and Wales. Menevia and Salford still have none. Cardiff which only had one deacon, now has 14 in formation, expected to be ordained next year. Westminster, who until recently had just four deacons now has eight people in formation. The first person to be ordained this year will be Robert Levett, at St George's Chapel, Heathrow on 23 July, for ministry at the airport chaplaincy. Westminster's Diaconate programme director Canon Pat Browne said there was "a steady stream of enquires" about the ministry. A Permanent Deacon is able to preach, perform baptisms and preside at weddings and funerals. Some may already be employed by the Church, but most will have full-time jobs elsewhere. Candidates must be aged between 35 and 60. Most will be married. Single men will have to be celibate. If a deacon's wife dies he is not expected to remarry. It is important that the deacon's wife is a practicing Christian in sympathy with her husband's vocation. St Stephen the Martyr was the first deacon. Originally seven were chosen by the Apostles for service to the poor, to free them to evangelise. St Francis of Assisi was also a deacon. Fr Robert Plourde, Westminster's previous director of the permanent Diaconate, said: "The diaconate is not a poor man's priesthood. It is very much a vocation on its own. We see the role of the deacon as complementing the work of the priest - creating a Christian presence in the workplace. A deacon is a person someone might go to in the office when the have a problem or need advice." Deacon Peter Hinchey was one of the first to be ordained for Clifton diocese 19 years ago, when he worked for Rolls Royce. Married with three sons and ten grandchildren his duties did sometime impinge on his family life but he found the work "a great blessing and very enriching." Some critics have seen the introduction of deacons as an attempt to remedy the shortage of priests. However, as the Irish Conference of Diocesan Vocational Directors points out, the Vatican Council was calling for the restoration of the diaconate long before the decline in numbers of priests began. Their appeal for permanent deacons came alongside the call for other lay ministries, including lay readers and Eucharistic ministries. In 2002 the International Theological Commission lead by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ruled out the possibility of women becoming deacons. Cardinal Jose Martins, who was then secretary for Catholic Education said: " While 'deaconesses' indubitably did exist in the early days of the Church, they were not ordained in the same way as the priests were; they simply received a blessing, which was not a sacrament." Sister Maureen Farrell FCJ, who works on a council estate in Birmingham, said she welcomed the introduction of permanent deacons and was too busy to comment on the issue of women in the ministry. She said: "I do find the focus on one ministry in our church a little heavy-going. We focus so much on what happens at the altar and forget the other 23 hours of the day. So much of the work of deacons in unseen and so important. I have a friend who is a deacon and has a wonderful ministry to the sick. I also think it is helpful to see clergy in the Catholic church who are married." Kristina Cooper, editor of the Good News, said she had noticed that many people in the Charismatic Renewal were applying to be Permanent Deacons. "Once a person's faith comes alive they want to do more. This is a wonderful development in our church." Statistics for the Permanent Diaconate in England and Wales Westminster 4 A&B 20 Birmingham 66 Brentwood 8 Cardiff 1 Clifton 41 East Anglia 33 Hallam 7 Hexham & Newcastle 2 Lancaster 47 Leeds 21 Liverpool 102 Menevia 0 Middlesbrough 11 Nottingham 27 Northampton 27 Plymouth 21 Portsmouth 31 Salford 0 Shrewsbury 31 Southwark 78 Wrexham 9 Ukrainians 1 Foreign chaplaincies 0 Total: 778 deacons 3,765 priests & 1,363 religious priests 34 deacons began training in 2005

Share this story