When the Association of Anglican Deacons in Canada (AADC) held its triennial meeting July 27-30 in Victoria, B.C., the role of deacons as ministers to those outside the church was front and centre, according to incoming AADC board president Canon Nancy Ford.
“The [wider] community was embedded in our discussions and our conversations,” said Ford, who organized the conference along with fellow-deacon the Rev. Wallace (Wally) Eamer. “We were each enriched by not separating ourselves into a group of deacons as clergy…we were seeing the challenges of the real world.”
Hosted by the Chapter of Deacons of the Diocese of British Columbia, the conference brought together more than 70 deacons from almost every diocese in Canada, as well as representatives from U.S.-based The Episcopal Church, to talk about poverty, homelessness and reconciliation.
The conference kicked off July 27, in the evening, with an address by Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada.
Reflecting on a famous line from Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” (“There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in”), May challenged the deacons to engage with the tension between the perfection of God’s creation and the pain and brokenness of the world.
May’s words set the stage for the next morning’s sessions, which featured a panel discussion by citizens of Victoria who had experience with homelessness and addictions. The discussion was followed by presentations on the particular challenges of homelessness for urban Indigenous people, and on food security.
Ford, who was a regular Anglican presence at the tent city that sprung up across the street from downtown Victoria’s Christ Church Cathedral in 2016, said it was important that the conference provide attendees with first-hand knowledge about issues of poverty and homelessness.
Sharing from her own experience with tent city, she noted that good intentions are often not enough to make real and lasting changes in people’s lives, and that “lovely acts of kindness that don’t change anything” are insufficient if they aren’t coupled with a wider analysis of the structural barriers marginalized people face.
“If you don’t have informed practice, you’re just flapping your arms in the wind,” she said.
Deacons, Ford noted, have a unique role among Anglican clergy. Where priests generally have a primary responsibility to a parish, deacons must reach out to the secular world—and in particular, to the marginalized.
She said she was encouraged to see that some of the deacons at the conference, who had questioned why reconciliation issues were emphasized, left feeling more engaged.
“I’d been hearing for a while…‘Why are we looking at reconciliation and First Nations? It’s not an issue in my diocese,’ ” said Ford. “After the presentations…people began to say, ‘I need to learn more in my diocese, and I need to make sure other people understand the importance of this.’ ”
Themes of reconciliation and relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians were woven through the conference, with a visit to nearby Songhees Wellness Centre for a banquet and a talk from an elder and residential school survivor on July 28.
The next morning, diocese of British Columbia Bishop Logan McMenamie spoke about the 470-km reconciliation walk from Alert Bay to Victoria he undertook in 2016, and Dallas Smith, former president of the Nanwakolas Council, talked about the importance of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people working together on reconciliation.
The conference also allowed time for participants to respond to The Iona Report: The Diaconate in the Anglican Church in Canada, released in October 2016.
The report included a number of competencies intended to outline the demonstrable skills deacons must cultivate, and Ford said participants questioned how these competencies could be implemented.
The Rev. Susan Page, a deacon from the diocese of Qu’Appelle, said the session proved helpful, but that more work was required on the competencies. She noted that many deacons had not yet read the report, and suggested a working group be set up to offer guidance on how these proficiencies could be fulfilled.
Ford noted that the AADC board intends to look into this issue in the fall.
While the conference gave deacons an opportunity to learn about how to engage with some of the pressing issues in Canadian society, it also provided space for them to discuss the joys and challenges of diaconal ministry with their peers.
“When you get a bunch of deacons together, irrespective of denominations or geography, there is a resonance there that…we don’t find elsewhere,” said Ford, noting that the unique role of deacons within the structure of the church means they face struggles that are not always immediately understood by priests or bishops.
Page said she found it encouraging to simply talk about the difficulties of the ministry with people who understood.
“I think the major impact of the conference was knowing that many of us face the same issues across the country,” she said, adding that the sessions on reconciliation and dealing with the impact of residential schools were particularly helpful.
Archdeacon Bruce Morris, archdeacon for deacons for the diocese of New Westminster, agreed that it was helpful to be able to network with other deacons, and that it reaffirmed for him the importance of diaconal ministry.
Morris is manager of a shopping centre in addition to being an archdeacon, and he thinks that as Canadian society becomes less religious, the role of deacons as ministers primarily to the secular world will only become more important.
“One of the things that I [gained] was a real enthusiasm for an increased understanding and appreciation for the relevance of ministry of deacons in the Canadian church,” he said.
The AADC also took time to celebrate the contributions of Canon Michael Jackson, author and deacon, diocese of Qu’ Appelle. He was honoured with the Maylanne Maybee award, which is presented by the AADC at every triennial meeting to recognize a deacon’s exemplary work.
Ordained 40 years ago, Jackson is the longest-serving deacon in the Canadian Anglican church.
Ford said the board, which includes new members, has asked for feedback on the conference, and plans on releasing a statement later this year.