This is part two of a series on the diaconate we’re calling Diakonia looking at the amazing variety of voices within the ministry of deacons by diaconal candidate Dani Gabriel
In this installment, Dani interviews The Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry
Previous Series Installments
Part 1: Living with Jesus
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is the 27th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Bishop Curry talks a lot about the “Loving, Liberating, Life Giving” Jesus Movement. He says “Now is our time to go. To go into the world, let the world know that there is a God who loves us, a God who will not let us go, and that that love can set us all free.” Deacons will propel that movement forward. I had the privilege of interviewing Bishop Curry at the Association for Episcopal Deacons Triennial in Rhode Island. Here is the excerpted interview.
Dani: Why do we need deacons?
PBC: Why do we need deacons?
You know, this is going to sound strange, but the order of deacons has…particular integrity and authenticity that is somewhat unique…And by that I mean that most priests, it’s not true of all of them, but most priests and bishops are on the payroll of the church. So they’re seen as kind of professional Christians.
And, people listen to their pastor, priest, or their bishop. I mean, they really do. I don’t mean that they don’t. But there is a very different voice from a deacon who actually has a life and living in the world, what people call the real world, not just the church world, but the real world, and has a life in the church. They actually become the most profoundly bridg[ing] people in terms of leadership. They’re bridge leaders intrinsically. I mean that is the nature of the order, which is why the ordinal actually talks about the deacon bringing the hopes and needs of the world to the church and the church to the world, back and forth.
The deacon is at the intersection of world and church, if you will. Which is why the deacon reads the Gospel. I mean it’s not because it’s an honorific position. The deacon is reading the Gospel because it is the teachings and the life and the spirit of Jesus, who was God incarnate, who bridged Heaven and Earth. You see what I mean? Who is our bridge to church, our faith in the world. And so the deacon is that person, at the intersection. That’s a unique charism and calling for the deacon. It’s not the same for priests. It’s different for a priest. It’s not the same for a bishop. Though, the irony is bishops and deacons have the most in common.
I’ve been a bishop since 2000, that’s nineteen years. And, you know, I’m very much a priest, and I get that. When I retire, I’ll go and take a little church and be a priest. Some little congregation that they can’t get anybody else that they can afford to pay for, I’ll have a pension by then, so I’ll go and take a church, that’s fine. But the ministry that I do has a lot more diaconal elements to it. I think that is why deacons are actually linked to the bishop. Because those two ministries actually are very similar. If you look at the ordinal, at the ordination services of a bishop and a deacon, there are real similarities in the vows.
For example, in the preface to the vows for a deacon, the language it starts out… You know, “[every Christian is called to] follow Jesus Christ.” And then, “[God now calls you to a special] ministry of servanthood directly under your Bishop.” And [in the ordination of a] bishop…it actually quotes the passage where it says, “[Your joy will be] to follow him who came not to be served, but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many.” There’s a similarity between the orders of deacon and bishop. I think, the reason they’re linked together aside from historical precedent, that was the way it was in the beginning.
Go back to the acts of the apostles now. I know there’s debate as to what Acts 6 [says]. I know. I know there’s all this debate. Were these deacons or not deacons? It’s certainly diaconal ministry. Now, what the apostles had in mind, I don’t know. But it’s interesting that the apostles and deacons were tied to each other. The deacons were actually the administrative arm in that context. For both, administering the food and the supplies to the needy and also making sure that justice and equality was happening in the Christian community. That’s what was going on. The issue arose because some people saying, “Our widows aren’t getting…” You see what I mean?
And so the deacons were responsible for being instruments of justice and equality in the Christian community. As well as administering the food and supplies and whatever else people needed. They were directly tied to the apostles…apparently the apostles were trying to do it. And really weren’t doing it. They were running around running their mouths preaching. But so I think that intimate relationship has been there from the beginning. It’s in the origins and the two ministries are radically servant. They’re radical, and I mean radical servanthood ministries that really are tied to that thing in Mark 10, the son of man came not to be served, but to serve.
Now, having said all that, I think the deacon is positioned to summon the church to actually follow Jesus in that way of radical servanthood. Because you can’t write the deacon off as, “Oh, they just done the seminary, all they know is church stuff. They don’t know anything about the real world.” Well, deacons do know. I just met a lawyer who is a deacon. I mean, you think about it. I know people who work [as] accountants who are deacons. This person [I’m traveling with] is the COO of the episcopal church, the Chief Operating Officer who is a deacon. They know the world. You can’t write them off. You can’t just say their heads are up in the clouds. They know what it’s like down here on Earth. And yet they follow Jesus. If they can do it, you can do it.
Dani: That’s exactly what my archdeacon told me.
PBC: Yes, that’s the unique charism of the deacon and the unique voice of the deacon comes out of that. It really does. And [I] remember Bob Ihloff, who used to be bishop in Maryland…he preached, he came to one of our deacon’s conferences when I was in North Carolina. And it was on…’What’s the deacon’s voice in preaching?’ And that was one of the things I remember him saying, that the deacon has a unique voice. It’s not the same voice as a priest. That’s different. We need all of them together, you know, we’re the body of Christ. We need arms, and hands, and feet, and all that stuff.
But the truth is, the unique voice of the deacon, that’s not the same as a priest, not the same as a bishop. That unique voice actually brings the world and the faith together, and that’s powerful. And that’s calling the church to be what Jesus intended in the first place. Not just the church, the Jesus movement. I had to get that in there.
Dani: That’s good, that’s good. So you see things that no one else sees, right, from your position? So what is your vision for the diaconate?
PBC: Well, I mean, I really do [have a vision for the expansion of the diaconate]. And we’re actually getting there. We really are…I mean, I’m running into deacons virtually everywhere we’re going and I’m traveling around the church. So they’re there in good numbers and you can tell…I don’t think I’ve gone anywhere, with only one exception that I can think of, where there haven’t been deacons. That wasn’t true 20 years ago.
I mean, that wasn’t true 20 years ago. And some of it has been just a canonical change in Title 3, which was…2012. Which made the diaconate a normative part, not just [in] word, but actually had a process for it and all that kind of stuff. And it basically had the assumption that there would be deacons in every diocese. And that’s now actually happening. I mean it really is happening now. My hope and vision is that we will have real deacons. Real deacons. Not people who are trying to be junior priests. Not, you know, imitations. We don’t need imitations. Priests have an integrity in their order and bishops have integrity. We need deacons who are really deacons, who are living at the crossroads, at the interface of world and church.
I mean that’s why last night I talked about Francis of Assisi. People forget he was a deacon. And his whole life was modeled after following the teachings of Jesus and trying to follow His footsteps. For deacons to be the main people who voice and live that witness, calling the whole church to follow the teachings of Jesus, and to walk in His footsteps, that is…the primal calling of the church. I mean, that’s what the Christian community is about. I mean…we’re supposed to be followers of Jesus I thought. I could be wrong. But last time I checked…
So if that’s the case, the deacon is the primary witness to who we are to be as the baptized followers or disciples of Jesus. That’s what the deacon is, which is what Francis of Assisi did. That’s exactly what Francis did. He called the church from bishops being princes and princesses in royal purple, called us back to the holy poverty, to daring to take up the cross, and give up self, and follow Jesus. That’s the Jesus movement, the deacon is the primary inviter to the Jesus movement.
Let me tell you something, that’s a game changer. You’re talking about a church that is serious. I mean that’s my vision of the diaconate in the church. That [it] is the leaven that will leaven the whole lump. It really will…The deacons are poised, it’s like they’ve been pre-positioned by God, which I guess is the case, to do this. Because Francis, I mean I keep going back to Francis, but part of Francis of Assisi, he drove the church crazy, well drove bishops crazy because he was calling them to be what they were supposed to be in the first place. He was calling the whole church to do that and be that. Which is what a deacon is supposed to do.
And so anyway,…the revival of the diaconate in our time…I don’t think it’s an accident…I’m speculating now. You’ll have to get a scholar to back this up, but if you think…on the church before the 1960’s…the kind of outreach churches tended to do was they would have had scout troops maybe…Girls and boy scout troops…AA groups, that would have been part of it. There would have been foreign missions, outreach that would have gone overseas to support mission work around the world.
In the mid 60’s there started to be these urban priests. The urban priest movement, the church and city conference came along around that time, or late 60’s early 70’s…And the church was beginning to get engaged in a more direct way in public issues. So, it took a while. But it was beginning to do that. You had the urban church movement where parishes kind of on the Catholic model from Church of England, where you know, God became human, Word became flesh, the church must be present in the city, incarnate in the city…
So you’re beginning to get that in the late 60’s. So all that stuff is going on, but it’s in the 70’s that that stuff really takes fire. I don’t think it’s an accident that the re-emergence of the diaconate is coterminous with that emergence [of] a sense that part of what it is to be a Christian in the Christian church is to be engaged in the kind of radical service like Jesus. You know, washing the feet of the world. I don’t think that’s an accident.
And I got a feeling that people who were pushing the re-emergence of the diaconate knew that. I don’t know, they’re probably gone to glory now, but I got a feeling they would have known that. They read the Bible, they knew the history of the church, they knew the history of the diaconate and so I think you’ve seen a resurgence of a commitment to serving others. Sometimes it’s under the way of outreach or sometimes it would be everything from soup kitchens, to clothing closets, to peace and justice networks, and advocacy, and all that kind of stuff. That kind of stuff didn’t exist before about the early 1970’s. It wasn’t normative. Now you’d be hard-pressed to find very many episcopal churches where they weren’t at least doing something. You really would be hard-pressed.
Dani: What does the diaconate have to do with evangelism?
Ah, that’s actually it…I’m going back to Francis as a model. That Francis of Assisi became frustrated with the church that wasn’t reaching out and teaching people about Jesus and about His life, and about His teachings. And he was frustrated with a church that wasn’t, at least as consistently as it needed to, actually…walking in the footsteps of Jesus. And so Francis was busy…he went to meet the Muslims during the crusades. Part of what he was thinking about, he was going to convert actually. He later kind of backed off that a little bit with the Muslims, because he realized there’s some integrity there. That’s not my job. But it was evangelical mission. That was his thinking. So that when he was in Italy, he was actually trying to help people find a deeper faith. He really was…
See deacons are practical people.
Dani: Yes they are.
So they’re going to talk with practical people, you see what I mean? And so you’re talking about formation, preaching [and] spiritual formation is greatly in the hands of deacons. I don’t need them to teach Sunday school. I mean, they do that. But, I mean in terms of part of their job is to form people who are in the Christian community as people who dare follow the teachings of Jesus, not just the Christmas Jesus, not just the Easter Jesus, but the sermon on the mount Jesus.
That Jesus. Who follow Jesus and they’re following His footsteps in their lives, and will help people learn how to do that. That’s an evangelical. That’s evangelism through the church. They are also people who are supposed to be in the world which means because they probably, unless they’re retired, are working secularly. I remember a couple deacons in North Carolina, who were in secular positions, most of them were until they retired. And they would talk about all of the sudden they were having spiritual relationships and conversations with people in the workplace when people found out they were deacons…Whereas most priests if they’re working through the church, they’re in the church.
You know what I mean? That’s just the nature of the beast…they’re creatures of the temple…
The deacon is actually in the world. I mean priests are supposed to get out there too, but their ministry is in the world. And so they are part evangelists in the world. I know people quote a quote attributed to Francis. I don’t think it really was Francis. “Preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary use words.” Actually scholars don’t think he actually said that.
But even if he didn’t, it’s a good saying. But the irony of it is, everybody jumps to “preach the Gospel, and as necessary use words,” assuming we don’t need to use words. Now in 21st century America, you got to use words…In 21st century America, people don’t know the religious story, Christian or otherwise. I mean, we’re living in a pretty secular society. So, actually, this a context where you need some words…the deacon is positioned to…do as well as speak.
You ever read, it’s in one of the C. S. Lewis books, I want to say it’s in Mere Christianity. Where he talks about Christians as kind of this, like, not underground army, what does he call it? He talks about it as the good infection. They’re positioned around the world, they’re kind of a good infection, they’re in great positions of power, and they’re in workplaces, and they should be the good infection in the places where they are.
[He] talked about the incarnation as God’s good infection of creation. Deacons are particularly that good infection and can help and show the average person sitting in the congregation who is part of a community, here’s one way we do this. Your job is to be that good infection in the world. See the deacon is the role model to help folk actually be followers of Jesus in their lives for real. And not just in some vague, being a nice person sense. But in a real concrete sense of the teachings of Jesus…
And the dismissal. Go out and do it.
You’ve been fed, you’ve been set free.
We focus on the doctrines of the incarnation at Christmas and the resurrection at Easter, and that’s good. But how come there’s no focus on the Jesus who told parables about the first shall be last, and the last shall be first? The Jesus who told the parable of the good Samaritan. Not the way way everybody always reads it, but the real… Go back, read what he actually said with that. The parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus. Go back and read that one and have a good night sleep. I mean the Jesus who actually teaches stuff, who says stuff, and then who actually dared to live it. It got Him killed, but He actually lived it. That teaching Jesus…it was the teaching Jesus that the disciples first encountered. They lived with Him and they saw the congruence of what He was saying with how He was actually living.
It was by living what He was teaching them, both what He said and what He did, that they realized this dude is connecting us to God in a real way. This is the Messiah…There was a time in the history of the church, and this is true, and it’s one of the reasons that you see all these sermons, like Augustine and all these people in the first couple of centuries had these sermons on the sermon on the mount. Mainly Matthew 5-7, but also the sermon on the plain…I think in those two Gospel writers, what they were doing was bringing together a number of the teachings of Jesus into one coherent thing…Matthew’s gospel is divided into kind of five sections, which Matthew is kind of crafting that as a new Torah. And so the key to the new Torah, the teaching the sermon on the mount, is kind of like Jesus doing what Moses did. You see?
Dani: I did not know that.
PBC: Yeah. It’s designed literally to be that…it’s like the new Moses so to speak, or a continuation of Moses. There was a thing in Deuteronomy. Remember that God said, “I will send you a prophet like Moses.” Jesus is that prophet like Moses for Matthew…One time in the history of Christianity, the catechism of the church was the sermon on the mount. And that’s when Christians refused to serve in the Roman army. That’s when… You see? That’s when Christians were willing to sacrifice their lives rather than give total allegiance to the empire. It was as they drew close to the teachings of Jesus and dared to follow in His footsteps, that they were doing pretty profoundly counter-cultural things. When the church and the empire marry…the sermon on the mount no longer has the same [centrality]. And all of a sudden we get Christmas and Easter as the big things. I don’t think any of that’s an accident. And check this out, up till that time, early on Mary Magdalene was big. As soon as church and empire get married, we got to get her out of here. And all of a sudden you get hierarchy.
(I have a tattoo that says “Magdalene,” my daughter’s name, so I rolled up my sleeve.)
Dani: That’s my daughter’s name.
Is that your daughter’s name?
Dani: Yeah, Magdalene.
What a good name! Oh.
Mary, that’s my saint. That’s my saint. But she gets pushed out of the way. I mean, it’s not an accident. The teaching Jesus leaves too. And I don’t mean radical in terms of left wing, I mean radical from the Latin word radius…Radical in terms of getting to the root. That’s what radical is about. What the real root of it. That real Christianity that gets to the root of the Gospel and dares to live what Jesus taught. That stuff happens when the teaching Jesus is allowed to the Jesus who is Christ. And the deacon, you see?
PBC: The deacon is actually charged with that. That’s what Francis rediscovered and…If we rediscover that, if our deacons reclaim that, and I hear and see them doing it, I’m telling you, that will be a revival in the church. I guarantee it. And this little church will participate in a revival of this culture and this world…And I think I can see elements of it happening. I actually can.
I remember when Frank Griswold was Presiding bishop…He was leading a retreat for us and one of the things he said [was], “The more vestments and things you put on, the more within you must take off.” And what I think he was getting at by that, was that yeah bishops put on a lot of stuff, I mean vestments, you know, a lot of stuff, but if you are not emptying from within, that self-emptying, for God to fill that spot, then you will fall for the false notion that you are a prince or a princess of the hierarchical established church. You will fall for that nonsense…Because you ain’t got the power. You ain’t got the power. That’s not me playing humble, just telling you. Michael Curry doesn’t have it. I bring something to the table, I’ll own that, but everything I bring to the table does not have the power, the wisdom, the capacity, the endurance, all that stuff to do what a bishop is supposed to do. The only way I can do it is the way of genuine humility that you know your job is to serve…We didn’t even talk about that until we were resurrecting the diaconate. I don’t think that’s an accident. I really don’t. I’m not sure that any human being [knew]. But I think the Holy Spirit knew. And [the spirit] said, okay, “Y’all going to get a revival.” And that’s the way your country will get it. I think the diaconate was the key.