The mould of Christendom has been largely shaped by its form of leadership. Traditionally this has been hierarchical in nature. The bishop is set at the top of the pyramid, the priest and then deacon below. The base is formed by lay people. Though it is often claimed that such a church is ‘diaconal’, in practice a hierarchical form of leadership negates this.
I believe that in the case of the diaconal church, the image of the pyramid should be replaced by that of a circle. In relation to that circle, lay people form the circumference, or outer ring, as they are the church’s primary resource for its mission of kingdom community building in the wider world.
Working inwards, there are three other rings. These represent the commissioned leadership of the diaconal church. What is officially called the full-time (or permanent) diaconate forms the first ring encountered. An important form of leadership in the early life of the Christendom church thereafter neglected, ‘a renewed diaconate’ is gradually being re-instated across many denominations. However, rather than being simply an assistant to the priest, and undertaking a mainly liturgical and pastoral role, within the diaconal church the deacon takes on the responsibilities of a ‘mission enabler’ and becomes a member of an order of mission. His or her task becomes that of educating and equipping lay people for their task of kingdom community building in society and world. Where deacons are also part of a religious order, as in the case of the British Methodist Church, the role of mission enabler receives even greater impetus and support.
The priesthood forms the next ring in. The priest is the custodian of the historic resources of the church. In the diaconal church, priests form an order of continuity. As such, the role of the priest (presbyter) is concerned with enabling the gathered church to reflect more fully the gifts of the kingdom community – life, liberation, love and learning. Thus the priest (presbyter) animates the gathered church to exemplify what it means to be a kingdom community which nurtures and educates its members to become kingdom community builders in the world. At the same time, the priesthood carries the responsibility for ‘planting’ new forms, or ‘fresh expressions’ of gathered church. These too become symbols of continuity and a mission resource for the laity.
Within the diaconal church, deacon and priest (presbyter) have equal status.
The bishop ‘stands’ at the centre of the circle. His or her responsibility is the support, encouragement and training of deacons and priests, and the overall ‘management’ and resourcing of the circle as a whole. The bishop connects all other rings, and acts as a focus for the unity and cohesion of the whole.
All these roles are forms of servant leadership and operate in close co-operation.