Unwrapping ecumenical diakonia: What are we talking about here?

Oct. 4, 2017

I confess there were moments in the first day-and-a-half of this Ecumenical Strategic Forum when I found myself lost in a cloud of words: diakonia, ecumenical diakonia, prophetic diakonia, sustainable development, peace, service, sharing, healing, reconciliation, faith-based/rights-based/justice-based….

All good. Clearly the hardest word for most is diakonia—that New Testament word that refers to service—but every kind of service from the specific sort of trying to help people in need to simply serving the tables. Many Christian denominations have deacons, or diaconal ministers. Sometimes that is a liturgical function: assisting the priest in the celebration of the Eucharist. In some Baptist churches that I know, a deacon is a member of the board who assists with Communion. In the United Church of Canada, diaconal ministers are “commissioned as a distinct from but equal stream within the order of ministry.” In the Anglican Church of Canada the office of “deacon” is sometimes a stepping-stone toward priesthood (transitional diaconate), but there are also those who are ordained to life-long vocational diaconal ministry. In a similar way, the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II has revived the “permanent diaconate” for teachers and preachers of the Gospel. They also preside at celebrations of baptism, funerals, matrimony, and visit the infirm, the imprisoned, and people in need. The United and Anglican churches have a joint training centre for diaconal ministry in Winnipeg: the Centre for Christian Studies. In our table group discussion, it was clear that there is a similar mix of applied meanings in churches around the world. 

But the World Council of Churches and the ACT Alliance are reviving the New Testament concept of diakonia as a sort of common vision or theological basis for churches’ engagement in action for sustainable development. 

The WCC Vancouver Assembly 1983 affirmed diakonia: “the church’s ministry of sharing, healing and reconciliation, is of the very nature of the Church.” 

Despite differences in the ways the word is used in diverse contexts, there is acceptance of the concept in this gathering. Diakonia can be understood as a worldwide movement of those committed to the vision of Christian service, action, and justice-making. What seems to be more challenging is what we mean when we talk about some related concepts.

One challenge was around talk of holding “faith-based and rights-based” action together. The argument for diakonia was accepted as a faith basis for action, but “rights-based” smacked of non-governmental organization jargon for something that lacked a theological basis, or which carried overtones of western imperial notions that failed to respect traditions and collective identities. Later, someone spoke of “justice-based” action. Later still, a speaker made a pretty fierce defence of human rights, saying that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was inspired as much by global faith traditions as it was by Western enlightenment notions of individual human rights.

Where participants came together most strongly was in response to very concrete descriptions of struggle. Fr. James Ovet Latango of the South Sudan Council of Churches—a partner of KAIROS Canada—spoke of his young country’s struggle to overcome violence and its lingering traumas. And my friend Jenny Neme of the Mennonite peace ministry Justapaz in Colombia spoke of her country’s struggle for peace with justice—gender justice and economic justice. Churches that support those values find themselves actively opposed by well-financed megachurches that operate with a very different set of values. 

Hospitality and Visitation

Late in the evening of the first day, I sat with friends after a good supper. One of the ecumenical elders was with us. He talked about the essence of diakonia being “hospitality and visitation.” These are ministries that each of us carries out in our “private” lives with minimal resources: receiving friends in need; visiting people who are sick or imprisoned. 

Someone asked: “Isn’t visitation part of mission?”

The response: “It’s visitation. Not invasion.” 

After a few moments, the distinction softened a bit and friendship resumed. The point of visitation is that we do it without an agenda: we’re not proselytizing or really expecting anything of the other. We visit (or we welcome) simply because we know it is the right thing to do.

One thought on “Unwrapping ecumenical diakonia: What are we talking about here?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s