Here's St Francis placing the Child in the crib at Greccio, in a detail from Giotto's fresco in the Upper Church in Assisi. I used this image in my Christmas Day post last year (you can read what I wrote here, if you'd like to). Francis is wearing his deacon's vestments: you can see his dalmatic, the livery of a herald, for the deacon is the one who proclaims the Gospel - liturgically and in day-to-day ministry. You can't see his stole, but that is also a distinctive mark of a deacon. Unlike a priest's stole it's worn across the shoulder and (traditionally) tied, as you'd want to tie up your flowing garments to do the washing up or serve at table - because deacon, of course, means servant. As does the Latin minister. Some people think the Greek word diakonos comes from dia and konis - literally, "through the dust".
I've been thinking about this picture of St Francis (who remained in deacon's orders all his life) throughout this year, because 2012 marked the Silver Jubilee of my ordination as deacon. (And that makes me feel rather old. I was a lay deaconess for three years before that - an order now almost, but not quite, extinct in the Church of England. When I recently told this to a group of very young-looking ordinands they looked at me as though I'd said I'd known Cranmer).
At the weekend I discovered a blog called Let Nothing You Dismay (reflections on theological and churchy things). A lot of interesting reading there, but what caught my eye particularly was this. It seems that in the Anglican diocese of Hereford women were encouraged to wear aprons to church last Sunday as a protest against the General Synod's vote against women bishops (the idea, as I understand it, being to symbolise the subservient place in which women were felt to be kept by the decision.) As you might have noticed, I haven't posted anything about this issue, deliberately: not because I've no thoughts about it but because I don't feel I have the right. I'm no longer an Anglican. And because I really don't want to enter into debate: I've decided I don't want this to be that kind of blog, though it works for others. (This is partly because of a sense of been there, done that: see note above about my feelings of age!).
But I think it's OK for me to say how I feel about what I read, and that is - well, dismayed. What felt uncomfortable was that it would be so easy to see this as saying something quite disturbing: that the role of a silenced, tea-making skivvy is the only alternative to ordained high office. I wonder what some of the strong, powerful and courageous women who have shaped Christian history might say about that: I'm thinking of Scholastica, Clare, Hilda of Whitby, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila and so many others. Not to mention those in our own day. Worse still, does it hint that service is the polar opposite of ministry? As someone commented on the blog, "Is that how the Body of Christ behaves?" Sadly, yes it is. We do. And worse, God forgive us.
Shortly after reading about all this, my spirits were lifted by listening to Radio 4's Food Programme, about the role food plays in different faiths. I was humbled and shamed by the example of so many energetic and feisty people - Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh - who spend their time serving others in food banks, soup kitchens and so on. "I am among you as one who serves," said Jesus. "He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant."
I expect some of them were wearing aprons.