Author: John N. Collins
Price: £47.99 RRP
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Publisher: Oxford University Press
The retail price of this book alone indicates that it is unlikely to rest on the bookshelves of the general reader with a passing interest in ecclesiology and biblical studies. Collins is of course noted for his groundbreaking work on the Greek cultural context of the word diakonia and other diakon- words in the New Testament. His 1990 work Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources has become a foundational text for those wishing to engage with the concept of diakonia, whether in the theological academy, or in the pastoral setting e.g. Lutheran lay ministry, the restored permanent diaconate in the Roman Catholic tradition or the commitment of all followers of Christ who ‘came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10.45). This sentence alone has provided a linguistic platform for Collins who has for many years roundly criticised pastors and scholars alike for interpreting this simply as a call to humble service.
This present volume gathers in many of the arguments and counter-arguments which have prevailed in the theological community about how diakonia is understood and lived out as ministry, both ordained and non-ordained. The rehearsal of the arguments includes a stellar cast – Kung, O’Meara, Power, Rausch, Woods, Osborne and many others who are the standard fare of ecclesiology courses worldwide. What is missing however in this volume is real optimism that diakonia can be made meaningful and real for those seeking to be good and faithful contemporary Christians. Mired in polemic, the book leaves this reader feeling rather dispirited that somehow we have misread the spirit of the New Testament, particularly the Letters of St Paul in casting diakonia as humble service. This has of course been aired very vocally in the context of the permanent diaconate in the Roman Catholic tradition where the ministerial foci are word, sacrament and charity with the emphasis being on the latter. Much ink has been spilt in The Pastoral Review and elsewhere on the resulting tensions which arise from this ‘misunderstanding’. It should also not be forgotten that although the pastoral outreach element of diaconal ministry is regarded as normative, it is an ordained ministry which continues to exclude women.
In the face of the scholarly debates, perhaps the only response for the non-specialist reader if one manages to take up this volume, is to surmise what Jesus, the Aramaic speaker would have made of it all. I am reminded of the immortal lines from T.S. Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes: ‘I gotta use words when I talk to you’ and all words come with limitations and contexts, whether Classical Greek, Koine Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin Vulgate or the European languages (particularly German) which have greatly exercised Collins in his account. Perhaps the only ray of hope for the future of ordained diakonia is Collins’ speculation that in dealing with the declining numbers of priests and the resultant glaring sacramental deficits, that ecclesiastical authorities might, in the light of their fresh understanding of ancient diakonia acknowledge that new ordained ministries to the word might be possible with no impediment to the inclusion of women. This would at least bring joyful hope to scholars, catechists, Extraordinary Ministers and other lay ecclesial ministers who have not been gifted with the ‘Y’ chromosome.