New deacon Tom Cook is passionate about inclusion, both in the Church and more widely. His vision is for a world that does not discriminate on grounds of age, gender, colour, sexual orientation, country of origin. Tom will be ordained deacon this Sunday – a special service which is the first step into ordained ministry in the Church of England. This service will be the first time that he is able to wear a stole – a scarf worn over the shoulders to the waist by priests when they are taking a service. Tom decided that for him, the stole needed to be a clear symbol of his ministry and calling in the Church.
Tom tells his story:
“The first question I asked myself is, how do I represent my ministry through a stole? I wanted it to be more than philosophy – to be the real lives of real people. I put out appeals on social media and through radio shows, asking people to send me a swatch of material and their own personal exclusion story.”
“A third-generation Chinese man gave me a piece of tartan. It was part of the scarf that his great grandfather was wearing when he emigrated from China. The papers that border officials filled in got the man’s name wrong, as they didn’t understand Chinese custom of giving surname before first name and they wrote ‘alien’ on his certificate. The scarf symbolised his feeling of being excluded from the culture of this new country, and the family wanted the story of his experiences to be known more widely.
“A pair of swatches, one with sequins and one in an embroidered ivory represent a couple in a civil partnership. One is a costume designer and one is a nurse and they struggled to find acceptance in a local church. They finally found inclusion worshipping alongside a monastic order.
“A panel decorated with ornate flowers represents women and their calling to priesthood in the church. The story was that in the days just as women were being allowed to be ordained, a priest presented a woman with this stole as a symbol that he trusted and believed in her calling to ordained ministry.
“There is a piece of material sent from the US with ‘Hello’ written in lots of different languages, reflecting the intention to welcome people, whatever their background. Pink silk from China sent from someone met whilst visiting the World Council of Churches and fabric from a Russian Orthodox robe sit close together, symbolising inclusion across denominations. It demonstrates that we can remain different but still be part of the same church.
“The tip of a condom is the offering from Mozambique. A Methodist minister sent the fabric as a reminder of work done in the country to combat AIDS.
“A Catholic film student has told me of his struggle of being unable to come out as gay in his home country and has wrote in a beautiful cursive script about God’s ‘strength and refuge’. Another young, gay Christian in her early 20s feels called to be a missionary in a country where it’s illegal to be gay.
“There is a scrap of Everton Football kit, complete with Nike tick, which prompts some healthy rivalry and commentary. I myself come from a working-class heritage and was brought up in industrial Reading. I struggled with class inclusion when I was young, feeling that the church might not be for me. I came to faith at the age of 14 in a Pentecostal Church.”
Tom was brought up in a conservative Pentecostal church and had not thought much about inclusive church at that time. When he went to university to study Religion, Philosophy and Ethics, he started to question his beliefs.
He said, “Scripture extols inclusion in a powerful way. In Acts, Philip meets an Ethiopian eunuch, who is different in so many different ways, and explains the good news of Jesus to him. The eunuch is baptised and joins the Church. This is a powerful message of inclusion right at the heart of the newly formed Church.”
There is even a panel from the school where Tom served as a governor, representing his commitment to make all of church accessible to all ages, rather than separating children out to children’s church. Tom’s dissertation addresses clergy children growing up in a clergy home. He wanted to listen to the children and their views – the highs, lows, hopes and dreams of vicarage life and give them a voice.
Tom said: “I hope that the weight of all these stories from people across the world and in so many different situations, is a continual reminder of my calling and passion to help all people to connect with faith.”
Tom is 32, married to Debbie and they have two young sons. His stole was made by Helen Marshall Clerical Wear.