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It isn’t often that a YouTube luminary and TikTok star headlines the diocesan Deacons Day conference, but this year Bishop John urged the planning committee to “think big” when considering a keynote speaker. It was good advice. On Saturday, November 6, the diaconal community gathered at the Synod Office and online to hear from the current rock star of the Anglican world, Dean Robert Willis of Canterbury Cathedral. 

Dean Robert’s morning reflections from the deanery garden began on the first day of the UK’s lockdown in March 2020, when not even clergy were allowed to step foot in their churches. Rather than break a 1,400-year tradition of daily prayer at the Cathedral, Dean Robert’s partner Fletcher suggested he say morning prayer on the Cathedral grounds instead. “I will bring a camera into the garden, in case one or two of the congregation want to tune in,” Fletcher said on a whim.

Those early recordings from the garden, less than 10 minutes long, provided a point of contact, stability and spiritual succor in the early, anxious weeks of the pandemic. But it took a nudge from nature to get Dean Robert’s viewership levels through the roof. 

Addressing the assemblage of deacons gathered in the Trendell Lounge and on Zoom, Dean Robert recounted the first time one of his cats, Leo, made an unexpected on-screen entrance. Leo leapt onto the table beside the tea tray, startling the Dean. Behind the camera, however, Fletcher motioned him to continue speaking, and Dean Robert carried on saying the Lord’s Prayer. As he reached “amen,” he told the deacons, Leo gave an enormous yawn that looked as if he was chiming in with an enthusiastic “amen” of his own. That charming moment, said Dean Robert “unlocked an intimacy and informality that was impossible to conjure up one’s self.” 

From then on, the occasional antics of the cats, pigs, guinea fowl, hens and other creatures wandering by the Dean’s ever-changing garden locale became of great interest and amusement to a world far beyond the parish bounds; Russell, the deanery rooster, is now famous for his lustily voiced and perfectly timed addition to the reading of the thrice-crowing cock at Peter’s denial of Christ, while a clip of Leo disappearing into the Dean’s cassock has been viewed over one billion (!) times.  

“People ask ‘How do I go viral?’” laughed the Dean. “And I tell them I absolutely haven’t a clue.” But, as he mused, “the world needed cheering up” in those first months of the pandemic, and the animals met the need. Even better, though, is that these widely shared posts and lighthearted TV clips introduce countless numbers of people to the Dean’s morning service. The Dean quoted a favourite email he has received from one of these viewers: “I tuned in for cat and stayed for catechism.”

Indeed, the “garden congregation” has grown from an initial few dozen to tens of thousands of people around the world. They come from all ecclesial backgrounds, or none; a non-religious friend in the United States who is “a hard nut” when it comes to spirituality sends the video services on to his colleagues and reports to Dean Robert that they are well received. Robert noted that some of the highest praise he gets is from young adults at smart cathedral wedding receptions who “sidle up” to him and say “we’ve tuned in to the things you’re doing and some of them are very cool.” Watching the service in the privacy of one’s home, said the Dean, gives people who are shy about their spiritual yearnings “a place safe from ridicule at doing something that is grossly unfashionable” in a secular society.

In this, Dean Robert and Fletcher (who plans the garden backdrop and weaves in clips of music, art and film to complement the commentary) are doing the diaconal work of building a bridge between the church and the wider world. On camera and off, their joint ministry continues; Fletcher is sometimes able to reach out to garden congregants in distressing circumstances; candles are lit in the cathedral for those asking for prayer. Dean Robert says it was Fletcher who insisted he rouse himself at 10:30pm on January 6 to record a supportive message for Americans shocked by the riots in progress at the Capitol building. During the morning service, Robert makes reference to disasters and concerns being suffered in countries around the globe. “I feel that one is treading on almost holy ground when one is dealing with a nation’s sorrow,” he told the deacons. 

Diaconal work is critical to his vocation, he said. “My deacon’s orders are my orders I prize most of all,” he noted. When he would officiate at a chrism mass, a liturgy that formerly heard the renewal of vows by order, he would insist that the priests rise to renew their diaconal vows as well. He is inspired by St. Francis and 17th century scholar Nicholas Ferrar, both of whom remained deacons because they felt no other ordination was necessary to accomplish the work God had set before them. 

Dean Robert pointed to the story of the wedding at Cana, in which the steward of the feast was mystified by the quality of the wine brought out after the previous stores ran dry. But the diakonos– the servants – were in the know; they had obeyed Mary’s command to “do whatever [Jesus] tells you” and were agents in the messianic secret from the start. 

The Rev. Chris Magrega, deacon at St. Augustine’s, Marpole, spoke for many of the assembled when she thanked Dean Robert Willis for providing “encouragement and balance” during these challenging times; a place of retreat in which those who regularly support others can find spiritual support of their own. In turn, the Dean said that he is “always heartened to be in the company of deacons” and conveyed to the deacons of New Westminster the greetings of the Archbishop of Canterbury, with whom he had been meeting earlier in the day.

Following the Dean’s talk and a Betty Geddes-catered lunch, the deacons broke off into smaller sessions to explore ministries in different “gardens” of the world: street outreach, climate change, truth and reconciliation, community partnerships, and chaplaincies. If you are interested in exploring what it means to be a deacon, with a view to discerning a call to ordination, you are encouraged to contact the Ven. Bruce Morris, Archdeacon for Deacons or read the Deacons Handbook on the diocesan website. 

 (The Zoom broadcast posted to YouTube is available below)


  • Excitement ensued when the link with Canterbury Cathedral went live and Bishop John and the Ven. Bruce Morris, Archdeacon for Deacons, had the opportunity to welcome Dean Robert to the gathering.
  • Deacons gather on Zoom and are caught on camera in the Trendell Lounge, all under the watchful eye of Maddy Walter of St. Clement, Lynn Valley, who provided IT support for the day.
  • It was an added treat to have the company of the Rev. Eric Stroo at Deacons Day; Eric was in town to mark his final service with St. Michael’s Multicultural the following morning. On Archbishop Melissa’s behalf, Eric presented a Bill Reid design to beautify the walls of the Synod Office.