I struggled with the overwhelming pain brought on by these horrible incidents, as I am sure many of you have done as well. I was brought back to today’s gospel. I read the passage again, and this time I found not just meaning – I found hope.
The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, Gun Violence Archive1 defines a mass shooting as an incident with at least four injuries, not including the shooter, regardless of the number of fatalities. 1 Using this definition, there have been 215 mass shootings through the 21st week of 2022, including 51 so far in the month of May. This means we are averaging about 10 mass shootings per week so far in 2022. The Uvalde shooting has had the highest number of fatalities with 21. This data - along with the unprovoked war in Ukraine, the unwillingness of political and corporate leaders to make concerted efforts to curb climate change, and the sad unwillingness of our own political leaders to work together to achieve anything truly meaningful for their people – point to the brokenness of our world.
So how does this take me back to the gospel reading? And how can the reading possibly give me hope? I went back to the gospel reading and decided to ask myself the three questions we use for our Bible Study. The first question is: What word or phrase stands out for you in this reading? That did not take much thought for me. The word is “one”. This word is repeated four times in this relatively brief gospel. Jesus says the goal for the disciples is to “be one heart and mind” in Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message. 2 Again, the word ‘one’. I do not think that in using this word, Jesus is asking us to be a single being, all the same, or even all agreeing on everything. If that were the case, I sincerely doubt that God would have created us in all our beautiful diversity. So many colors of hair, eyes, skin. So many body types, cultures, languages, skills and ideas of beauty. I think that what Jesus is asking of us is unity – a proactive and purposeful unity, meant to move us into full acceptance of one another as children of God. The Trinity in the persons of creator, redeemer and sustainer, invites all of us, each and every one, into the amazing love of God.
We have a choice, likely one we make many times over in our lives, about whether or not to accept this invitation. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try to make good choices, we fall short. We are, after all, human. We are not required to love God as creator, redeemer or sustainer. Does this mean that sometimes, in practicing our God-given free will, we will ultimately make truly terrible choices? Sadly, yes it does.
The second Bible Study question is “What do you notice about God in this reading?” This, too, came to me quite quickly. I see God in Jesus as the great inviter. We are all invited to live in the love of God. All we are required to do is invite God into our hearts. Make room for God to be a part of who we are. Once God resides within us, we become a vessel for the love of God. In this reading, I see Jesus as
the one who longs for us to rest in him. To bring our broken hearts to him for healing and love. In this reading, I notice a God who will not give up on us. Throughout the gospels, there are so many places that I can almost imagine Jesus dropping his face into his hands and wondering how these disciples were missing the point so often. His frustration must have been overwhelming at times. But he never gave up on them. This ragged group of followers who seemed so lost sometimes, were the great hope for the future. And more than 2000 years later, here we are – still speaking of Jesus, still receiving the sacraments he instituted, still believing that following his footsteps is the best way to live. God in Jesus did not give up on his disciples, and God does not give up on us. Ours is a merciful and forgiving God, one whose love is never-ending.
The third question is typically the one with which I have the most difficulty. It requires an “I” statement. The question is, “What does the God you see in this reading make you want to do and/or be?” My answer to this question requires some action of me – some real commitment. If I answer the question honestly, it is a call. Our group typically challenges me to answer as honestly as possible. Offering up a vague, “God wants me to be a better person” is not an adequate response. As I read this gospel over and over, I realized that the answer to question one informed my answer to question three. God wants me to become part of the oneness of God’s people. Not a carbon copy of someone I admire, but authentically myself. My best self. The self who looks at all God’s other people, with whom I can experience this oneness, this unity, this strength in God’s abiding love, and this wonder and awe at the great diversity of God’s own people, and feel hope for the future of humankind.
This is the seventh and final Sunday of Easter. This is a season of hope renewed following a time of sadness and pain. Right now, I feel deep sadness in our world. An unprovoked and horrific war in Ukraine; record numbers of children suffering from depression as a result of the isolation of the pandemic; over a million deaths – some surely preventable – from Covid; the terrifying predictions about climate change; and over 200 mass shootings so far in 2022. So where is the hope? Throughout the Scriptures, we are told of the many mistakes made by the God’s children, of whom we are a part. Going as far back as Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, human beings have been messing up with stunning frequency. Yet every time we have messed up, our God has given us another chance. God has loved us through all kinds of terrible behaviors and has not turned God’s back on us. So, my hope lies in the fact that just as I am willing to take my place among the people of “one heart and mind” and bring with me an acceptance of all of God’s people, regardless of who they are, I believe others are willing to do the same. My hope lies in looking out at you and realizing that I love who you are and what you do in God’s name. You and I are, in fact, my hope for the future. I hope as you leave here today, you will bring with you renewed hope in all of us to bring change to a world in pain.
1 Pittsburgh Herald Tribune, 4/24/2022, Paula Reed Ward
2 The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, Eugene Peterson, pg. 1961
By Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
One of the beauties of scripture is that its stories touch on the fundamental themes of our lives, inviting us to reflect on those themes, and as we return to the stories again and again, we are always bringing something new that speaks to and through the words of scripture.
Today we’ve heard a healing story from John’s gospel. Healing is a frequent motif in scripture, and healing was certainly a central part of Jesus’ ministry. The act of healing and the promise of healing are always going to be compelling for us because we are always aware of the need of healing in the world.
Most of the healing stories in the gospels, on their face, are about physical healing from bodily infirmities. The woundedness that feels most burdensome in the world today – to me at least – is more the psychological, emotional, and spiritual suffering, some of inherited and passed down throughout generations, that comes from the traumas of humans’ inhumanity to one another –
Perhaps what today’s gospel story offers us is the opportunity to think about what we know of healing.
It’s a story of Jesus healing of a disabled man at a sacred pool in Jerusalem. Beth-Zatha, at the Sheep Gate into the city, was known to have healing powers, and was a gathering place for those seeking to be made well. It was believed that angels would stir up the water of the pool, and that entry into the water after this agitation occurred would optimize the healing effects.
The man in today’s story - John doesn’t tell us exactly what was wrong with him – had been ill for 38 years. Because of his mobility issues, he told Jesus, when the waters were stirred up, he was never quite able to get to the pool before others got there ahead of him, absorbing the new infusion of healing power in the water before he could get there.
Jesus, knowing in the power of God, instructed the man to ”Stand up, take your mat and walk,” and he did so.
While the core truth, here, that God’s grace has the power to restore wellbeing is as important for us as it was for John’s hearers at the time his gospel was written, I find myself impatient with the simplicity of the gospels’ healing stories.
Healing never simple. For example, I wonder about what comes after the healing at Beth Zatha:
We need healing – restoration of wholeness and wellbeing - whenever we suffer injury, illness, trauma, or loss, and the suffering involved in any trauma is complicated, and healing is always a process. It always takes time; it always has many aspects.
Here is some of what we know about healing from the wise ones – both scientific and spiritual wise ones:
Am I safe?
There is a powerful truth in the images of the post-resurrection Jesus, who, even as he returns to comfort his disciples, still bears the wounds of crucifixion in his body.
So where do we find God, where do we find God’s love in the experience of healing, however complex, however drawn out?
So I don’t assume that man healed at the pool at Beth Zatha went home to live a simple happily-ever-after, but I do believe his life was opened by God’s healing Spirit, and that through that Spirit we can hope that he moved, with ups and downs, toward a life of generosity, compassion, and hope.
Much of my thinking about healing this week has been impacted by an online seminar (provided by the Diocese) that Di Kurkulonis and I took part in. The presenters were an elder from the Ute tribe in Whiterocks, Utah and the priest of his parish, together reflecting on how the traditions of native cultures might inform us about generous living.*
Elder Forrest and Father Michael set their remarks in the context of the trauma that has taken place for the Ute and other indigenous peoples of North America, as native communities were repeatedly forced off of the lands to which the people had been in relationship, as the dominant culture appropriated the land for ourselves and our own purposes. Despite these grievous injustices and the spiritual injury their community has suffered, the congregation Forrest and Michael described has done much healing.
In their presentation Forrest and Michael emphasized two practices that they recommend for promoting healing. Neither is surprising or new; both are worth mention.
The first is that of practicing gratitude. Paying attention to the small details of our lives and being thankful helps us to live in the present, and in appreciation that our lives are gifts from the Creator.
Forrest and Michael also spoke powerfully about the importance of direct experience of the natural world – the air, the water, the earth and our sibling plant and animal creatures through which we meet God. Let’s listen to this wisdom.
May the angels stir up the waters for us, and may we immerse ourselves and find the path of healing.
By Rev. Heather Blais,
Today’s first reading is from the Acts of the Apostles, the second part of a two volume work written by the author of Luke’s Gospel.* It reads a bit like a travel log of the apostles, narrating the church’s expansion. What began as a small group of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem will ultimately spread throughout the Roman Empire. The first twelve chapters are largely focused on events in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and pay close attention to Peter’s work preaching, healing, and in a section we’ll focus on today, Peter’s baptism of one of the first Gentile converts. The remainder of the text shifts its attention to Paul, and his missionary activity in present day Turkey and Greece, his arrest and interactions with religious and government officials, including the Emperor in Rome.
The theme in today’s section is the offer of salvation to all persons. In simpler terms, it is about:
On the day of Ascension Jesus tells the disciples, “...you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8 NRSV). When Jesus tells them this, they have no idea this will mean offering a message beyond the Jewish community these apostles had spent their entire life grounded in. Yet that is exactly what we see playout in today’s lesson, where after an unexpected experience, Peter finds himself arguing, “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34 NRSV).* Like so many other instances in the two thousand plus years of the Church - there is a bit of controversy.
Our story begins with a Roman centurion named Cornelius (Acts 10:1-8).** As an officer of the Roman army, he would have worked alongside other centurions in leading a group of several hundred soldiers. Cornelius was described as devout and God-fearing. One day at three in the afternoon, when it was common to prayer, Cornelius had a vision of an angel.*In this vision, Corneilus is affirmed for his prayer practice and financial generosity to those in need. He is then instructed to send some folks to Joppa to retrieve a man named Peter, with very specific instructions on where precisely they would find him. This specificity would have been proof to both men that this event was beyond either of them, and was truly an act of divine intervention and guidance.
Meanwhile, Peter was staying with a local tanner who lived by the sea and he went up onto the roof to pray at mid-day, which was not a customary prayer time (Acts 10:9-13). He grew hungry, and while a meal was being prepared he fell into a trance. He sees a large sheet - picture a picnic blanket - with all kinds of animals, reptiles, and birds. Then a voice, the divine presence, telling Peter to get up, kill, and eat. Now, this would have been mildly disturbing to Peter, who as a faithful Jew honored his faith’s dietary practices.
In Leviticus and Deuteronomy, there is a very specific outline of what is considered clean and unclean foods (Leviticus 11/ Deuteronomy 14). For example, in Leviticus 11, God instructs Moses and Aaron that the Israelites should not eat: camels; hyraxes - which are a robust guinea pig like creature; rabbits; pigs; shellfish; eagles; vultures; hawks; owls; storks; herons; weasels; rats; lizards; and other creatures. The purification rituals required after becoming unclean were tedious, laborious, and often kept one apart from the rest of the household or community. Therefore, it was really prevented at all costs.
So to have this divine encounter where God is seemingly instructing Peter to kill and consume any kind of creature, was alarming to say the least (Acts 10:15-23). Peter insists, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean” (Acts 10:15). But the voice repeated itself three times - “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15-16).
As Peter puzzled over the meaning, the Spirit instructed him that some people were now arriving, and he was to go with them without hesitation (Acts 10:15-23). In light of these guests, and their reason for coming, Peter begins to understand what his trance was really about. While in reality Jews and Gentiles did eat together, it was a common perception amongst Gentiles that Jews and Gentiles could not eat together.* They knew they were viewed as unclean because they ate foods that were seen as profane by Jews. Yet in this divine encounter, the sheet full of a rich variety of godly creatures, symbolizes all of humanity - Jew and Gentile. In Peter’s divine ‘aha moment’, God shows him that we should not call anyone profane or unclean (Acts 10:28). And it is what emboldens him to go with Cornelius' servants.
Upon their arrival, Peter finds Cornelius and several folks assembled (Acts 10:24-48). They are eager to hear what God has to say through Peter. Peter then preaches to the gathered body, telling them the story of Jesus Christ, the transformative power of God’s love, and the calling of the apostles and the Church. While he was still speaking, much like the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard. They began speaking in tongues and all were astounded. Peter, recognized the Spirit as a marker of baptism, and called for water to baptize these new believers.
Meanwhile, this event astounded the believers described in the text as ‘the circumcised’. You might be wondering what circumcision has to do with anything. Up until this point, if someone was moved by the story of Jesus, they would have begun the process of converting to Judaism, which for men included being circumcised. Yet the events that had just taken place called into question - what Jewish practices still needed to be honored to follow Jesus? The excerpt of these events that we have in today’s lesson is a report that Peter makes to the ‘circumcised believers’ about these events. This audience would have included folks who were Jewish from birth and those who had joined the Jesus Movement up until Cornelius’ conversion. It meant all of a sudden there were potentially two classes of new Christians:
Have you ever noticed whenever a process is simplified, it always stirs up trouble for those who did it the older way? The Church in Jerusalem was pretty troubled that Peter would break bread with Cornelius and his household. Not because the Jewish people were against the Gentiles, but rather because it appeared at first as though Peter was disregarding the practices of their faith.
So before the Church in Jerusalem, Peter reviewed everything that had taken place-- Cornelius' vision, Peter’s divine encounter, the work of the Spirit, and the baptism of Cornelius’ household (Acts 11:1-16).
He summarizes his rationale by saying, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17). “When they heard this, they were silenced” (Acts 11:18). In that silence, the Church in Jerusalem seemed to recognize, at least momentarily, that this was the work of God, opening the Jesus Movement to the Gentiles. The passage ends with the Church praising God.
Maybe you are wondering why any of this still matters. Well, because, as the Church, we continue to struggle with similar questions today:
Or maybe more on point for us today is,
Here at James and Andrew we proclaim with joy and love: This is God’s table, and all are welcome here, no exceptions. Molly and I are repeatedly told that this is a very meaningful practice. Except, the official teaching of the Episcopal Church is that one must be baptized to receive communion. Depending on what parish you attend, that practice may be enforced. We are one of many communities that chooses to practice what is often called ‘open communion’ because we believe Christ’s radical hospitality and love supersedes some traditions and practices - though admittedly it is a tight rope and a challenging path to navigate. Particularly because it is not a practice embraced by our entire tradition, and we generally like to make decisions as an entire Church body.
The general idea behind open communion is that it doesn’t matter how one first comes to Christ - it might be through baptism or it might be through receiving communion. Many folks are in discernment, seeking. The belief behind open communion is that if one experiences Christ, that peace that surpasseth all understanding, in receiving the bread and the wine, they will eventually make the next practical step in Walking the Way of Love by becoming baptized, joining the body of Christ. It is also a point of hospitality to ecumenical and interfaith friends who worship with us in certain circumstances, and in those instances baptism would never be expected.
This would be more in keeping with the way Christ broke bread and shared with all of the gathered people. Do you think Jesus really inspected all 5,000 people’s belief systems before offering them fish and bread?Communities that practice open communion are saying, we want to embody what we see Jesus doing every time he breaks bread and shares a meal with the gathered people. We are echoing Peter’s experience of sitting down with those he would not customarily break bread with for the sake of Christ’s bigger table. Because when we break bread together, barriers are broken, relationships are built, and lives are changed.
At an upcoming General Convention, likely in 2024, the Episcopal Church will once again discuss the practice of open communion - this idea that all are welcome to receive communion. One colleague recently reflected that in our denomination’s history this particular conversation has been more controversial than women’s ordination or same sex marriage. And given how loud we were on those issues, that kind of blows my socks off. Time will tell where our Church lands, but I have to hope with enough time we will eventually land in a place of radical welcome as a denomination.
Sometimes the Church has even created barriers that were not ever there to begin with - such as the case with individual communion cups.*** Professor Hilary Bogert-Winkler of Sewanee advised the Episcopal Church on the history of individual communion cups in an article that was in circulation during the early months of the pandemic. She shared that in the late nineteenth century the common cup began to be seen as a place of germ transmission and individual communion cups were the result of the sanitary reform movement. Though the movement began with seemingly innocent origins, there were racial overtones that caused irreparable harm to the Church.
“The rise of the sanitary reform movement and debates about individual communion cups accompanied increasing immigration and the growth of the American middle class. White middle class Americans sought to establish boundaries between themselves and their broader, increasingly diverse society, in part, through attempts to ensure physical purity. In other words, “cleanliness is next to godliness” became a way to equate physical health with moral superiority, and to exclude certain members of society seen as “unclean”—primarily Blacks, immigrants, Indigenous people, the poor, and other social outcasts–from the ideal community envisioned by the white middle class.”
This is why in our diocese we were strongly discouraged from using individual communion cups during the pandemic. We chose instead to engage in spiritual communion, waiting, achingly so at times, for when we could share the common cup again. And thank God at least some churches avoided the racially charged practice of individual communion cups.
Otherwise, we would not have Michael Curry as our Presiding Bishop. When his Baptist father went to church with his Episcopal mother for the first time, he hung back when she went up to communion. He wondered whether the priest would really allow her to drink from the same cup as the white folks. When she did sip from the cup, and then it continued to be sipped by the folks who came next, his father was blown away. Michael Curry’s father would say, “Any church in which Blacks and Whites drink out of the same cup knows something about the Gospel that I want to be part of.” ****
The Gospel, again and again, is about building a bigger table. Whether that’s Peter and Cornelius, Jews and Gentiles, Baptized and Unbaptized, Blacks and Whites, Rich and Poor, Red States and Blue States; Low churches and High churches; the Powerful and the Marginalized; and so on and so forth. God is calling us to always be building a bigger table.
So, as we head back into the world today, I’d invite us to keep reflecting:
* This introductory paragraph draws on commentary written by Gary Gilbert in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, published by Oxford University Press in 2011, pg 197, also to single references on the following pages in order of reference: 198, 224, 204, 219.
** If the first sentence references scripture, that references scripture touched on throughout that paragraph.
**** Michael Curry, Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times, pg 35.
This month’s topic is ordination, the sacramental rite in which the Church lifts up leaders to assume particular responsibility in the community of the faithful. As Heather and I were divvying up teaching sermon topics, I got this one because I’m involved in this process at diocesan level: I participate in the admission of people into the ordination process, in mentoring those folks through their formation, and then certifying their qualifications when the time comes for ordination.
As we’ve usually done in these teaching sermons, this morning I’ll provide some historical background, and talk about what the process looks like today, including both the REALLY complicated sequence of things that take place in the selection and preparation of candidates for ordination and the things that happen in the rite itself. Finally and most interesting for me, I’ll reflect a bit on the theology of ordination and some of the issues involved.
I’m sure you’ll remember the apostle Paul’s discussion in his first letter to the Corinthians in which he develops the metaphor of the Church as the Body of Christ. Like the physical body, he says, the Church has many parts, and they each have their own unique and important function - it’s up to the eyes to see and the ears to hear: the body needs all of its parts and they all work together. (I Cor 12:4-27)
As the young Church grew rapidly in the days, months, and eventually years after Jesus’ ascension, it became obvious that the apostles couldn’t handle all of the leadership needs of the growing community on their own. An incident in the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles ( Acts 6:1-6) tells about a group of Hellenists getting cranky because the widows were not getting served the meals they needed. Their complaint was obviously justified, because the apostles put their heads together and figured out that they needed to appoint a group who could take charge of that important ministry. The apostles selected candidates who had the gifts to do well at the job, prayed, laid their hands on those members, and called them deacons. Really, this is ordination in a nutshell – the Church identifying the people we believe have the gifts to serve in needed functions, laying hands on, and then setting them at their tasks.
By sometime in the second century, the Church established three orders of ordained ministry that have not changed in the centuries since. First, however, I remind us that, in the catechism found in the Prayer Book, the answer to the question “Who are the ministers of the Church?”, is that “the ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.” (BCP 855) All of the baptized are the primary ministers of the Body of Christ in terms of sharing the gospel and doing God’s work of caring for one another and for all of God’s creation.
Here's a quick review of the three orders of ordained ministry:
How does the Church know who to ordain, and how does it come about? It takes BOTH a personal sense of vocation AND the conviction of the Church that the person has “a call” to ordained ministry. The traditional notion is that God calls people as leaders, and the Bible of full of stories of folks who get such calls, many of them, in the Bible, are ready to go to great lengths in order to avoid the responsibility. In our own time, we look to the judgement of the Church to hear and confirm a call to ordained ministry, trusting that the Holy Spirit works through the prayerful processes the Church has developed for selecting its leaders. Although the canons (or laws) of the Church set out some requirements, the process varies from diocese to diocese and is pretty complex.
There are basically two phases a person goes through before they are ordained:
1.) The first is that of an extended period of discernment of a vocation or call to Holy Orders. Here in Western Massachusetts we require that a person thinking about ordained ministry does lots of things including being active in practicing their faith life, engaging in individual conversation about vocation (for at least a year) and participating in another year of diocesan-led groups aimed at helping with deep exploration.
If, after completing these requirements, they believe they are called to ordained ministry, they apply for postulancy, which requires documents of support from their rector, vestry and others in addition to their own written discussion of their sense of vocation. After a group session and an individual meeting with the Bishop, they are invited to a day of conversations with the Commission on Ministry, a group of lay and clergy representatives who have read their application materials. Based on the Commission’s reading and their interviews with the applicant, the Commission makes a recommendation to the Bishop, either that they be admitted as a postulant, be asked to wait while doing additional discernment – what we call the “not now” outcome – or that they not move forward as a postulant. Before the Bishop appoints them to postulancy, the applicant needs to undergo background checks and a psychological evaluation (to insure that there are no previously undiscovered obstacles.)
2.) Once a person is admitted as a postulant, there is a lot of preparation for ministry to be completed. Candidates for vocational diaconate take part in a two-year School for Deacons, meeting regularly both virtually and in person with candidates throughout New England. Priesthood candidates complete a Master of Divinity degree at a seminary or Divinity School approved by the Bishop: (if done full-time, an MDiv takes three years, but many candidates complete the program on a part-time basis while continuing to work.) In either case the formation includes worship in community, academic coursework, and an internship in a parish different from their sponsoring parish. Candidates are also required to complete Clinical Pastoral Education, a program of supervised self-reflection as one practices pastoral care, frequently in an institutional setting. Four times a year throughout the formation process, postulants write “Ember Day Letters” to the Bishop providing a check-in on what they are doing and thinking about.
As their training approaches its completion, Postulants apply to become Candidates, a final step toward approval for ordination. They complete more interviews at both parish and diocesan level and are required to demonstrate proficiency in a set of areas required by national church: scripture, theology, ethics, history, worship, and the practice of ministry. Deacon candidates do this through submission of a portfolio of materials produced during their training, and priesthood candidates sit for a nationally-administered three-day essay exam.
Candidates who successfully complete these many requirements (which they invariably experience as hoops to jump through,) may be ordained.
The ordination liturgy itself is, in many ways, like the baptismal liturgy that we have all experienced many times. As in a baptism, the candidate is presented by those who have sponsored them and is examined by the bishop, making a series of promises. Listen to the key exchange that takes place at ordination of both priests and deacons:
The Bishop asks:
Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?
The ordinand replies:
I am willing and ready to do so; and I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church. (BCP 526)
Following this verbal exchange, the ordinand then SIGNS the declaration “in the sight of all present”. Somewhat later in the service, the ordinand reiterates their commitment to submit to the authority of the Bishop, promises to persevere in prayer and the reading of scripture, to be a faithful pastor to those they are called to serve and, perhaps most interestingly, to “pattern their [life] [and that of their family, or household or community] in accordance with the teachings of Christ, so that [they] may be a wholesome example to [their] people”. (BCP 532) Heather and I puzzle over that one occasionally.
So it sounds good, doesn’t it, that the Church takes so very seriously the work of lifting up people to serve as leaders? As is always the case, there are issues – places where we have failed, places where there is disagreement and sometimes controversy.
For one thing, the Church has not always practiced a theology of full inclusiveness. The ordained ministers at the establishment of the Episcopal Church in the 18th century were exclusively white men. The first African American to be ordained a priest, Absolom Jones, was not admitted to holy orders until 1802, a full decade after he founded the first Black Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. John Johnson Enmegahbowh, Ojibwa Indian, was the first indigenous person to be ordained priest, in 1867.
During our own lifetimes two more barriers to full inclusion in the life of the Church have fallen, but are not yet fully accepted. The first women were “irregularly” ordained to the priesthood in 1974, and the Church voted to regularize and approve women’s ordination in 1976. Although the first openly queer individual, Ellen Barrett, was ordained in New York by Bishop Paul Moore in 1977, the action caused an uproar in the Church, causing the House of Bishops, several months later, to pass a resolution identifying “homosexuality as unbiblical”. The consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 was likewise unacceptable to many in the Church.
A point of theological disagreement feeds what I regard as another serious issue in relation to the sacrament of ordination. Here’s the question: Does ordination represent a change in function for the ordained, or does the movement of the Holy Spirit in ordination convey an essential change in the being of the ordained? Are bishops, priests and deacons, as a result of their ordination, closer to God than lay people? Does ordination make them better people?
Clericalism is the assumption – to one degree or another, whether conscious or unconscious – that the clergy are different and somehow spiritually superior to lay people. The official teaching of the Church is that ordination signifies a change in responsibility in the Church and is assisted by God’s grace. Clericalism runs deep in Christian culture, however. I cannot tell you how many times people have apologized for using a naughty word in front of me, or asked me to “put in a word” (in prayer, I presume) for better weather.
These examples are basically silly, but the insidious effects of clericalism have been the assumption on the part of the clergy that they are invariably right and the non-ordained are wrong, and the subsequent difficulty the Church has historically had in holding clergy accountable where they commit wrongdoing. We are all familiar with some of the most damaging examples of clergy misconduct that have come to light in recent decades, both in other denominations and in our own. I deeply appreciate the comments of Pope Francis on this topic, in 2018:
Clericalism arises from an elitist and exclusivist vision of vocation, that interprets the ministry received as a power to be exercised rather than as a free and generous service to be given. This leads us to believe that we belong to a group that has all the answers and no longer needs to listen or learn anything. Clericalism is a perversion and is the root of many evils in the Church: we must humbly ask forgiveness for this and above all create the conditions so that it is not repeated.
(Address to Synod Fathers, 2018; cited on Wikipedia, “clericalism”)
The assumption of moral rectitude in the ordained does not serve any of us well, either the clergy themselves or the Church. Let’s agree to do everything we can to end it.
Those are rather grim observations, aren’t they? I don’t want to end there, but these hard things needed acknowledging, and I have also tried your patience long enough.
For myself, ordained ministry has been an incredible gift and privilege, especially in the years that I have served in parish ministry. I am deeply grateful for having had the opportunity to serve and learn and grow in this work, and particularly in the good company of my colleague the Rector of James and Andrew.
One of the best prayers in the Prayer Book is prayed in the ordination service AS WELL AS in the liturgy of the Easter Vigil, so it is appropriate to conclude with it here. Let us pray:
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look
favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred
mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry
out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world
see and know that things which were being cast down are being
raised up, and things which had grown old are being made
new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection
by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus
Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity
of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP 527)
Meet our Preachers
Rev. Heather Blais,
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm, Associate Rector