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