Are Ordinations Too Elaborate?

This was originally published in the NECA (National Episcopal Clergy Association newsletter.) I understand the editor got hate mail about it from at least one bishop famous for an emphasis on lay ministry. It also touches on the discussion below

Are Ordinations and Celebrations of the New Ministry Too Elaborate?

There is a criticism which is often heard in our church these days that ordinations are too elaborate. The ceremonies and festivities that surround an ordination or the celebration of a new ministry are thought to imply an inappropriate significance for Holy Orders. If I may put words in the mouths of the critics, the complaint is that,”After all, baptism is the central and most important fact of Christian life. It is through baptism that one becomes a Christian and through baptism that the church reconstitutes its life. The ministry of the baptized is the fundamental ministry, and the ministry of the ordained is to be servants of the servants of God. By elaborate ordinations and celebrations of new ministry we give the impression that Ordination is more important than baptism, that the clergy are the real Christians. Our ordination and institution ceremonies reinforce an outmoded clericalism, have distasteful overtones of authoritarianism, and undermine the ministry of the laity. Look at the Celebration of New Ministry in the Prayer Book. The people give the new priest a Bible, stoles, Prayer Books. In the end nothing is left. Everything has been given away.”

This is the complaint, as I have often heard it, from some laity, clergy, bishops, seminary professors and deans. Drastic remedies are proposed: simplifying the rite, insisting on austerity, prohibitions against parties and special music. Some suggest having the laity join in the laying on on of hands. Others suggest that the clergy should give gifts to the laity symbolic of the ministry of the baptized.

I believe that the ordination rites of the Book Of Common Prayer are sound, that the form for the Celebration Of New Ministry is wholesome, and that the ceremonies, enthusiasms and piety which typically attend these events in the life of our church are a sign of hope. It is my conviction that our problem is not that we make too much of ordinations, but rather that both cleric and people too soon and too easily forget that for which they prayed.

There is one aspect of this criticism which I would like to affirm. In many parishes, one never sees a baptismal rite which begins to compare in grandeur with an ordination or the welcoming ceremony for a new rector. The problem is not that ordinations are too elaborate. The problem is that baptisms are often not celebrated with suitable dignity and grace. The Great Vigil of Easter is the normative baptismal feast. Three other major feasts of the Christian year are provided as alternatives. It is the perfunctory baptism of a child of a family with only a tangential relationship to the parish and a less than obvious commitment to the life of faith that diminishes the significance of baptism!

There is a problem here of liturgical practice. The problem is a neglect of the great feasts of the Christian year and a lack of understanding on the part of many church people of the meaning of the feasts. For this the clergy must bear a very great part (but not all) the responsibility. The problem is not too much celebration at ordinations but not enough celebration at baptisms. In many places there are too few baptisms that the entire parish community can celebrate with enthusiasm and integrity. It is hard to get excited about a private family affair imposed on the congregation, especially when one may never see the family again.

When a man or woman after long preparation, thorough testing and the approval of the entire church represented in all its orders, gives himself or herself to Christ in Holy Orders for the sake of the Church and the Church’s mission to bring God’s salvation to the world, those present in direct proportion to the degree that they take their own baptism seriously will give thanks, glorify God and rejoice. They will feel their own faith and calling confirmed and go with a full heart to the party afterward. There are no neo-puritanical liturgical reforms which can stop this natural movement of the human heart, in which, I dare say, God is well pleased.
If the clergy are simply functionaries, hirelings of the congregation(as so much of our policy implies with its contracts, work units, and extra-canonical job descriptions), then the ordination rites are too elaborate. But if there is a ministry of the Gospel and the Gospel sacraments, a ministry of stewarding Apostolic truth and practice, a ministry of “spiritual jurisdiction,” a ministry of guarding the Faith from soul-destroying error, a ministry of calling the Church to reconstitute itself in repentance, in a more total baptismal identity, as a more authentic eucharistic community, a ministry entrusted to the Apostles and in succeeding generations to those who in their turn have been called, then all the people of God are bound to treat with great joy and celebration the moment when a person enters upon that sacred ministry.

They are bound to rejoice because in this ordination, Christ touches His Church and gives to the whole people of God that for which they hunger: “Bishops and other ministers who both by their life and doctrine set forth Thy true and lively Word, and rightly and duly administer Thy Holy Sacraments.” Because of this ministry, the baptized have more than an individual conscience, more than the popular movements of the moment. They have clergy who are sworn and dedicated to faithfully transmit the teaching of the Apostles, and who are promised God’s grace to carry out this ministry, in spite of the fact that this treasure is conveyed in earthen vessels.

This is a very beautiful thing. It is not more beautiful than baptism. But without the election and consecration of successors to the Apostles, baptism into a truly catholic, universal church is not possible. The Faith into which one is baptized will become merely what is here new, instead of what has always and ever been. The baptism of babies and the consecration of bishops are both beautiful and poignant because they are the means by which the saving action of Christ is extended to the next generation. The Church will naturally surround both events with beauty and ceremony. There need be no feeling that to honor the one is to diminish the other. However, the consecration of a bishop is the means by which the Church reconstitutes itself as a baptizing community, able to baptize people in the Faith of the Apostles, able to baptize into the church catholic, the church universal. The consecration of a bishop touches all the parishes, all the dioceses, other churches. It appropriately means more to more people and will naturally be celebrated with a devotion which is incommensurate with a local baptism. This does not diminish the dignity of baptism but it shows what a great thing it is into which one is being baptized.

The beauty of the ordination rites is about the only thing we have to save Holy Orders from becoming a mundane job. It might seem to some that the cleric as employee would be a relief from a church in which too much is made of clergy and too little of the ministry of the people. Making ordinations and services of installation more mundane, more matter-of-fact will have the consequence of also making the ministry of laity more mundane and less awesome. The trend of the last 25 years of secularizing our understanding of the clergy role has done little to make the people of God more holy or more empowered in their baptismal ministry and it has done much to reinforce the very clericalism( the priest does the ministry, the people receive and evaluate it) that is so deplored.

It is an essential role of those in Holy Orders to continually call the baptized to a greater recognition of the dignity of each person’s calling and to support and uphold the baptized in that calling. Surely, the ministry whose service is, in season and out, to call the Church to repentance and holiness, to proclaim God’s mercy, grace and will to abundantly give that holiness, must have an appropriate dignity or be very hampered in fulfilling its calling.

There is also at work in these criticisms, a very Puritan understanding of power. The Anabaptists did the wrong thing for the right reason: in response to magical, superstitious understandings of the sacraments, the Puritans robbed the sacraments of all mystical, supernatural power and made them merely symbolic and memorial. For Puritans, ordination is removed from the sacramental world altogether and becomes the conveying of institutional authority. The minister has an authority of office conveyed by the congregation. This was not the wish of all the non-Lutheran Reformers, but in practice their nuanced theories of ordination give way before the obvious political metaphors. If Christ is not really present to the Church in a unique way in the eucharist, it is not conceivable that there is an unique presence of Christ for the Church through Holy Orders.

More and more political metaphors of power have come to dominate the discussion of ecclesiology. It is true enough that the Church is a human and political institution. As such the Church is liable to the uses and abuses of power of all such institutions. The founders of the Episcopal Church were well aware of this and filled our constitution with checks and balances. There is nothing wrong with a political analysis of the Church. However, if that is where we stop, we are left with an understanding of the power relationships between clergy and laity based on a zero sum game. Political power is seen as a power pie. If you have power, it is because you have taken a larger slice of pie, which means my slice is smaller. That kind of power is real. It can be dangerous and addictive, to the laity as well as the clergy. In many parish churches it is as likely to be wielded by a lay pope as by an authoritarian rector. I believe that our constitution and canons are up to the challenge of these power dynamics, if priest and parish will each accept the appropriate constitutional canonical roles. ( The current penchant for tinkering with the constitution of the Episcopal Church by a generation that is naive about and unlettered in such things compared to the 18th century is tragedy in the making.)

There is another kind of power which is miraculous, mysterious and abundantly fecund. For this kind of power, the more I have the more you have, and the more you have, the more I have. This is the mystical power of Christ to which the Church has many avenues of access, including the avenue of Holy Orders. If the people have not power in their ministry, if they are not progressing in holiness and service, it is likely that the ministry of their priest lacks mystical power. One cause may be that the priest is not dwelling in his or her holy order and claiming the promised grace of God. Indeed, something is always lacking in our surrender to our vocation, be it clerical or lay. It can be the priest’s relation to the reality of his or her vocation that causes a lack of power. It can also be that the people will not empower the priest, that they will insist that he or she have no power but whatever is given over to accomplish the projects of the moment. It may be that the people diminish the office of priest and the promise made by Christ to grace His Church through that office. If we thus turn our pastors into hirelings, the wolf will come, because the wolf knows that the hireling will flee. A merely functional, organizational, political understanding of Holy Orders devoid of sacramental power leaves us with only the personality of the cleric and his or her natural abilities. This is a formula for bitter disappointment for people and clergy alike. When the dimension of the mystical presence of Christ to the Church through Holy Orders is lost, the dignity and holiness of the ministry of the baptized will be lost as well! When the sacramental, mystical understanding of Holy Orders becomes diminished, the real power of the laity to follow Christ is impoverished.

If ordinations and installations are seen primarily as events through which Christ gifts the whole church with a unique mode of His presence by providing continuing Apsotolic teaching,preaching, and sacramental leadership, there will be no need to feel that anything is being taken from the people. The tokens they give are meant to convey their prayers that the poor man or women through whom Christ intends to gift His church will cooperate with this mysterious working of the Holy Spirit for the building up of the whole church. Let us have noble, joyous and solemn baptisms, whenever possible on Easter Eve, wherever possible done by the Bishop. Let us have noble, joyous, solemn consecrations, ordinations, and institutions. At ordinations and institutions let the Bishop present tokens of ministry appropriate for the Bishop to present and let the people present tokens appropriate for the people to present. Let us refrain from taking liberty with the forms and adding gifts and tokens that do not celebrate the gift Christ is giving His Church in clergy who “both by their life and doctrine set forth Thy true and lively Word, and rightly and duly administer Thy Holy Sacraments.”

© Leander Harding 1996

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