On the Anniversary of my Ordination

This is something that I wrote shortly after I came to Trinity. I am posting it because I keep the Feast of Pentecost as the anniversary of my ordination and this piece tells the story of that day.

Ontology vs Function

In the Church, Ministry and Sacraments class at Trinity we spent one three hour session on the theology of ordination. The hoary question of whether ordination is a functional reality or an ontological reality was hotly debated by the students with surprisingly strong feelings on both sides. Strong Evangelicals hear the language of ontological change as a claim to a superior and super-holy status with magical powers. It sounds superstitious and magical and the worst sort of works righteousness to them. The more Catholic minded hear the functional language as a denial of any real change made in the individual by the power of the sacrament and as an understanding of the ordained ministry that has no way of comprehending the mystical dimension of holy order. Functional language sounds secular and earthbound in Catholic ears.

The terms of the debate are the terms of the polemic that has developed since the Reformation. On the Reform side the rejection of any notion of ontological change has been driven by a desire to foreclose any possibility of an opening for works righteousness. On the catholic side the upholding of the ontological language is driven by a desire to honor the power and grace of God working sacramentally in the church and by the desire to honor the irrevocable nature of God’s call and action in making a person a priest of the church.

To say that there is an ontological change in the ordinand is not necessarily to say that the person is super-holy or has magical powers. It is simply to say that a real change has taken place, that the person will never be, can never be the same again. The person may be a good priest, a bad priest, a spoiled priest but never again someone who has not made these promises and had hands laid upon them and been set apart by the prayer of the church for the ministry of word and sacrament. Something real has happened. To deny this seems to deny both the reality of human action and of God’s action. To say as Evangelicals are wont to do that ordination is the empowering of the Holy Spirit for specific functions in the church sounds in the end very much like an ontological change. For how is it that vows are made and the Spirit poured out and nothing real and irrevocable happens?

I remember very powerfully my own ordination. I was ordained on the Feast of Pentecost, June 7, 1981, in St. Anne’s Church in Mars Hill, Maine. The little church had been a chicken house that was moved across the town and set on a little hill overlooking Route One. The church was beautified by being lined with pressed tin on the walls and ceilings. I had always imagined being ordained in a beautiful Cathedral and my ordination was more beautiful than I could have imagined.

The church was packed. We had over a hundred and twenty people in this small building that had seating for maybe fifty. There were two dozen clergy, everything from Baptists to Roman Catholics. Most of the Anglican clergy present were from Canada and there was one priest from the Church of Sweden who was serving the Lutheran congregation in New Sweden. He was invited by the bishop to join in the laying on of hands.

There was a tremendous wind blowing that day and it was very warm and all the windows of the church were open. We were also in the middle of an army worm outbreak and the roads were slick with the bodies of the migrating worms. The worms had denuded many of the trees. The landscape was devastated and exquisitely beautiful at the same time.

The little church had a small sacristy in which there was a mirror. Two dozen clergy were taking turns before the mirror trying to look presentable. Hair provided a particular challenge. The heat and the dry wind blowing through the church created abundant static electricity, causing everyone’s hair to stand on end. Of course the more you tried to comb your hair down the more it stood up and the clergy clustered around the one mirror trying to get presentable. I remember being especially anxious about it and very frustrated that I couldn’t get my hair to lie down.

The priest that sponsored me for ordination had the kind of holiness that cares not a whit for appearances and could always be counted on to do the unexpected. While we all stood jostling in front of the mirror he came into the sacristy and pulled his hair straight up until it literally crackled with electricity. With an ecstatic expression on his face Fr. Watson said, “This is what it was like on the first Pentecost!” We were stunned and then he reached his hand out to touch me and a spark a hand’s breath wide jumped from him to me and I was schocked in more than ways than one.

I remember so much from that day, the smell of the incense, the people, the reverence of the two boys who were the acolytes. (One is now a teacher and the other a physician’s assistant.) I remember signing the ordination document and making my subscription. I had prayed and thought hard about this working my way through in particular to being able to profess the resurrection of the body. I remember the bishop vesting himself just before the laying on of hands in tunicle, dalmatic and chasuble and I remember being overwhelmed by a perception of the fullness of the church as a sacred mystery, of the body of Christ pouring down upon us from antiquity and streaming out before us into eternity.

Then there was the laying on of hands. The physical pressure was immense. I had been prepared for it and was ready but it took real strength to bear the weight of the hands upon my head. At the prayer of ordination I was shot through with the most holy fear, right through from head to foot. Indeed it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

I was ordained with all the Anglo-Catholic ceremony. After being vested my hands were annointed with chrism and bound together with a stole in a posture of prayer with the thumbs free. A Bible was placed on my hands and I gripped it with my thumbs. Then a chalice and patten were placed there and I gripped them. It could not be more clear that my life from hence forth was to be tied to the minstry of word and sacrament. I looked down at my bound hands and thought, “perfect freedom is to be the slave of Jesus Christ.”

The service went on and I shared the canon of the Eucharist with the bishop. We processed out of the church and stood by the door. I was quite overcome with emotion and put my hands to my face. The smell of the oil was strong and a balm and I breathed it in. I was dimly aware of someone calling my name and I spread my hands just a bit and looked down to see the bishop kneeling at my feet. “May I have your blessing, Father.” I was completely undone and utterly humbled. It was at that moment that the reality of ordination came thundering in upon me. I was nothing, had nothing, had done nothing, could do nothing but hang on to Him and pronounce His blessing and marvel at the calling and promises of God. One by one every person in the congregation knelt for an individual blessing. It was as if something were being hammered into my soul. It was death and then dying again and again and again. I cried all the tears I had before the end of the line of people came. I thought I couldn’t go on and I did. Pure grace. Really the whole ministry was there in those few minutes. “A broken and contrite heart, I will not despise.” It was as they say real.

God grant it shall be so to the end of my days. One can only marvel at the treasures that God conveys through earthen vessels and broken hearts.

Leander S. Harding, copywrite 2005.

8 thoughts on “On the Anniversary of my Ordination

  1. Thank you, Leander, for this essay – I prepared for my ordination by reading Michael Ramsey’s little book on the priesthood and if I had had any doubts then that being a priest meant little more than becoming an ecclesiastical functionary, Ramsey’s book clinched the argument for me – the priesthood is an awesome calling and an even more awesome responsibility. Whether it is an ontological change is a debating issue for theologians with too much time on their hands. What I do understand now is that God takes flawed human beings and gives them this charge: Be a vivid reminder of Christ’s presence in the Church. Let your life be a living sermon and the hands you use to administer Christ’s Body and Blood be a a sign to you and those you serve of the hands that were nailed to the cross. I wish I could believe I am no more significant to the life of the Church than a clerk in a store – it would make life so much more easy for me. Thinking about the priesthood and what is means to me and what it demands of me has a way of keeping me awake at night. Even after 16 years.

  2. Thanks, Fr. Harding.

    That was very beautiful and touching. I always appreciate hearing about the experiences of other priests and ministers at ordination. Something powerful has happened in every ordination I have witnessed or been a part of. When things are sometimes difficult in ministry, I always remember what a blessing and privlege it is to be entrusted to celebrate the Sacraments, and even after 15 years it can bring me to tears to offficiate at the Lord’s Supper.

    God bless you, brother in Christ.

  3. If one understands the nature and antiquity of the Priesthood, one must conclude that it is ontological in nature. It is verifably the oldest known religious institution. It is primal and set by God as a sign to Himself and his Christ, our God.

    Now the question remains… if the priesthood is ontological and women have never been priests (until TEC’s innovation) can God overthrow His order in creation by making women priests?

  4. Leander, what a beautiful, moving, and spirit-filled account of your ordination. Reading it touched me, brought tears, and reminded me of my cousin’s ordination. I had gotten so far away from God that I thought it was impossible to get back to that relationship with God. My cousin’s ordination in California as an Episcopal priest was the first step in God’s plan to draw me back to Him. God used the service to melt me and i spent the whole time crying, crying in that way that happens when God is at work.
    Sometime when the four of us are together again in Maine I will share my story. Thank-you so much for your story.
    My best, joanie trimble

  5. I came across this in preparation for an essay entitled “What is a Priest?” as part of my discerning process. One of the areas I was asked to look at was the ontology of ordination. As I read your description of your ordination I felt a physical reaction similar to those I have felt during the first profession and ordination of friends in the past. It chimed as a small taste of the reaction you had when being ordained. It has acted as an added encouragement on this journey.

    Does ontological change happen or not? The spirit surely moves in these truly Holy moments and helps to reassure those involved and those around to understand the true and real presence of God. I suppose until, or if, I have the privilege of such a spiritual encounter I will never truly know, but without ontological change who are we but called to the Royal Priesthood like all our other Christian brothers and sisters. Maybe that’s the difference between the laity and the Ordained?
    Thank you.

  6. Thanks for your thoughts and your story. They have been very helpful as I’m thinking through these things on my path to Anglican ordination.

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