A Sermon Not Preached at an Ordination

On May 14, 2008, several hundred people gathered at St John’s Cathedral in Winnipeg for an ordination service. Helen Manfield, who has been a part of our community of saint benedict’s table since close to its beginnings, was ordained priest, and two others were ordained deacons. This sermon was not preached at that liturgy, and indeed will probably never be preached at all. It is, however, offered here as my ordination gift to Helen, and as a not so subtle challenge to others in the church that perhaps it might be time to reconsider how we frame our liturgies of ordination.

Jamie Howison, May 17, 2008

As I sat in my designated seat at the front of the cathedral, vested in my cassock,jamie.jpg surplice and stole, playing the altogether perfunctory role of “bishop’s chaplain” (which involves little more than processing in and out of the cathedral in front of the bishop, and holding the pastoral staff during the ordination rite itself), I could not help but think back to my own ordination in that same cathedral almost exactly twenty years earlier. Actually, my thoughts were most caught up in the memory of a sermon preached by Tim Sale the following morning at the parish church where I was serving my curacy. My own ordination, you see, had looked remarkably like Helen’s, with the notable addition of a surprise trumpet fanfare during the procession to mark the fact that our bishop of the day had recently been elected as Metropolitan Archbishop of the ecclesiastical province. “It was,” preached Tim in his sermon,

It was quintessential Anglicanism – music, pomp and circumstance – in a heritage that is almost as old as Christendom itself – the choosing and making of deacons and presbyters, priests.

And yet – and yet… I am personally confused and troubled by so much of what we did yesterday. Let me share with you why. The heart of my confusion lies in the gospel message in tension with the church’s embodiment of that message.

The trouble is that our Anglican version seems curiously and dangerously out of touch with both our current reality – and much more fundamentally, with biblical teaching… But on the side of human reality – we all love a good parade – a good spectacle.

That Sunday morning in June 1988 when the sermon was preached several people in the congregation later bustled over to me, concerned that I had been offended by such words. By no means. In fact, that sermon was the best gift anyone could have given me at ordination. It named the tension; it named the source of some of my own dis-ease; and it named for me the challenge which lay ahead in my priestly vocation. It is the same challenge which lies ahead for Helen.

The words of the ordination liturgy are strong: a declaration that the candidate believes “the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the word of God,” containing “all things necessary to salvation;” a call to “love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor;” the mandate to preach, declare God’s forgiveness, pronounce God’s blessing, preside at baptism and communion… none of which can be taken lightly. There is, too, that moment when the ordinand is asked the following:

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?

Any sane person would surely pause at such a question, but I trust that Helen has given some thought to the use of that word “authority.” Many a bishop – and many a priest and many a lay leader – has fallen into the trap of trying to use power not grounded in any canonical or, more significantly, truly God-given authority; Helen’s assent to the authority of her bishop has absolutely nothing to do with the arbitrary power of human-made roles and structures.

The problem is that everything we signify in our ceremonial would seem to speak of power and hierarchy and status, and not of the odd upside-down nature of the biblical picture of ministry, servanthood, authority, and vocation, to say nothing of the ongoing biblical critique of structures of power and privilege.

You would have thought, for instance, that based on ceremonial the single most important person in the cathedral that night was the bishop. He, after all, has the most prominent place in the procession, wears the grandest vestments, and is the only one with both a fancy hat – a mitre – and a pastoral staff (which actually spend more time in my hands than in his, but then again, a “bishop’s chaplain” is, ceremonially, just an extra set of hands…). Oh, and as an elderly woman in my former parish once observed, our diocesan pastoral staff is in fact a compromised symbol for the ministry of a bishop. A pastoral staff is a stylized shepherd’s crook, but in ours, as in many others, the crook portion is in filled with decorative vine leaves; “It is pretty,” this woman remarked, “but useless as a shepherd’s staff. That is a sad symbol in this church.”

I do not intend to trivialize the ministry of the bishop within the polity of our church. A bishop is entrusted with the responsibility and authority for the ministry of the church across a defined geographical area, with the various local parishes under his or her charge giving expression to this faith in vastly different ways in what can be deeply challenging circumstances. But it is shepherd’s work, and not that of a prince or a corporate executive. The right question here is not one of challenging the ministry of bishops as such, but rather that of how we might best signify a shepherding ministry in our ceremonial?

The rest of the twenty or twenty-five participating clergy were all vested, with those of us with designated roles sitting in our assigned seats, and the others taking up the best seats in the front few rows of pews. After the bishop, you would have to conclude that we were the significant ones in the cathedral; an august group preparing to welcome three newcomers into our ranks. There is, of course, some grain of truth to this. While I eschew the adjective “august,” we are the group – the college or community – that has been ordered to particular ministry and responsibility within the church. The priests do participate along with the bishop in the laying on of hands in the ordination of a priest, and as one who has experienced the sheer weight of all of those hands, I have to confess just how potent and humbling is that experience of collegial community. Still, as Robert Capon so playfully puts it, ordination is not a transaction by which “priests are ‘confected’ like so many batches of fudge,” but rather are “‘ordained,’ ‘ordered’ – that is, they are lined up into a sacramental arrangement with the church.” This, Capon suggests,

might even force us to think about using priests as an order – as a fellowship, in continuing mutual support – rather than sending them out one by one, as we do now, in the fond hope that the tankful of holy gas we gave them in ordination will take them all the way. (Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox).

And so I wonder, as a ceremonial symbol how much more strinking it might be to have the priests sit throughout the nave of the church, emerging from amongst the whole assembly to participate collegially in this one action. Might that not express a theology of priesthood that understands our ministry as one of being ordered within the Body of Christ, and not as a league above the laity?

The terrible risk of a ceremonial that even implies privilege and status is that we will start to believe it. That night at the cathedral, when the bishop presented the newly ordained people to the gathered assembly, they were met by extended and thunderous applause. “Our shiny new priest… our fresh new deacons… hurrah! Congratulation! You’ve made it!” None of this was actually voiced, of course; not so baldly in any case. But I for one feared the pedestals that threatened to rise up beneath the feet of those three people; feared what it will mean for them the first time one of them fails to live up to the expectations expressed in that applause. Because each will fail, and not only once.

How ironic that this ordination took place on the feast day of St Matthias, on which we read aloud the account of how Matthias had been chosen – by drawing lots, no less – to replace Judas in the company of the twelve: “… and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the apostles.” (Acts 1:26b) It is understated to the point of being almost startling.

To be blunt, if we believe all that is implied in the ceremonial, our ordered clergy will crash, and crash hard, because the unspoken expectations that get wrapped up in that sort of ceremonial will leave our communities imagining that maybe this one – this fresh and energized new priest – will be able to work the sort of wonders that our little churches have been waiting for.

The very worst unspoken expectation is that this new priest will be a skilled member of the so-called “helping profession;” that they will be very, very good at the sort of task that, quite frankly, most of us were not schooled for. Yet, to cite Hauerwas and Willimon,

In fact, we are not called to help people. We are called to follow Jesus, in whose service we learn who we are and how we are to help and be helped. Jesus, in texts like his Sermon on the Mount, robs us of our attempts to do something worthwhile for the world, something “effective” that yields results as an end in itself (Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens)

We are to be, in Eugene Peterson’s memorable phrase, “unnecessary pastors:” unnecessary in terms of what the culture deems important, namely being the decent and upright, generally helpful but ultimately harmless minister; unnecessary in what we ourselves often think is the important pastoral role, namely to be the key figure in the running of a functioning church; unnecessary in terms of what congregations most often want, namely for their pastor to be the leader of a winning and well-run church. (Eugene Peterson and Marva Dawn, The Unnecessary Pastor) Not only is it impossible to pull off all of that, but it actually has nothing to do with what we said in the ordination liturgy the other night. We might have implied some of it, ceremonially and in our applause and picture-taking and maybe even with those baskets of congratulatory cards and suitable ordination gifts, but it isn’t what we said.

What we said really comes down to this (and here I will focus exclusively on the priestly ministry): the role of the priest is to plan and lead worship (including, of course, sacramental worship), preach and teach well, and build up the life of the congregation. “All ministry,” write Hauerwas and Willimon, “can be evaluated by essentially liturgical criteria: How well does the act of ministry enable people to be with God?” So much so, that they go one to advise that clergy “… would do well to examine their schedules and ruthlessly delete any activity unable to be an opportunity to help us do that which we do in worship.” (Resident Aliens)

It still sounds like quite a task, though, doesn’t it? In everything that Helen or I do, it is to enable people to be with God? Any wonder that it is so easy to slip into ministry models that tie together administrator with helping professional with community servant with committee-sitter… committees at all levels of church life which so easily drain not only our time, but our imaginations, leading us to forget what it is that we’re called to do and be? The thing is that this latter mixed model is the one that will in fact drain us dry. I have a suspicion that whenever a priest says that he or she is working a sixty or seventy hour work week, an awful lot of that time is spent in committee work or in some form of sanctified social work or, more likely, in both. It is not that we are never to sit on a committee or that we are not to be involved in supporting and helping people in the midst of some life challenge, but we must remember that anything we do in this ministry we do as priests. We are not called to be all things to the communities in which we serve, but rather we are called to express our priesthood as members of an order within the Body of Christ. Part of that involves summoning the courage to be gloriously unnecessary by all of those other standards, and to learn to live this vocation according to a pattern and a rhythm quite different from others in the community. Not, mind you, above the rest of the community, and maybe not even apart from; instead different and within, alternative and a part of. Through the 1960’s, the Anglican ascetical theologian Martin Thornton was a champion of such an approach:

One calls in a plumber because he understands plumbing, not because of his wide experience of life, and one is coached by a golf professional because he is not a week-end amateur. One is suspicious of a doctor who has read no medical book for twenty years and knows nothing of modern drugs, and I suspect that intelligent modern Christians are getting suspicious of clergy who are for ever engaged in something other than prayer, learning and such-like professional occupations…. It is precisely by not being busily activist that we may really learn to serve and love those who have to be. It is because the priest has time for prayer, study and reflection that his guidance of those in the world’s hurly-burly is likely to be worth having. If the priest is to have any loving impact on modern people in a modern world, then he must take his job with dedicated seriousness and not make himself ridiculous by making an amateurish mess of some other job.  (Martin Thornton, The Rock and the River)

“The priest must first of all be free to see,” suggests Rowan Williams in an address that borrows both its title and its spirit from Michael Ramsey’s book of ordination addresses, The Christian Priest Today. “The priest has to have the opportunity of not being so swamped with ‘duties’ that he or she can’t maintain a sense of the whole landscape.” Williams goes on to speak about the need for what he calls “a fair bit of literacy about the world we’re in – literacy about our culture (cultures, rather), about how our contemporary emotions and myths work, about the human heart.” (Rowan Williams, “The Christian Priest Today”). Kenneth Leech is fond of speaking of this as being a kind of watching of the neighborhood, in which “pastoral ministry has to begin at this level of watching and listening to the hidden voices of the streets.” (Kenneth Leech, Silence and Ministry). Such watchfulness requires time and intention, as well as a fundamental belief that in its glorious unnecessity, it actually makes a difference.

Yet I am complicit in the other habits and other realities of my church. I was vested and played an official role in the ordination, and I kind of like the fact that my cassock and surplice are of really fine quality. Regardless of my ambivalence about the ceremonial, I grinned with delight to see Helen ordained a priest. I land up on committees, let myself be elected as a delegate to General Synod, and generally spend more time sitting at board room tables than is sane, wise, or faithful. More pressing, while I strive to rise to the call of Jesus – and of the Law and the Prophets before him – to release my hold on personal security and to meet the last, the least, the lost, the dying as if I were meeting Christ, most days I fall quite utterly short of the mark. I am called to live as servant and as one who proclaims the good new of God in Christ not only in my words but in the fabric of my life, but quite frankly I live a life of considerable comfort and security. I prefer our house in St Boniface to a missional house in the North End, I love to travel in spite of the degree to which that expresses privilege and, increasingly, a disregard for environmental degradation, and most days I’m better at reading or writing about the subversive claim of the gospel than I am about incarnating it.

In other words, I’m not actually preaching to the proverbial choir here, but really to myself. It is actually a really helpful exercise to take a hard look at the culture of our ordinations – not only the rite itself, but the ceremonial and all of the window dressing that goes along with the event – and to measure those against the things I think I’ve learned. You see, twenty years along in this vocation, and I’m still learning to pay attention to what actually matters, and from time to time I’m even managing to get a thing or two right. So yes, I am preaching to myself, but if Helen also finds something in all of this that is helpful, all the better. If someone else happens across this unpreached sermon and finds something here that sparks the imagination, better still. And if some of our habits were to actually change…

Amen.

One Response to A Sermon Not Preached at an Ordination

  1. Thank you for this. It is a more erudite version of the rant I have mentally composed at most of the ordination liturgies I have attended since my own.
    What puzzles me is why it is most offensive to those of us who are living in orders than to those who fill the pews.

    It begs the question, what would an ordination that reflects the commitment being made actually look like?

    Rhondda MacKay

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