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A Church of England Ordination: part one, the bad news.

I have recently attended Ordination services in two Anglican Cathedrals and I have to admit that it was a mixed experience! I went to support women friends who were being ordained as priests: they are lovely women, who will be excellent priests and the Church is richly blessed that God has called them to serve in it. It was a joy and privilege to be present. The Church of England tends to do these services rather well, and these occasions were no exception.
You can sense that there is a ‘but’ coming and indeed there is, because for me there was also a sense of hopeless unreality, verging on madness, about both occasions which left me feeling thoroughly depressed.

Let me quote what the liturgy required these newly ordained men and women to agree to do as priests: it’s a long list!

They are:
1] to proclaim the word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God’s new creation.
2] to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord;
3] to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for his family,
4] to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ forever.
5] to call their hearers to repentance and to declare in Christ’s name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins.
6] to tell the story of God’s love.
7] to baptize new disciples in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and to walk with them in the way of Christ, nurturing them in the faith.
8] to unfold the Scriptures, to preach the word in season and out of season, and to declare the mighty acts of God.
9] to preside at the Lord’s table and lead his people in worship, offering with them a spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
10] to bless the people in God’s name.
11] to resist evil,
12] support the weak,
13] defend the poor,
14] and intercede for all in need.
15] to minister to the sick and prepare the dying for their death.
16] to discern and foster the gifts of all God’s people, that the whole Church may be built up in unity and faith.
17] to be diligent in prayer, in reading Holy Scripture, and in all studies that will deepen their faith and fit them to bear witness to the truth of the gospel?
18] to lead Christ’s people in proclaiming his glorious gospel, so that the good news of salvation may be heard in every place?
19]] to faithfully minister the doctrine and sacraments of Christ as the Church of England has received them, so that the people committed to their charge may be defended against error and flourish in the faith?
20] to strive to be an instrument of God’s peace in the Church and in the world?
21] to endeavour to fashion their own life and that of their household according to the way of Christ, that they may be a pattern and example to Christ’s people?
22] to work with their fellow servants in the gospel for the sake of the kingdom of God?
23] to accept and minister the discipline of this Church, and respect authority duly exercised within it?
24] to, in the strength of the Holy Spirit, continually stir up the gift of God that is in them, to make Christ known among all whom they serve?

I have a number of problems with this list.

Firstly, it contains 24 things that they agreed to do with God’s help. You could focus exclusively on just one of these 24 and be fully and usefully employed all week and yet be painfully aware that much had not been done. But to imply that priesthood requires you to try and do all of them is hopelessly unrealistic and damaging to the health and welfare of clergy. Such a list sets the clergy apart as a race of elite super Christians equipped to do everything, it can’t but lead to a sense of guilt and failure, and is likely to encourage a culture of workaholism. It also inevitably devalues the laity.

Secondly, it’s inconsistent. Anybody attempting to honour just a few of these commitments
is likely to become a largely absent partner and parent, and thus to be in breach of number 21: ‘to endeavour to fashion your own life and that of your household according to the way of Christ, that you may be a pattern and example to Christ’s people.’

Thirdly, it makes no mention at all of what in practise takes up the bulk of most parish priests time today: namely church administration, concern about attendance figures, paying the Diocesan share, and keeping the buildings serviceable.

So this language describing the priestly calling is totally out of touch with the reality with which they will find themselves having to contend. It reminds me of those First World War campaigns to recruit young men for the army with idealistic slogans, when in reality they were going to be sacrificed as cannon fodder in the trenches.

Just to make things worse both services were presided over by smiley Bishops who acted for the most part more like TV quiz show hosts with their cheerful repartee and enthusiasm for how wonderful all this is. They appeared to be either in complete denial of the realities of parish life, which I doubt, or acting what they must surely know is a lie. The strain upon them to behave like this must be awful.

And yet……I’m sure that my two friends will be fine priests: they will serve faithfully and well as do most parochial clergy. But why burden them with this dishonesty? It need not be so.

5 Comments

  1. Well put Henry! I find ordinations an increasingly cringing experience, not least because of the inconsistency between the super-human demands of priests and their human capacity. You make this point well, and also others, reminding us of the bigger context of God and the real world.

  2. I’m less convinced than Paul….
    as with most ‘job descriptions’ no-one imagines that the candidate will do all these things all the time, to the fullness of their ability and to the fullness of the needs they encounter….but they are integral parts of the calling. The key is the line “You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God……pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit”. At the heart of the ordination liturgy is the recognition that this is , and has to be, God’s work not our own. With our consent He shapes our will, character, behaviour and capacity – not to make us into superheroes but rather to create ministers who know their own weaknesses and wounds, in order that we can better serve the weak and wounded around us.
    Number 21 is there precisely to remind us all that this calling includes at it’s heart the nurture and care of family, friends and self – to neglect this is to turn away from something essential to flourishing in ministry.
    You’re right in your description of some of the bureaucratic demands on clergy but there are always choices to be made and priorities to be established in ministry… and arguments to be made with respect about the things that are not important or need to be kept in check.
    And ‘smiley bishops’? Would you rather have some grim ‘Victorian’ patriarch?

  3. Hope this has been cathartic Henry. I usually find a good rant helps clear the spiritual tubes. With my finest regards. Keith

  4. Thanks Henry. I am not so sure it is a ‘rant’. You are on to something here. It’s partly about authenticity in liturgy – having it ring a bell with what we believe reality to be. And also about what liturgy reveals about assumptions and practices. On the question of the commission given to the ordained I’m OK with it being aspirational – more than we can reasonably and consistently deliver. We need to strive. Clergy tend to be conscientious types and I have no doubt that this leads to some of them sometimes feeling badly stressed or in other ways a failure (the latter I find can periodically be a useful thing).

    What I like about the article you reference above is the way it draws attention to liturgy as an oppressive exercise. Unintentionally, of course. The laity are sidelined and made into spectators. In the case of the ordination that the writer Jamie Howison describes the emphasis via processions, processional precedence and choreography is, to the external observer, an exercise in status and hierarchy. This – to varying degrees – can be true of most liturgy. It would not be too great a threat to tradition to examine this aspect, and to try some changes.

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