Several months ago, my bishop and I discussed details of my ordination’s time and place. I realized that I was having strong feelings about where and when and how it would happen, and I felt embarrassed about having personal preferences about location and music. I asked one of my mentors, “Is ordination like my wedding day? Or is that the wrong way to think about it?”
I believe her response was something like, “It is like your wedding day, but it is about and for the Church.”
Obviously, I have had many years to think about ordination (read the blog): What the Church says it is, and what I think it is. I regret to tell you that, only 52 hours away from the moment, I keep waffling on the subject. Oh, I have asked many people their thoughts on the matter. I have made grand pronouncements on my theology of ordination at my final ordination interview, only to have my confidence shaken when someone’s personal testimony of the experience contradicts my speculation.
This is a sure sign of God’s fooling with those of us who want to be definitive about the work of the Holy Spirit. Or rather, I’m pretty sure that it’s a sure sign. Here’s just a sampling of comments in the past week:
Me: I don’t believe ordination causes an ontological change [a fundamental change in one’s metaphysical nature]. It’s about being ordered by the church community to perform certain roles in response to God’s call to do so.
Highly Likable and Respected Priest 1: I absolutely experienced an ontological change. I was changed utterly forever.
Highly Likable and Respected Priest 2: The business about ontological change is rubbish.
Highly Likable and Respected Laywoman: I don’t know why you guys [ordinands] would want to get ordained. You don’t need to. What’s the point?
Hmmmm. One thing is for sure: It is a serious and exciting matter, at least in the Episcopal Church, because we spend years discerning with church committees whether we are actually called to be ordained, and then we spend a lot of time, money, and energy to prepare for ordination. Families get moved, marriages get strained, children suffer stress and loss, beliefs get shaken, and old forms of security are stripped away. To quote Scarlett O’Hara, “Where shall I go? What shall I do?”
Wow. That sounds like a lot of what Jesus said would happen to us if we followed Him.
But there is also excitement and joy and a certain spiritual trust in letting go, responding to a deep call that seems to come both from without and within, and jumping into that rushing stream to see where it takes us. There is so much excitement and joy that the response feels simultaneously reckless and sure.
We’ve seen people who get caught up in some highly exultant moment and make choices that later prove to be rash. That’s exactly why religious organizations take years to help people discern and to prepare them for things like ordination. And each Church has its take on what ordination is.
In my Episcopal tradition, which is quite similar to other Christian traditions, we say that the Church has organized people into “orders”: bishops, priests, deacons, religious (monks, brothers, sisters, and nuns), and laypeople, all of whom play their part in trying to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth. None of them is more special than the other, we say. But let’s face it: there are fewer of some orders than others, and some people get fancier robes than others. We give special responsibilities to some people.
And our vows say this. The ordination vows for a deacon, which are the first vows I will take as a transitional deacon preparing for priesthood, say this:
“My sister, every Christian is called to follow Jesus Christ,
serving God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood
directly under your bishop. In the name of Jesus Christ, you
are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the
sick, and the lonely.” Book of Common Prayer, 543.
Do I feel called to do that? Absolutely. Did I feel called to do that as a lay Christian? Absolutely. So what is the “special” language about? To me, one difference is that I will be held publicly accountable for it. The Christian gospels that are supposed to govern my life already call me to be a public example of godliness, and I’ll always be accountable to God for that. But now I will be more accountable to the Church.
I have balked at this idea at times, not because I wish to behave in an ungodly manner, but simply because it’s antithetical to our religion to say that one person is holier than another. Ordination is definitely not about proclaiming one person to be holier than another or having a more special call. But it is, among other things, about being a public example, or as the ordination vows for deacon and priest say, a “wholesome example.”
The other difference for me between lay and ordained life is that it will now be my job in this world to do these things. Some of us just have this internal drive to do certain things, such as to make the Eucharistic meal happen for people, to baptize and bless, to preach and teach and counsel and absolve within church structures. We call it call. My response to the woman who asked me, “What’s the point?” was simply that we felt called to do it and could do no other.
I am truly excited about that, and truly excited about serving the Church and God in ever deeper ways. I love serving God’s people and preaching and teaching, and I have prepared carefully for these things. Already, people who know I’m a seminarian will ask, “Can I ask you something about God? What do you think about this Bible passage? Will you pray for me?” And all of that has been a joy.
So I have tried on the clerical shirt and collar and looked in the mirror and muttered ineloquently, “Okay. Okay.” But as I said at my ordination retreat recently, “I still want to be Janine.” And perhaps God still wants me to be Janine, and wants you to be who you are.
So I’m going to march down the aisle with my fellow ordinand this Saturday, June 16 (feast day of the great Anglican theologian, Joseph Butler!). We’ll be in a long procession of people in fancy robes, placed in the order of how special they are on that day. That is true. And a bunch of heads will turn to bow as the two crosses pass–or to see who’s marching in. That is true, too. Let’s not kid ourselves.
But think about it this way: whenever we want to show deep love and reverence and joy for someone special, we create rituals to express these powerful emotions. Picture the one-year-old’s birthday cake moment. We surround her or him and rejoice when the baby plunges her or his hands into the frosting. We are celebrating new life’s exuberance and an important milestone in that child’s life and our lives as family members and friends.
The Someone Special at ordinations is God (the Triune God for us Christians). And I think–no, I am sure–that at ordinations, we are celebrating and publicly proclaiming our deep desire to serve God and our fellow human beings. It’s everyone’s party.
And the excitement and tension I’m feeling must not be about anything that’s going to happen to me, right? It must be like the excitement and tension of the one-year-old’s parents, who want to make sure they got the birthday candles and cake and invited the right people and timed the party just right. This way, their joy over the Special Person will be obvious to all.