Friday, July 08, 2005

Jim's Ordination -- Part 2

OK, Jim, you asked for this. I hope you’re not offended! (For others: Jim suggested that I blog about his ordination.)

As I previously celebrated in this blog, my friend Jim recently received a call from a Lutheran congregation in California and was approved for ordination. He honored me by asking me to assist at his ordination mass. So I flew out to Tucson and drove the 70 or so miles south to Sierra Vista, and on 25 June beginning at 1:00 p.m. I offered the intercessions and I held the book for Bishop Murray Finck (of the Pacifica Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) as he ordained James Alan Pike into the holy ministry of and to word and sacrament. It was a splendid affair – very low key (and yes, I know that it’s odd for me to refer to a low-key event as “splendid,” but all of life doesn’t have to be papal-high-mass regal – not that I’d mind if it were!); sober, though celebrative; reflective; and substantial.

I have told probably everyone I know of my confidence in Jim’s upcoming ministry in Upland, California. He is a man of great intelligence and insight, firmly committed to the catholic Faith and determined to be a good pastor. And he will be a good and faithful pastor. For in addition to the qualities I have already listed, he is also sensitive, compassionate, clever, and personable (if, like me, a little on the introverted side – or so he says, anyway). And I think he has a good grasp on the nature of ministry – a grasp that will prevent his slipping into “flock sitting.”

I teared up at the Bishop’s announcement of Jim’s ordination – as I did, more profusely, the next day when I communed at the first mass over which Jim presided as a pastor. For I knew and know that I was in on the start of something significant for the Church. I’m jealous of the parish that has called him, for they will witness the fulfillment of my prophecy about him. I can only hear about it second-hand.

Bishop Murray gave every indication of being a fine churchman. He was delayed in arriving at the church until about ten minutes before the processional began. But Jim and I had walked and worked through the rite carefully that morning, so we (very briefly) briefed him on what we thought should happen, asked about his preferences (e.g., whether he wanted me to turn pages for him during the Great Thanksgiving of the mass), made sure he was relaxed. Then I told him that my job was to see that he did what he was supposed to do, so I’d get him when he was needed and tell him what to do when it was time. To his credit as a liturgist (and my great joy as a master of ceremonies!), the Bishop took instruction very well (and with a suitable sense of humor – for some reason, not everyone gets my irony). Furthermore (contrary to others I’ve encountered), he followed the rite and didn’t add his own “personal” touches. He was gracious and dignified in presiding (both at the ordination and at the mass), demonstrating both authority and humility in his demeanor. (My only complaint was that he invited applause after he proclaimed Jim ordained! It’s not his fault: The rubrics specifically allow for it as a demonstration of approval, and, as the Bishop noted, it has become “traditional” to do so. I just can’t get with clapping in church.)

Jim’s father, the pastor of the host congregation, preached. And he offered both practical guidance on being a pastor (e.g., “you are not establishing a career; you are called to minister.”) and the proud sentiment of a father whose son is following him into a vocation about which he himself is very proud and to which he himself seems deeply committed. I told him that I thought that what he preached was gospel. (But even so, he didn’t convince me that it’s a generally good thing for a friend or relative to preach on such occasions. The danger of the sermon’s becoming a kind of groom’s-dinner kind of toast is too great, even though that was not, I think, the case with Harl’s sermon.)

Most impressive for me about the whole affair, however, were the vows to preach and teach and lead the faithful in the truth – the truth as witnessed to in the Confessions, the Creeds, and the Scriptures. (The Lutheran rite is a little shallow on the rest of the Great Tradition, so there was, e.g., no mention of the ecumenical councils and the like.) This section struck me for a couple of reasons: First, the current Lutheran rite is a little less dire in its suggestion of the consequences of not being faithful to the vow than was the rite by which I was ordained and which continues to haunt me. And it was compelling because Jim and I had discussed that particular vow that day (so I knew that it was close to his heart, too.)

When I was ordained, the vow to minister faithfully carried the admonition – even threat – that I would be called to account before almighty God for my ministry. (The current rite frames the matter more mildly: “Before almighty God, to whom you must give account, ….”) I still take it seriously – especially when I’m pondering some new-sounding interpretation of theology or criticizing some “solid Lutheran” on a point of doctrine. When I teach classes at church, I will often warn the class that I’m about to go out on a limb and that they must test what I say because it may not be orthodox (though I pray it is) and I don’t want to mislead them. Sometimes I explain that I’m under a dire ordination admonition not to be flippant with the Church’s teachings and that the vow did not die when I left the “clergy roster.” To me, it is of the essence of the ordination right.

I’m delighted that Jim understands that he must labor under the same warning, however it is couched in current rites. He knows that to be a pastor is to have a specific message to communicate – not just any old thing that makes people feel good. That message has content – and it has a history: He may not just “make it up on the spot,” but must draw it from the 2000 years of the Church’s teaching and preaching. (That’s not to say that the message – the Gospel – doesn’t need translating into new terms and new situations. But the big “hermeneutical” task is to be sure to say what the Church has always said.)

That is a condition not readily acknowledged by a whole host of those ordained – at least as I come into contact with Lutheran pastors. There is almost glee on the part of many as they jettison the traditional teachings (no matter how modernly dressed) in favor of new messages, false gospels, and the like. I regularly hold up Bishop Spong as a negative example: I cite him because he’s not a Lutheran and so he doesn’t evoke some of the emotion that would rise were I to name some Lutherans. (Many Lutherans appreciate him – the more the pity – but they still tend to view him as something of an anomaly, not someone from “within the family.” It’s possible to deal with him more objectively, then.) Bishop Spong seems willing to give away the dogmatic store for the sake of making people feel better about and welcome in Church. And I am alarmed for him (as well as by him). Not only is he sowing discord among the Body of Christ, but also he is riding for a fabulous fall at the last judgment.

Now, I’m not one to believe that one goes to hell for being unorthodox – or even a heretic, for that matter. (Disclaimer: I realize that universalism is not a favored doctrine in the Church’s tradition, even though I’m inclined to think that it’s a better expression of the Gospel than double predestination. Despite the tragic failure of Origen to articulate a satisfactory explanation of universalism, I hold hope that God’s mercy will reach out even to the heretic.) Still, I don’t think we can overlook that teaching of Jesus that it were better for a person to be drowned than to face judgment for having misled the “little ones” of Christ. Of course, the antinomian age in which we practice the faith denies any rules, commandments, or requirements in the life of faith. (It’s all whatever makes you feel good, I guess.) But it seems to me that there is a reckoning coming, and I wish someone would begin to warn the clergy of that.

I have come away from Jim’s ordination with a renewed concern about clericalism in the Church. It was nothing in Jim’s ordination that sparked this; I have been raving about the issue for about a year. But in reflecting on ordination, it seemed nature to bridge over to clericalism – even though most people I know think that that’s the last concern in the Lutheran Church. (They’re wrong, of course.)

I define clericalism as that sentiment that the “real work” of faith is done by the clergy and that the clerics really are holier than the rest of “ordinary Christians.” I think such sentiment is rampant in the Church (held by clerics and laypeople alike) – and I think it’s an ecumenical problem. (At first, I thought that it might be more an issue for the “high” churches, with their ritual and vestments and sobriety and “Father”-language. But I realize that it’s a factor in all traditions and denominations. If push were to come to shove, most Christians, I believe, would claim that clergy are better than lay people.)

Evidence of the problem comes in various forms. First, at Jim’s ordination, there were some signs. The lay people in the congregation were (understandably) delighted to see a son of the congregation ordained: He had grown up in the congregation; they love his father; they know how smart he is. But some of them spoke in various ways about his “higher” calling. There was also the sense, which I was surprised (and surprised to be surprised) to get, that Jim was more religious than they are. (It feeds the stereotype that the laity expect the clergy to be the professional religion-practicers.) Then there were the pastors who participated in the laying on of hands. A couple of them asked me about my ministry, and when I said that I wasn’t a pastor, but rather a lawyer (for heaven’s sake), they sort of shrank away -- lost interest. That’s been my experience in other ordinations, too: A layperson doesn’t “belong.” (I also see that when I visit friends who live in a retirement community that comprises numerous retired pastors and bishops. They stick to themselves and, to quote some “lay” residents, carry “an air.”)

In the wider church, I think there is an indication of clericalism in the ways we don’t limit “pasturing” to word and sacrament ministry. Pastors regularly get called or hired (and are kept on the clergy roster – i.e., on the rolls of those called to ministry of word and sacrament) to do work that could easily be done by laypeople – e.g., administering hospitals or editing books or being bureaucrats or teaching in seminaries or being counselors. And I think that the low number of pastors who have trained lay “assisting ministers” for the mass is another point supporting my argument.

Now, I hold a very high doctrine of the ministry. I think the ministry of and to word and sacrament is essential to the life of the Church. Without ordained ministers, there is no church. Thus, I do not subscribe a kind of “delegation” theory of the pastorate – i.e., that “for the sake of good order” (e.g., to keep everyone from talking in church at once) the church selects someone to act as a representative the whole. Ministry is more serious than that. It is of divine ordering for the Church.

But neither do I hold to a kind of “Roman” view that there is granted in ordination some indelible or unchangeable “ontological” character or transformation. The “charism” of ministry (to quote my Eastern friends) is the grace, power, willingness, and means to preach and preside – made possible by the Holy Spirit’s working through the minister. It is a peculiar – i.e., special and unique – charism, and it is “hierarchical.” But it is “hierarchical” in the true sense of the word – not in the sense of lording it over or having higher status, but in the sense of participating in the divine ordering of the Church (hieros = holy; archos = leading or order). It is the office, not the officeholder, that is holy.

There are two problems with clericalism. First, it diminishes the ministry of laypeople. It reduces the Church to its clerics, who provide a service to people who are essentially outsiders. Second, it diminishes the real meaning of ministry. It focuses on the person and ignores the importance of preaching and presiding in the life of the Church.

Of the first, I can say little. We pay a lot of lip service to “secular” vocations. But, what I will not demonstrate here, I think it is solely lip service. We really practice a kind of ecclesiastical institutionalism which holds that if you’re not working for the institution of the Church, you’re doing something perhaps necessary, but less than sacred.

More important to my consideration here is what clericalism says about what “pastors” are intended to do. There is a dearth of the sense of the “holiness” of ministry of and to word and sacrament. And clericalism feeds into that by emphasizing the personal character of the ministry rather than what is ministered.

I remember that when I came out of seminary and was ordained, there was great stewing among the “troops” (of pastors) about their “place” in the world. They wanted to be relevant, to make a difference, to be useful and helpful. And so they had to find some alternative “model” for their ministry that would allow them to establish such a place. To preside at the Eucharist and to preach didn’t seem particularly important or effective to many. (I confess that there were times I felt that – but I was young and hadn’t thought a lot of things through yet. J )

Many of my colleagues became administrators, and they ran congregational programs and building-fund appeals and all the rest better than some CEOs of corporations. Their model of ministry was drawn from the corporate world. (Preaching was a rather logical extension of that kind of leadership, and presiding was a kind of religious veneer added to give meaning to this organization’s reason for being – distinct from other organizations’.) Others adopted a therapeutic model, and they visited and counseled and provoked – oops, evoked – crises that they could then deal with. It was in such person-to-person care that they found meaning for their title “Reverend” – which is an adjective, not a title. (I once told a colleague that I wouldn’t schedule more than three counseling sessions with people if the issue were psychological. After that, I insisted they consult a licensed professional. He thought I was crazy – and a failure as a “minister.” My CPE adviser tried to get me to forsake ordained ministry because I was inadequately committed to psychotherapeutic methods.) I guess I could accept a “minister as healer” if the “healer” used the classic Christian methods of healing – e.g., anointing, confession and absolution. But that was not what they were about. Others were people persons of other kinds – really keen on youth work or the like.

But almost none understood, it seemed to me, the meaning of a ministry to and of word and sacrament. And that may have reflected the lack of an ecclesiology within which the importance of the Word spoken and made visible was the meaning of the Church. Clericalism fits nicely with a model of the Church as a religion-dispensing organization. It finds a foothold in a constantinian world in which the Church is chaplain to the world – meeting the world on the world’s terms and making the world feel better for it.

But those are not appropriate models of the Church.

But if not, then what is an adequate model? In the Church of the apostles, in the Church of Luther, in the Church of Hauerwas and Huetter and Jenson, what does it mean that some be “set apart”? (The rite still uses that language.) What ought ministry to look like today? (And by that, I don’t mean – but I don’t exclude – ought pastors to wear clerical collars any longer?) What can we say about the charism of ministry? (Is there a charism for the presbyterate different from that for the episcopacy? If arguably so, is that why we Lutherans can’t break through with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox?) Will congregations allow pastors to be preachers and presiders – and only tangentially involved in the “running” of the parish. Will many be interested in being that kind of pastor?

As one of the Church’s pastors (and one of her newest, at that), Jim, you must help us work through these questions and to work toward a renewed seriousness toward ordained ministry. You must demonstrate what ordained ministry is and resist giving in to popular practices that distort that understanding. You must remember your calling – that it centers on pulpit and altar. And by “centers,” I don’t mean that it sees those as convenient jumping off places for the real work of ministering. I mean that your ministry must enable your people to experience the centripetal and centrifugal forces of the chancel – to be the people of God, and not just a religious people. The Holy Ministry is not a utilitarian operation and it does not consider the Word read and spoken and acted to be fuel for some other life.

May the God who brought from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, by the ministrations of the Holy Spirit, equip James with every good gift to fulfill his calling to the Holy Ministry, working through him all that is pleasing to Him.

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