Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Theology (and Practice) of Ordination

Thanks to everyone who offered wisdom and guidance regarding the question of “pulpit supply” in churches that practice weekly Word & Table. I have thought much about what each of you has said. It seems, however, that I have inadvertently raised a much bigger issue – one that is appropriate to be discussed on a Sacramental-Nazarene blog. That issue is, of course, our theology and practice of holy orders.

This is an issue that is of particular interest in my mind. It became as such when I realized I was to be ordained the next day. I remember laying awake most of the night wrestling with what this act meant and accomplished. I learned much in my years of theological education (eight to be exact), but never once in that eight years did we even hint at the kind of look I believe such a pivotal event deserves. I had at least two classes dedicated to “Theology of Ministry.” I had at least three classes on “Christian Worship.” I had countless “Systematic Theology” courses and even a “Pastoral Theology” course. In all those courses, ordination never came up.

So I decided to ask around at District Assembly the next day. I asked clergy and laity. I asked the seminary educated and the course of study educated. No one could explain it to me. Everyone looked at me like I was stupid for asking. So I did what I always do. I turned to books. Imagine my surprise when the first one I found (The Yoke of Obedience: The Meaning of Ordination in Methodism. Campbell, 1988.) began like this:

Ordination has not been a major issue for most Methodists. Lay persons have generally thought of it, if at all, as authorizing, or credentialing, of persons to “work as ministers.” Clergy have viewed it as a step in the complex process leading to service as a pastor…

The lack of attention to ordination was made clear to me once when, as a member of the Board of Ordained Ministry, I asked a candidate for Elder’s Orders to explain theologically what would happen in the ordination service when the bishop placed hands on the ordinand’s head. The young man was unable to answer the question, except to say that he would then have the credentials to be a minister. I asked him why we didn’t just mail the certificate of credentials and save the annual conference the expense and time of an ordination service? He could not give a reason. He is not alone. I realized then that many students never deal specifically with the theology of ordination… (9-10).

I’m glad I – we – are not alone in our murky theology and practice of ordination. Why do I refer both to our theology and our practice? Because there is a tremendous disconnect between what we say about ordination in our official Manual statements and the ritual used in ordination services.

The Manual is clear that (1) ordination is not a sacrament; (2) ordination is not the distinction between clergy and laity; (3) ordination is not required to “administer” the sacraments.

So what is ordination? Regarding our theology of ordination, the Manual (2009) affirms:

While affirming the scriptural tenet of the universal priesthood and ministry of all believers, ordination reflects the biblical belief that God calls out and gifts certain men and women for ministerial leadership in His Church. Ordination is the authenticating, authorizing act of the Church, which recognizes and confirms God’s call to ministerial leadership as stewards and proclaimers of both the gospel and the Church of Jesus Christ. Consequently, ordination bears witness to the Church universal and the world at large that this candidate evidences an exemplary life of holiness, possesses gifts and graces for public ministry, and has a thirst for knowledge, especially for the Word of God, and has the capacity to clearly communicate sound doctrine (406.1).

I wish not to delve into, at this moment what all this means and implies, only to point out the low view it takes as a “witness” rather than as a “means of grace” or as a “sacrament.”

Contrast that, however with the way ordination is practiced. When we examine the ritual for ordination we find something very interesting. When we focus in on the moment of ordination we find three things: (1) a symbolic act; (2) an authoritative proclamation; (3) a consecratory prayer. It is this final act that betrays our stated theology. A symbolic act and an authoritative proclamation alone signify nothing more than a “witness.” The addition of a consecratory prayer, however, makes the act into a “means of grace.” A symbolic act and an authoritative proclamation alone signify nothing more than an “act of the Church.” The addition of a consecratory prayer, however, make the act into a “work of God.” Taken together, understanding ordination as both a means of grace and an act of God move the entire act into the world of sacraments.

Consider the practice of the stated sacraments of the Church of the Nazarene: Baptism and Eucharist. Neither of theses stated sacraments is commonly practiced with a prayer of consecration. The water is not changed, it is just water. The bread and the wine are not changed, they are just bread and water. Without the consecratory prayer, there is little in the way of sacramentality to be found. Add a prayer of consecration, and now is found a living, powerful, effective sacrament. Our sacraments have no consecration. But ordination does. Isn’t it strange that our theology says Baptism and Eucharist are sacraments and ordination is not, but in our practice it is ordination that functions liturgically as a sacrament while most often Baptism and Eucharist do not.

All that to say the Church of the Nazarene is far from clear in its understanding either of sacraments generally or of ordination (or Baptism or Eucharist) specifically. As long as this ambiguity exists, there is certainly room for both those who hold to a higher, traditional theology of ordination and those who hold to a lower, contemporary theology of ordination.

And so we are left with Campbell’s two questions:

1) Theologically, what happens in the ordination service when hands are laid upon the ordinand?

2) Why can’t we just mail the certificate of credentials and save the church the expense and time of an ordination service?


Mike McVey said...

First, I do not necessarily disagree with any of your questions or concerns.

That being said, you are taking a mutt of a denomination that is pretty open in so many ways to understand theology that to expect coherence is a bit silly.

Having looked at our history, our consistency as a denomination is that we take things other people do but really don't know why we do them. The best answer is we do them because we do them.

We are among the lowest of low churches as a denomination. There are several things in the same vein that do not make sense. We have higher qualifications to be a missionary than we do to be a district or general superintendent. One of the big issues right now is that several of us pastors want more than to be low church pastors. We don't necessarily want to be high church (maybe a middle church?), but we don't want to be the symbols ourselves.

Few congregations understand how we can move to a high church feel without "becoming Catholic." Heck, we have brethren who are very 'Concerned' because anything that speaks of high church is heretical. We've never been an episcopal form of church and this causes lots of problems in regards to the authority of the church.

I think all of the above greatly factors in why we participate in the lack of our theology in the sacraments, marriage, and even ordination. When I was asked by my district board of ministry how I felt about the ordination process, I talked about the theology and history and the beauty of what ordination was. This was met with the response by a board member saying that ordination didn't mean anything. So, yeah...

Since my response is jumbled I will conclude with this: The answer to why we do not mail a certificate is that we are still a communal church. Ordination is a communal event. Everything that the church does is communal. The reason we lay on hands is because "that's what we are supposed to do". ;)

Brannon Hancock said...

Eric: you have just acknowledged the 800lb gorilla in the room. I'm going to have to take some time to formulate a coherent response to this, but briefly, I wanted to say, thank you for writing this. I think you are right on the money. I think Mike's response, too, is a solid, feet-on-the-ground, accurate realist response - not of things how they should be but of things as they are. This is DEFINITELY discussion that needs to be developed further, and so thank you for taking us there. I will write more when it's not 1:30am.

Eric + said...

Just for further evidence of Mike's point of our "Mutt" nature, I was at two ordination services this year (sorry I couldn't stay and talk longer Brannon) presided by two different GS's. At one, the GS very much downplayed the whole educational process basically saying that the early church gave house church leaders a 3 day crash course and then sent them on their way, and adding that we should move that way... a very low understanding of ordination.

On the other hand, the other GS talked of ontological change. Of ordination making the ordinand Christ for the Church (in persona Christi)... a very high view of ordination.

So, when our GS's are on such different pages it is not surprising that there is such a wide spectrum of thought on the issue.

Todd Stepp said...

And, Eric, they are on different pages about a lot of things. - I won't go into that, but, relative to this conversation: I was happy, a couple of years ago to hear Jesse Middendorf say, at an ordination service, something to the effect, "While we do not call ordination a sacrament, something sacramental is happening here."

Of course, those who know me, know that I would be happy with that. - I do agree with the distinction of Bapt. & Euch. as gospel sacraments instituted by Christ. As a good Wesleyan, I believe in many "means of grace."


Matthew Francis said...

Thanks for this. I take a look at this blog every now and again, and hope it's okay for me to chip in with a comment.

This is a fascinating conversation about one of the 'jugular' issues in the CotN. Thank you, brothers. All of these sacramental issues are inter-related, as this current 'pulpit/altar-supply' query shows.

From 1998-2003, I was a District Licensed minister for five years (Canada West and British Isles South), and was scheduled for Ordination as an Elder, but ultimately went with the DS' blessing to the Orthodox Church. I had the honour to serve as an associate in one of our 'sacramental' churches, with tremendous pastors and people. During that time, one of the curious things that struck me is that of the many 'requirements' for Ordination in the Church of the Nazarene (including Entire Sanctification), Baptism is not mentioned as one of them.

Ted Campell's pointed essay on the conflicted status of Baptism within the Wesleyan tradition is pretty helpful at charting how this (to my mind) rather confusing position came to be.

This tension of 'sacramental' vs. 'believers/free' church' ecclesiologies appears to be intrinsic within Wesleyan-family churches. Many will say that this pragmatism is one of the greatest gifts and 'geniuses' of the movement - there is theological freedom in order to focus on the essentials(e.g., "Holiness", "Missional, etc.) Others will not be able to reckon with the apparent inconsistency.

I'll track down the details of that essay and pass them on here, as it may be fruitful for this conversation.

With love in the Lord,

- Matthew