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Holy Orders: Understanding Ordination

February 10, 2015

What Are Holy Orders?

A biblical value that has marked Church of the Resurrection over the last twenty-five years is the authority for ministry given to all the baptized. Early on, our bulletin included in our staff listing “Ministers: The Congregation." This remains true.

In tandem with this value is another clear biblical priority: the ancient call to set aside some for the work of spiritual service and leadership. The levitical and priestly roles of the Old Testament gave way to the New Testament ministries of deacon, presbyter, and bishop. These three “catholic orders," articulated in the early second century by Ignatius, are known in our Anglican tradition as holy orders.

The apostle Paul, in exhorting a young presbyter/priest Timothy, articulated the heart of New Testament ordination when he wrote: “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you" (1 Timothy 4:14). In this earliest description of ordination, we see that when spiritual leaders lay their hands on a candidate, a kind of immediacy and power in the Holy Spirit occurs (“prophecy"), and a gift of love and service for the Church and those far from the Church is given.

The creeds proclaim the church to be “one, holy, catholic (i.e., universal), and apostolic." Bishops are a powerful sign of this reality in their unity across time (from the time of the apostles) and space (throughout the world). Since ordination to any order always comes through a bishop, all ordained ministry participates in this sign. Thus, ordination is not primarily about the individual, or even about the parish, but rather about the church universal.

People might ask, “If everyone's called to serve, then why are only some ordained?" Ordained ministry is more than a call to serve the church, it is the call to be the church's servant. Ordination is not about being recognized and validated; it is about recognizing and serving Christ in the “least of his brothers" (Matthew 25:40).

What Does It Mean to Be a Deacon?

The first of the three orders of ordained ministry is that of deacon. All who are called to holy orders are ordained to this ministry. As Richard Hooker wrote, “The fundamental order is that of deacon. Every priest, every bishop is first of all and always a deacon."

The very name of this ministry (Greek diakonos = servant) is a reminder of Jesus' teaching that all authority in his church exists for service: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant (diakonos)" (Matthew 20:25-26). This servant leadership was perfectly exemplified by the Lord Jesus himself, who came not to be served but to serve" (Matthew 20:28).

“The fundamental order is that of deacon."

The ministry of deacon is captured in the symbol of the towel. The deacon strives to model the Lord Jesus washing his disciples' feet at the Last Supper (John 13:1-20). The deacon figuratively “washes the feet of the saints" (cf. 1 Timothy 5:10) by unstinting and selfless service to the parish family and to the poor. The ministry of a deacon is one of “field leadership" as exemplified by the church's first deacons, who assumed responsibility from the apostles for the daily distribution of food to widows (Acts 6:1-7). The specific form that this leadership takes depends on each deacon's unique gifts (e.g., leadership development, Bible studies, pastoral care, visiting the sick, and caring for the under-served and forgotten).

Some deacons are later called to serve as priests or bishops, others are not. Therefore, no one should be ordained as a deacon unless he or she is willing to serve in that order forever. Either way, the image of servant leadership provided by the ministry of deacon remains a model for all orders of ordained ministry.

What Does It Mean to Be a Priest?

The second of the three orders of ordained ministry is that of priest. The Church, in her ordination liturgy, traditionally has identified three essential facets of this sacred ministry: to teach, to sanctify, and to guide. Thus, the bishop asks, “Will you be diligent to minister the doctrine [to teach], sacraments [to sanctify], and discipline [to guide] of Christ, as the Lord has commanded, and as this Church has received them, according to the Commandments of God, and to keep and observe the same?"

As one who teaches, the priest must not only “preach the word" (2 Timothy 4:2), but must also “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3). Thus, an ordinand to the priesthood is asked, “Will you be ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away from the Body of Christ all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God's Word…?

As one who sanctifies, the priest is entrusted with ministering the sacred gifts of Word and Sacrament that Christ himself has given “so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish" (Ephesians 5:27). Thus, in laying his hands upon an ordinand to the priesthood, the bishop pronounces the following words: “Receive the Holy Spirit for the Office and work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed to you by the Imposition of our hands. When you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, and when you retain the sins of any, they are retained. And be a faithful minister of the Word of God, and of his holy Sacraments; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

As one who guides, the priest must be a true pastor, modeling his ministry on that of the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11). He must “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching" (2 Timothy 4:2). Thus, an ordinand is asked, “Will you be ready, with all faithful diligence, …to admonish and exhort, both publicly and privately, the weak and the strong within your charge, as need may require, and occasion be given?"

Traditionally, the bishop has presented a Bible and a chalice to each newly ordained priest as part of the rite of ordination. Together, Bible and chalice serve as a powerful symbol of the priest's call to preside at the regular parish celebration of Word and Table.

What Does It Mean to Be a Bishop?

The third of the three orders of ordained ministry is the office of bishop. The bishop, like the priest, is called to teach, to sanctify, and to guide. Thus, at the ordination of a bishop, we pray “give grace to all Bishops, the Pastors of your Church, that they may diligently preach your Word, duly administer your Sacraments, and provide godly Discipline." At the same time, the bishop is called to be a living icon of the unity of the church across time and space, as well as the pastor/shepherd of his priests and deacons. The ministry of every priest and deacon is an extension of and participation in the ministry of the bishop (cf. Numbers 11:24-25), just as the bishop, as pastor, shares in the ministry of the one “great shepherd of the sheep," the Lord Jesus Himself (Hebrews 13:20).

Traditionally, the bishop is presented with a staff and a ring at his ordination. The staff symbolizes the bishop's call to be the visible shepherd of God's holy people (“Simon, son of John, do you love me? ... Tend my sheep"—John 21:16), and the ring symbolizes the bishop's call to love Christ's bride, the church, just as Christ loves her and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25).

How Does Ordained Ministry Function?

Three powerful symbols capture the nature of ordained ministry:

Prayer Book: Every bishop, priest, and deacon participates with the Holy Spirit in the building of the church through a life of prayer and fasting, crying out to the Father, on bended knee, for both the churched and the unchurched. At the heart of all ordained ministry is a life of sacrifice; and this life is possible only by means of a life of prayer in true union with Jesus and his great sacrifice.

Pulpit: Each bishop, priest, and deacon then ministers through preaching and teaching, both in public and in private, with authority grounded in the authority of Scripture.

Altar: This authority is also ministered at the altar. The deacon's presence at the altar is a clear reminder that the church's mission cannot be separated from her worship. For the bishop and the priest, the altar is perhaps the strongest symbol of their call to lead. From the altar the bishop and priest practice a spiritual leadership as father, a liturgical leadership as presider, a vision leadership of hope for the growth of the church, an executive leadership of wisdom and, finally, a pastoral leadership of love for the sheep and for younger leaders who will one day lead the sheep as well.

How Is a Call to Ordination Discerned?

Serving as an apostle, prophet, evangelist, or pastor and teacher (Ephesians 4) is a gift. It cannot be earned or won, only received from God. The work of the Church (especially her clergy) is to discern to whom the gift of spiritual leadership is given and to present this person to the bishop for final discernment and blessing.

God's call is always discerned through the church. In recent times, in many traditions, the individual discerns a call to ministry, which is then confirmed by the church leaders. But in the ancient church (and still largely so in the Orthodox churches today), it was the reverse: the call to ministry was discerned by the church leaders and then confirmed by the individual. We believe that ancient practice offers great wisdom. At Church of the Resurrection, our clergy are proactive in discerning who has the call to holy orders. We want to help spread the church and replace ourselves. We're looking for the people God is raising up.

Here's what we look for:

Character. We seek those who have a fervent devotion to prayer, an uncommon heart to serve others, a love for those far from God, a passion for learning and communicating Holy Scripture, a sacrificial love for Jesus, and a quickness to receive correction and direction. Where are the future clergy found? They emerge in prayer meetings, in hidden, mundane acts of service, and in ministries where others naturally follow them.

Fruitfulness. The people of God, as recorded in Numbers (chapter 17), struggled to know who should be given spiritual authority over them. Aaron, their priestly leader, seemed all too human to them—full of frailty and sometimes making poor decisions. They questioned Aaron's leadership. In this moment of uncertainty, God asked Moses to enact a unique test to show the one the Lord had chosen. Twelve leaders, one from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, would bring staffs to the Tent of Meeting, where each staff would be marked by the leader's name. The staff that sprouted blossoms would be the staff of God's appointed leader. The next day, Aaron's staff not only flowered, but also budded and bore ripe almonds! Similarly, we look for fruitfulness in the life and ministry of men and women at Resurrection. Are others becoming more like Christ because of who they are and what they do?

“God's call is always discerned through the church."

Leadership. Since people in holy orders will be leading others, we look for those who have God-given abilities to lead leaders, to oversee, to administrate, to vision, to care pastorally for others, to handle conflict, to mentor. The person in holy orders is a spiritual father or mother and needs the spiritual, emotional, and relational maturity to serve that way.

How Long Does It Take to Become Ordained?

It's common in American churches to answer this question, “In two or three years—as long as it takes to finish a grad degree."

At Church of the Resurrection, while fully honoring and encouraging theological education, we see service, leadership, and fruitfulness in the parish as the primary indicators of readiness for ordination. Developing maturity in service and leadership and fruitfulness takes time. St. Paul admonished to “not be hasty in the laying on of hands" (1 Timothy 5:22). Gregory the Great, several centuries later, exhorted, “No one ventures to teach any art unless he has learned it after deep thought. With what rashness, then, would the pastoral office be undertaken by the unfit, seeing that the government of souls is the art of arts!" With this in mind, we are committed to “early leadership and later ordination."

Therefore, at Church of the Resurrection, we don't have a pre-set amount of time for people to prepare for ordination. We have had ordinands in their twenties and ordinands in their fifties.

Questions & Answers

Q: Is there a limit on the number of people ordained at Resurrection?
A: No. Although Resurrection needs only so many clergy internally, we believe in “planting leaders." We hope to send out many leaders throughout the Midwest and beyond who will help create “a revival of Word and Sacrament, infused by the Holy Spirit." We hope many will respond to this call from Archbishop Benjamin Kwashi, from our sister diocese of Jos, Nigeria:

“We are called to build the Kingdom of God. This is not a call to selfish or personal enjoyment, profit or gain; it is a call to labor. … We must be people who are willing to suffer for the sake of the gospel and the Kingdom, people who will not complain or grumble when things are difficult, when we are tired out, when someone disappoints us, or things go wrong—or when we have no good place to live… We cannot do this on our own, but we are called to be builders of the people of the Kingdom, by relying on the Word of God, experiencing the abundance of the fullness of the Holy Spirit, and exercising the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God in daily ministry in the world."

Q: I want to go away for grad school. Can I still be ordained through Resurrection?
A: Most likely no. If you are at a distance, it is too difficult for the clergy to mentor you and to see your service and fruitfulness in action; therefore, we can't gain a reliable sense of your readiness for ordination. That said, if you complete a degree and return to Resurrection, the process can begin then.

Q: As a woman, can I be ordained in this church?
A: Yes, as a deacon.

Q: Do I need an M.Div. or similar degree to be considered for ordination?
A: No. We generally assume an undergraduate degree from applicants and value graduate education. That said, as Steve Addison wrote in Movements That Change the World (IVP, 2011), “… education cannot create a leader, it can only augment and improve one. Theological learning should be integrated with an active engagement in ministry. The local church should be the 'seminary' that trains church planters and pastors."

Q: I don't want to be seen as “putting myself forward." Is it okay to say that I feel a call to ordination?
A: Yes. As Paul writes in 1 Timothy, “If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task." Please contact Brenda@churchrez.org. The best evidence of your call is faithful service, so we encourage you to serve in or through Resurrection.

—Canon Stephen Gauthier, Bishop Stewart Ruch III, Fr. Kevin Miller