how not to argue for sequential ordination
Episcopal Café has blogged a two-part series arguing for "direct ordination": ordaining people called to be priests directly to the priesthood without the current practice ("sequential ordination") of ordaining them as deacons first and then waiting six months to a year before ordaining them to the priesthood. It's sparking a lot of dialogue on the email list for bishops and deputies to the Episcopal Church's General Convention, and I'm finding it extraordinarily interesting to see how people in favor of the current system argue for it. Here's what I posted to the bishops-deputies list on the subject:
Our church's current practice of sequential ordination has the weight of tradition behind it, but I think the series on Episcopal Café has an excellent point in how odd some of our arguments for upholding sequential ordination are.
For example, I could envision residents of some alternative Anglican universe saying things such as this:
"My time as a transitional deacon has vastly enriched my ministry as a layperson. If Confirmation did not require a period of preparation in which I served as an ordained deacon, I would never have had so many rich opportunities to engage in intentional servant ministry, which today help to remind me that my work as an accountant and volunteering in the soup kitchen are equally a call and set of opportunities to serve the 'least of these,' the poor and the marginalized."
"My time as a transitional priest has vastly enriched my discipleship as a layperson. I will never forget those times at the altar when I was praying the epiklesis as a transitional priest during my fifth year of EFM, and I think of those every time I receive the elements as a layperson. My transitional priesthood continues to underscore for me that it is the entire congregation and not just its presider that truly makes the Eucharist the Lord's Meal, and I don't know how people managed to understand the priesthood of all believers before we instituted transitional priesthood as preparation for key lay ministries."
"I rejoice daily for my time as a transitional bishop. It reminds me as a CEO that oversight is not for lording over others, but is a ministry of guarding an order of life for communities that nourishes the whole and that brings out the apostolic gifts of every member. As it happens, both of my next-door neighbors are also Episcopalians who have served as transitional bishops, and they too value the experience in their very different contexts. Jolene, the high school algebra teacher, tells me that it helps her to see that her vocation as a teacher is fundamentally shepherding and drawing out leadership qualities. Sharon, the motorcycle mechanic, says it helps her to look at the neighborhood, the PTA, and the county, state, nation, and world as fields ripe for harvest, and underscores her authority as a layperson to exercise her gifts for oversight to get them all humming together like a well-tuned engine. And we agree that the practice of ordaining transitional bishops has strengthened the ministry of permanent bishops as well. We can't imagine how, under the old system, bishops managed to avoid temptation to see their ministry of episkope as a lifelong entitlement."
The argument for direct ordination meets its biggest challenge, I think, on grounds of tradition, which are strong. In contrast, "it works for me" is prone to counter-examples of "it doesn't work for me," "this other way could work for me," and "if transitional ordination is your call, that's great, but it isn't mine."
low-cost tip #3 toward more and better theologians
Low-cost tip #3 toward more and better theologians: stretch critical thinking skills for all ages in congregations.
No one should go off to seminary without having done SOMETHING like reading the Gospel According to Mary Magdalene and the Gospel of Thomas in translation (a translation by someone other than Elaine Pagels), reading one Elaine Pagels popular book on Gnosticism, and then discussing in a supportive group whether Pagels' characterization of these documents is helpful and where it seems at least a bit off.
That's just one example, which I picked because I've found that too few people in congregations feel empowered to examine the evidence, talk about it with other people, and come to a conclusion when they have a theological question. There are lots of less arcane-sounding examples: for example, take the oft-quoted statement that "Matthew is the 'most Jewish' of the gospels," read Matthew and, say, Luke, and talk about: a) what does it mean to be "more Jewish" or "less Jewish," b) how, if at all, does this statement help us to better understand Matthew and Luke, and c) is this really something that's helpful enough to be worth repeating?
We should be helping one another do this kind of thinking as a whole church.
If seminary is the first place a postulant is asked to engage critical thinking skills, s/he will not be able to make the most of seminary.
And if a congregation doesn't do this, they're prone to being misled by every fad and every person willing to claim authority, however poorly informed s/he is.
So let's try this on as a minimum standard: mature disciples read their bibles, think and talk with one another about what they read, and use their brains plus what they read to test theological claims. And I'm not just talking about adults; children are fully capable of doing this too. A Sunday school class could:
- Start with the questions, "Do you think Jesus was ever angry?" and "What do you think might make Jesus angry?"
- Read one of the stories of Jesus overturning tables in the Temple.
- Ask whether Jesus was angry in this story and why.
- Ask the class questions such as: "Do you ever feel like this?" "What makes you feel like doing this?" "Is it OK to be angry?" "How do you want to react the next time you're really angry?"
Voila! Critical thinking, bible study, and original theological reflection! So much better than trying to tell kids what they ought to think and then having them glue cotton balls on pictures of sheep. And this very exercise, perhaps with a few more long words, has been helpful in a lot of adult classes and retreats I've done.
Some congregations do this, but I've found many that don't, or that do it only in programs such as EFM, which will only reach a tiny minority of the congregation. That's not healthy.
Introducing people to these skills is not the job of seminaries; it's the job of every Christian community. And if every Christian did this kind of "read-think-share-think some more" work from, say, third grade on, the quality of seminary education would improve dramatically, as seminaries would be freed to spend those precious and limited hours of instruction on the things they're uniquely placed to do.
Cost to your parish/diocese: $0. Cost to seminaries: $0.
Low-Cost Tip #2 Toward More and Better Theologians
Low-cost tip #2 toward more and better theologians for the church:
Have your parish and diocesan newsletters regularly run a brief profile of a living theologian and her/his current work. Make at least some of these about theologians currently doing or recently having finished their Ph.D. With their permission, include an email address or somesuch where people can, if they are so moved, send an encouraging word and/or a small PayPal donation or Amazon.com gift card. This would not only provide encouragement to current theologians, but would raise awareness that theology is a valued field in the church. Parishioners may as a result deepen their theological reading and conversation -- and some who are being called by God to serve the church as a vocational theologian will become aware for the first time that there IS such a thing as a vocational theologian!
Cost to your seminary/diocese: $0. Cost to seminaries: $0.