Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Why ordination? Why today?

I was overjoyed to ordain three stipendiary Petertide priests for Buckinghamshire at St Mary’s Aylesbury on Sunday evening. In an age where everything seems consumer driven, functional and changing, Western churches can easily lose the script about the meaning of ordination. I gave the candidates some words from the Evangelical theologian and translator Eugene H. Peterson:
The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shop-keepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shop-keepers’ concerns — how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.

Some of them are very good
shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shop-keeping; religious shop-keeping, to be sure, but shop-keeping all the same... “A walloping great congregation is fine, and fun,” says Martin Thornton, “but what most communities really need is a couple of saints. The tragedy is that they may well be there in embryo, waiting to be discovered, waiting for sound training, waiting to be emancipated from the cult of the mediocre.”

The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God.
That last sentence is the great clue to ordination. Peterson goes on to explain exactly what it is people need from ordained priests in our kind of society, and why:
We need help in keeping our beliefs sharp and accurate and intact. We don’t trust ourselves — our emotions seduce us into infidelities. We know that we are launched on a difficult and dangerous act of faith, and that there are strong influences intent on diluting or destroying it. We want you to help us: be our pastor, a minister of word and sacrament, in the middle of this world’s life.

Minister with word and sacrament to us in all the different parts and strands of our lives — in our work and play, with our children and our parents, at birth and death, in our celebrations and sorrows, on those days when morning breaks over us in a wash of sunshine, and those other days that are all drizzle. This isn’t the only task in the life of faith, but it is your task. We will find someone else to do the other important and essential tasks. This is yo
urs: word and sacrament. One more thing: we are going to ordain you to this ministry and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment but a way of life that we need lived out in our community.

We know that you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know that your emotions are as fickle as ours, and that your mind can play the same tricks on you as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to exact a vow from you.

We know that there are going to be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like we are believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know that there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it.

There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what we are telling you now. Promise, right now, that you won’t give in to what we demand of you then. You are not the minister of our changing desires, or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularized hopes for something better. With these vows of ordination we are lashing you fast to the mast of word and sacrament so that you will be unable to respond to the siren voices.

There are a lot of other things to be done in this wrecked world and we are going to be doing at least some of them, but if we don’t know the basic terms with which we are working, the foundational realities with which we are dealing — God, kingdom, gospel — we are going to end up living futile, fantasy lives.

Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking the biblical words of command and promise and invitation.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, I have to record one magical moment — the sort of thing that makes this job such complete joy at times. As we came out of the Church, just the new priests, Rosie the chaplain and I, a photographer came round. “That man,” said David Cloake with his local knowledge, “was the first on the scene of the Great Train Robbery.” “Really?” said Paul Collins, former Police Officer. “I always thought that was Ronnie Biggs.”

19 comments:

Erika Baker said...

"With these vows of ordination we are lashing you fast to the mast of word and sacrament so that you will be unable to respond to the siren voices"

Even if they're part of a discernment process by the whole church resulting in new insights of where the Holy Spirit might be leading us?
Even if the priests themselves feel strongly guided by God? Must they stay as they are, promise not to grow and change?

terce said...

Thanks for this post. Where does the Eugene Peterson quotation come from?

Jane Willis said...

Brilliant. Thank you. As one priested just 3 weeks ago and about to face an interregnum I needed reminding of that! I think I may copy it to the PCC...

Tim Chesterton said...

Thank you, Alan - that's a wonderful quote from one of my favourite authors.

Anonymous said...

That is gorgeous. What is the citation for the Peterson?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks to all for comments and kind words. The quotations were from his book "Working the Angles — The shape of pastoral integrity" (Eerdmans, 1987) pp 1-2, and 24-5.

I didn't read Peterson as wanting to say nothing should change full stop, or that all voices were siren voices; just that, within the classical story to which he was alluding, the Church needed people to focus on word and sacrament as a first priority; partly perhaps to help us all discern which voices were siren voices by providing a reference point.

Anonymous said...

Was it Peterson's quote you picked up in Gerrards Cross?

simonrobert said...

Thank you so much for telling us that you were overjoyed to ordain; for the Eugene Peterson wisdom -

“A walloping great congregation is fine, and fun,” says Martin Thornton, “but what most communities really need is a couple of saints. The tragedy is that they may well be there in embryo, waiting to be discovered, waiting for sound training, waiting to be emancipated from the cult of the mediocre.”

The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God."

Reading this post tonight has heartened me more than anything else in a month of Sundays. Again, thanks ...

Tim Chesterton said...

Peterson's book 'Under the Unpredictable Plant' is one of the best ever books about pastoral ministry - based on the story of Jonah, of all things! A close runner up is his 'Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Ministry', based on the 'writings'.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I picked up the second quote in gerrards Cross, having come across the book years ago as a manual for Spiritual direction then been surprised to see it, I think, at Willow Creek a few years later.

Behind all these quotes, however, lies a response to Martin Thornton, whose writings intrduced me to much I have valued thirty years ago. Christian Proficiency is one of those books I've read a few times but would like to read again, and his sermon "The Rock and the River" started the train of thought that saved me from spending the rest of my life locked into futile Conservative/Liberal sumo wrestling between tradition and innovation.

revruth said...

Thanks for this great quote. I have been asked to preach next month at an Institution of a dear friend and will be able to use some of it then.

Erika Baker said...

"The Rock and the River" started the train of thought that saved me from spending the rest of my life locked into futile Conservative/Liberal sumo wrestling between tradition and innovation."

Sounds like that has to go on my book wishlist. I'm glad I misunderstood you!

ramtopsrac said...

This chimes with the ordination sermon I heard on Saturday in Guildford, where Revd Canon David Eaton talked about the “how many” parrot that seems to sit on the shoulders of many parish priests these day. His point I think was that clergy are getting too hung up on the numbers game, of worrying about how many people are attending their church. Specifically he said, “it is time to tell the parrot to get stuffed!”

Going into ministry of any sort sees us torn in so many directions at once, and all apparently in response to God's word! That's my struggle at least: http://ramtopsrac.wordpress.com/2009/07/09/should-we-tell-the-parrot-to-get-stuffed/

UKViewer said...

This is a joyful post, which gives me great food for thought and hope for the future.

Testing a vocation is difficult, and sometimes I think that I should give up, but inspiration and affirmation comes from different directions.

Here is inspiration for me - as well as an excellent guide for a possible future way.

Free to think, free to believe said...

This is a wise and humbling collection of thoughts and quotes...

but, as I once attended an Ash Wednesday service to find the reading read spoke of not having any outward signs for our piety, did not Jesus tell us not to swear oaths but that we should allow our 'yes' to be just that, along with our 'no'?

Is the cause of a denomination to persevere in that denomination's idea of The Way or to attempt to bring Jesus' teaching back to the world?

Steve Hayes said...

one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community

Good stuff from Eugene H. Peterson (and Martin Thornton) -- all except that sentence. I disagree with the "one". The "one" applies to bishops, not priests or pastors, though, of course, bishops are also ordained.

A given congregation can (and i would say should) have several priests and pastors (not necessarily the same people -- pastors need not necessarily be priests).

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks to all for latest comments and thoughts. I lovd the image of the parrot on the shoulder from Guildford. UKV/FTTFTB, All best on the vocations journey wherever it leads. Steve, I'm not right sure what particular denomination Eugene H.Peterson belongs to, but it may well not be formally episcopally ordered; in which case I supose ordination does roughly correspond to the kind of "Presbyter bshops" Lightfoot detected in the early Church. What I find helful in his analysis is his insistence that the pastor is onenof the ordinary sinners, albeit one with particuylar responsibilities.

Steve Hayes said...

Bishop Alan,

I have spent many hours with people who were all agreed that the one-man-band model of ministry was not a good thing, but getting rid of it and the assumptions on which it was based seemed remarkably difficult. Juan Carlos Ortiz, a Pentecostal from Argentina, compared it to a football match -- 22000 people who desperately need exercise watching 22 who desperately need rest.

sattler said...

Alan, I know from experience that discussions around ordination, clericalism or anticlericalism tend to generate more heat than light. At risk of this comment being typecast as a rant, I don't accept ordination. I fail to see why our need need for community, mutual forgiveness and companionship is best embodied by the perpetuation of a clerical caste. I have blogged about the issue at length over the past three years: http://radref.blogspot.com/search/label/clericalism

When I look back to that original Supper I do not see priest and people but thirteen members of what we would now call the laity breaking bread together. Somewhere between then and now we have lost that sense of equitable celebration. I'm afraid clericalism has a lot to do with this. Now that the Christendom icecap is melting might there be an opportunity to think the unthinkable.

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