Rethinking Ordination

Our Book of Common Prayer tells us that only priests and bishops are ordained to “Absolve, Bless, and Consecrate” things. This is sometimes referred to as the “ABC theory of priesthood.” While this might give us a good operational delineation of the different things ordained clergy can do versus non-ordained laity, it has never felt like a good pointer for what clergy SHOULD be doing. At least not this clergy person.

By focusing the actions, agency, and job description of a priest on the administration of the sacraments or what was called in mediaeval times our “sacerdotal ministry,” we limit the role and scope of clergy, we proscribe WHERE clergy can do these things, and by reflection, we limit what lay people can do and who they are in relationship with their priest. In short, focusing the definition and scope of a priest’s ministry on the sacraments limits the church itself. Could this have anything to do with the steady decline of the Episcopal Church?

What if we ordained our priests to be shepherds out there in the real world, away from churches and graveyards where the sacraments are administered? What if we ordained our priests and sent them out with other people so that THEY ARE the outward and visible sign of the inner grace and the presence of Christ? That would effectively be taking the sacrament into the world instead of what we try to do (and often come up short) of inviting the world into the church for the sacraments.

What if shepherding souls meant more than saving people from hell? Have you ever watched a sheep dog herd a flock of sheep? They spend more time with encouraging barks and moves than they do trying to deter the flock from danger. The barks often seem to say, “Keep going in that direction… you can do it.”

In other words, a good shepherd spends a lot of time serving as a cheerleader to encourage the team when they are going in the right direction. Of course, the good sheep dog keeps the flock from going over a cliff too. I just wonder if we ordained more priests to be cheerleaders or sheep dogs, if we might get this train called the Episcopal Church back on track.

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