Lay People and Clergy at Ordinations

By H. Boone Porter

June has long been a customary time for ordinations in many dioceses. The Spring Ember Days, which were traditional days for ordination, often come in this month, and for those ordinands completing courses in seminaries or diocesan schools, a date shortly after graduation is usually convenient. An increasing number of dioceses now schedule ordinations in the parish church from which the ordinand comes, or to which the new deacon or priest will be assigned to work. The major decisions about the service are, of course, the responsibility of the bishop, but the planning of details is usually left in part to the clergy and people of the parish. 

This affords an exceptional opportunity for the parish worship committee to carry out a challenging and creative assignment. In some dioceses, furthermore, the diocesan liturgical commission advises both the bishop and local people in making plans. The same may be true when a new church is to be consecrated, or a new minister installed, or when some other special dioscesan, regional, or deanery function is held in a parish church. Such opportunities for cooperation should be fully taken advantage of. For members of a parish committee, it can be a great source of encouragement and stimulation to spend an hour or so with some specially informed member of the diocesan commission, talking, exchanging ideas, and looking over the facilities of their church. Both the parish and the diocese are enriched by this kind of give-and-take in thinking about liturgy. 

For the local congregation as a whole, such occasions can also bring many new insights. Singing some different kinds of music, seeing different styles of vestments, hearing a visiting preacher, experiencing the Peace as a real accolade, and participating in the excitement of the entire event brings to local people, clergy and laity alike, a wider vision of the dimensions of worship. 

Too often in the past, an ordination has been viewed as a purely clerical affair. The candidates started as lay persons. At the rite of ordination, they went up into the chancel into a crowd of clergy and from this they emerged as clergy themselves, no longer members of the laity in the nave of the church. Needless to say, this is not what ordination is supposed to mean! It is true that a new deacon or a new priest is solemnly inducted into a new sacramental relationship with the bishop and with other deacons and priests. But this is only part of what ordination means. The bishop is not ordaining new priests and deacons simply to supply the existing clergy with a greater number of peers. Quite the contrary, the ordinands are being ordained to preach to people, to minister to people, to pray for people, to lead the worship of people, and to enable people to find fulfillment and salvation in the body of Christ. An essential part of the ordination of deacons and priests is that they are being invested with a new sacramental relationship toward all members of the church. The planning and arrangement of the rite of ordination should reflect this in outward and visible signs. 

The placement of the ordaining bishop in a position close to and facing the congregation, as required in the rubrics of the Proposed Prayer Book, pages 524 and 536, is thus not simply for convenience or to satisfy public curiosity, but to express the relation of the conjugation as a whole to what is happening. Similarly, the inclusion of lay persons as well as clergy among the presenter of candidates, the responses by the congregation, and the reading of the Old Testament lesson and the Epistle by lay persons, are not intended as cheerful expressions of ecclesiastical democracy but rather are supposed to voice the authentic responsibility of the membership of the church in bringing forward the most suitable candidates for holy orders. The same is true of the music offered by the choir, the decorations arranged by the altar guild, the ceremonial carried out by the servers, and all the other work and planning which people have carried out. 

In our Anglican tradition, as in catholic usage throughout history, “the ordained ministry” is not simply one undefined state of religious activity. There are three distinct kinds of ordained ministers, bishops, priests, and deacons, and the carrying out of their distinct roles greatly enhances the meaning and the dramatic clarity of the ordination rite. Consequently, if a deacon is available to read the Gospel and perform other diaconal duties, their functions should not be usurped by priests. It is often said that every priest is still in a sense a deacon — but this is certainly not the thrust of the liturgical rubrics which specify deacons at certain points. Similarly, priests participating in an ordination should not default in their own distinct presbyteral functions. To blur the two orders is to confuse the clarity of whichever role is being conferred on the ordinand. 

Finally, in receiving holy communion at the end of the service, clergy and laity alike receive the sacred pledge of their unity with the Lord Christ and with one another in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. They express the state of being “in communion” with one another in their several orders and vocations, and they solemnly affirm their recognition and acceptance of the Eucharist which has been carried out with the active participation and functioning of the new deacon or priest. 

The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977-1990. This article was first published in our June 5, 1977 issue.

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