By God’s grace, I will be ordained priest in June. As part of my preparation, I’ve been meditating on the ordination service in The Book of Common Prayer (1662), particularly the bishop’s address to the ordinand that precedes the examination. The current American edition of the Prayer Book (1979) has a condensed and refocused version of the address, but I’ve preferred the old version, partly because of its history (Anglican bishops have exhorted ordinands with these words for hundreds of years) and partly because of its robust view of the priesthood. The address calls the ordinand(s) to remember “how high a Dignity” and “how weighty an Office and Charge” is the order and ministry of priesthood. As the Church enters the season for ordinations, I offer these reflections on a classic description of priestly ministry.
Let’s start with a little history. The first Book of Common Prayer (1549) did not contain an Ordinal (i.e., the rites for ordaining bishops, priests, and deacons). The first English Ordinal was published the following year and included in subsequent editions of the Prayer Book. The framers of the Ordinal drew on two main sources: the various rites of ordination from Roman pontificals — books containing rites and prayers proper to episcopal ministry — and from the Continental reformer Martin Bucer’s De ordinatione legitima. The bulk of the bishop’s address in the Ordinal is taken from Bucer, which helps to explain the emphasis on the teaching office and holiness of life. Not all pontificals contained this didactic element (although some did), so it is significant that the English Ordinal made it a normal part of priestly ordination (F.E. Brightman, The English Rite I, cxxx-cxli.)
Now to the text itself. The bishop’s address emphasizes three related themes: the end of priestly ministry, its great responsibility, and its means.
First, the end or telos of priestly ministry. According to the address, the work of the priest is ordered toward bringing people to new life in Christ Jesus. The end of priestly ministry, says the bishop, is “to bring all such as are or shall be committed to your charge, unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of age in Christ, that there be no place left among you, either for error in religion, or for viciousness in life.” It’s very Pauline language, essentially a paraphrase of Ephesians 4:11-14. The work of the priest is continually to point the Church to Jesus, to call the Body to ever deeper participation in the life of its Head (cf. Eph. 4:15). The goal of priestly ministry is that the common life of the Church would show forth the peace and unity given in Christ, the one who tears down dividing walls of hostility, whose love is beyond measure. The end is the fullness of life in Christ: that’s what matters, that’s what should determine what the priest does and desires.
Second, the weight of priestly ministry. “Have always printed in your remembrance,” says the bishop, “how great a treasure is committed to your charge.” These lines are the reason I approach ordination with fear and trembling. Because that treasure is the Church, which belongs to the Lord.
Priestly ministry is for the Church; the office of priesthood exists for the sake of what belongs to God. Priests are called “to be Messengers, Watchmen, and Stewards” of the Church, called to treasure God’s possession, called to watch over God’s beloved, to care for God’s body. And this calling is weighty, because, as the bishop says, priests are charged with “the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his Spouse, and his Body.” The Church is “the Spouse and Body of Christ,” and the weight of priestly ministry is the charge to cherish her — she who is the Lord’s beloved.
Third, the means of priestly ministry. The address is refreshingly frank about how the priest can bear this weight and reach this goal: the priest can’t. The work of the priest is impossible for any human being — but possible with God. The bishop warns that the ordinand is not able even to want to do these things without God’s gift. “Therefore ye ought,” intones the bishop, “and have need, to pray earnestly for his Holy Spirit.” So, continual earnest prayer is the first task of the priest: prayer “to God the Father, by the mediation of our only Saviour Jesus Christ, for the heavenly assistance of the Holy Ghost.”
After prayer, the address says that the only means available for doing the work of ministry are “doctrine and exhortation taken out of the Holy Scriptures” and also “a life agreeable to the same.” A collect calls these two “the truth of thy doctrine” and “innocency of life.” In other words, Christian teaching and holiness of life. Simple, focused, and appropriate to the end.
Prayer, daily reading of Scripture, and the pursuit of holiness — these practices make a priest.
Utter reliance on God’s grace does not obviate utter commitment to priestly work. Towards the end of the address, the bishop declares his hope that the ordidands will “give yourselves wholly to this Office … so that, as much as lieth in you, ye will apply yourselves wholly to this one thing, and draw all your cares and studies this way.” It is an unstinting demand. Both hands are to be on the plow. And yet, as the bishop prays at the end of the examination, the God who gives the “will to do these things” also is able to give the “strength and power to perform the same, that he may accomplish his work.”
A closing quibble: the address says nothing explicit about the sacraments. In this respect, the 1979 rite is an improvement: there the bishop tells the ordinand, “You are to preach, to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God’s blessing, to share in the administration of Holy Baptism and in the celebration of the mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood” (BCP 1979, 531). Nonetheless, I hope these reflections have suggested some ways in which the bishop’s address in the traditional Ordinal retains its vitality. At least for me, it has clarified what it means to be called to the priesthood and has challenged me to heed its call to pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit.
 Compare the modern Roman Catholic rite for the ordination of a priest in which the bishop tells the ordinand: “A priest’s duties are to offer sacrifice, to bless, to govern, to preach, and to baptize” (Sacerdotem etenim oportet offere, benedicare, praeesse, praedicare, et baptizare).
The featured image is of an ordination service in the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida (2013). The photos are licensed under Creative Commons.