Thanks for the overwhelming response to the recent posts about course of study toward ordination. Blog traffic for this week alone reached 825 unique visitors and nearly 1,949 page views. Obviously, this is an important issue for many people in and around our denomination.
One of the more interesting conversations I've had since the first post on Wednesday came about during the dinner for our university trustees. One of the denominational leaders asked me in table conversation, "Is ordination still essential for our church?" It's a great question. I've thought of it many times.
Conveying Trustworthy Ministers to the Church
In Africa, ordination was one step in the work of establishing a district with mature leaders. Some of the leaders were spiritually mature, vocationally vibrant, and some had earned advanced degrees in university, but lacked the credential of ordination which impeded placement in district leadership, which represented organizational trustworthiness.
In the U.S. ordination seemed to be about the same thing: recognizing trustworthy leaders for local church and district leadership, or at least enough to fill some slots that are being emptied by moving or retiring ministers. There is an urgency to fill a leadership void like Lucille Ball with a conveyor belt of candies. [NOTE: I am not sure what is going to happen when the conveyor belt speeds up. Right now, we're not ready for the wave that is coming.] The process now seems to include some variation of financial and psychological evaluations, interviews with current pastors, and checking of course lists. The process concludes with the episcopal affirmation of the district's work in the laying on of hands by the general superintendent.
This is not a sufficient explanation of what truly happens in and through ordination as I have come to understand this ritual experience.
Hands and Breath
The two primary physical actions of the ordination ritual are found in the laying on of hands and the spoken prayer of the episkopos (the one who ordains, the bishop, overseer of the shepherds). The spoken prayer connotes the pouring out of the Spirit of God through the breath of the one praying. The hands--biblical symbols of power and/or healing--touch the head of the ordinand. There is a transference of a spiritual grace-gift in this ritual not so much a succession of leadership, in my opinion. Like all means of grace, there is responsibility to receive and enact the gift that is given. One of the most important elements of this transformative action is that it takes place among the gathering of God's people in worship. It is not the work of one leader identifying another one, but the recognition of God's gracious gifting within the community of faith, a witness of the Spirit's work in the church.
What happens through the ritual of ordination? It is important to ask this question by first considering what ordination is not.
Rather, ordination is recognition of God's calling into equipping God's people for mission to the world through worship and holy living. Ordination is best described as the action of being a "sacramental presence" in the world through the church. Ordination is not a means of grace but becoming a means of grace for others. The ordained minister is to become the sacramental presence of Christ for the church, so the church as the Body of Christ altogether might become the sacramental presence of God in the world.
There's so much more to say here. Others have said more. Here are some of the resources that have helped me try to make sense of what happens through ordination: