We need sustained, serious conversation in the church about the nature and practice of ordination to ministry of the Word and Sacrament. It is crucial we begin now and be fully engaged with each other by the 2006 Assembly in Birmingham, Ala. The discussion needs not only to consider matters of rights and justice — important as they are. For it must be centered upon function, call, and vocation, not only the vocation of ministry in Word and Sacrament, but also as I wrote last week, on the ministry to which all of us are called in baptism.
My pronouncements were a beginning, then, toward changing the conversation. I used the “wedge issue” raised by Western North Carolina Presbytery’s action in the Parker Williamson decision. Now I will put flesh on those bones by admitting that my first two calls in the church were to what are now designated as validated ministries.
The first was occasioned by my joining the Iona Community in Scotland. They suggested that I be ordained before I arrived. It was a challenge even then. I graduated from seminary on May 28, was examined and ordained at a called meeting of Atlanta Presbytery (now Greater Atlanta) during the next week, and was in my place as a member of the Community on the island of Iona for an outdoor celebration of the Lord’s Supper on June 5. The executive secretary of Atlanta Presbytery was reluctant to ordain me. The influence of my pastor probably saved the day. I was ordained as an evangelist, one of the few categories possible then.
Next I served as an urban minister on a presbytery staff, and that, too, was a validated ministry. And that experience, even though I was active in a local church, led me to believe that the joining of ministry “outside the church” to Word and Sacrament is vital, both for the church, and for the gospel’s influence of a ministry to humankind for the transformation of persons and of structures — social, economic and political.
I did not intend to invalidate “validated ministries.” (Would someone explain the history of the term validated? Why not call them transforming or intentional or particular?) It is certainly appropriate for presbytery to declare where ministry is needed, and under what particular conditions a ministry is valid, and what particular functions are valid for the members of presbytery who are under its jurisdiction.
But here is the crucial point. All ministry needs word and table. Ministry is not social work; it is gospel-driven and its chief end ought to be, in addition to helping individuals, the building up of the body of Christ. Further, some ministries follow the trends of culture. They are defined more by secular experience than by church function. Again, that is not to invalidate them, but to recognize the contingencies of history in which the church always lives. There were no military chaplains in the Roman army in the 2nd Century. There were none in the Soviet Army.
So there is a sense, then, in which all non-parish ministry is temporary, just as are all forms of the church and all church buildings. But the constants in our tradition, and what to Calvin was crucial, are book, bath and table. How then can we restore the foundational importance of preaching, teaching and pastoral care in the life of the church? After that we may have a valid debate about who can and who cannot be ordained to any office — elder, deacon or minister of the Word.
Ordination is never a right, and God save the church from those who think it is. Neither is ordination a convenience, for the individual or the church. Among Protestants, ordination to particular tasks within the community of faith flows out of a strong belief in the priesthood of all believers. So while we have been too long consumed as a church over who may be and may not be ordained, we have lost sight of the ministry of every baptized believer.
Ordination is not about us who are ordained, or who believe we have been called to be ordained. It is about serving the church and glorifying God in the church. Thus while ordination designates absolutely essential functions, it turns us who are ordained into scullery maids and stable boys. We wash the pots and clean the stalls of those who are wet with the water of baptism, and who bear the mark of Christ upon their foreheads, so that they — not we — may shine as lights in a dark world.
Let it always be so in the Presbyterian Church. Let us continue the conversation.
Posted March 25, 2004
O. Benjamin Sparks is interim editor of The Outlook and pastor, Second church, Richmond, Va.
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