Ordination lessons learned in a crisis

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LIKE other bishops, soon after the first confinement began in early 2020, my thoughts began to turn to the ordinations to come. What would be possible under the circumstances?

If it weren’t for Petertide, things would surely have been back to normal before Saint-Michel, I found myself thinking. In this case, of course, we are now at the start of a second year of ordinations where things have been very different.

Those who will be ordained priests this year have had a stressful and unusual first year of deacon ministry; and those who will be ordained deacons are leaving quorums and classes, and in many cases moving to new communities, at an equally troubled time.

Some ordination retreats have been posted online and zoom fatigue affects us all. Many have missed some of the long-standing conventions that have developed around ordinations in the Church of England, and some have even felt that their ordination in the continuity of Christian ministry seems diminished if it looks very different from that of a long time ago. been practiced.

It is indeed sad that singing and physical contact, so significant in ordinary times during ordinations, are limited in scope and strictly regulated.

IN 2020 and 2021, the Church of England Restoration Group, advised by the Liturgical Commission, has worked carefully to define what is needed for ordination services; however, acting sensitively within the framework of the guidelines in force has not always been easy. Nonetheless, this crisis has also helped us to focus and reflect on the ordination rites as deacon, priest, and bishop, and to learn more about God and one another in the strained fragility of our current arrangements.

Perhaps one of the main concessions to Covid in recent ordinations has been that while ordinations are normally intentionally public occasions, they are currently performed with a very small number of clergy and lay people present.

It was sometimes difficult for the ordinands to have to choose a few friends, family members and support ministers; in some ways, their experiences mirrored those of couples planning weddings.

In these celebrations, important bonds are usually established between the ordinands, their bishop (s), other members of the clergy, and the people of God at large, and the seeds of an ordained vocation are sometimes sown.

It seems against our instincts that they should be limited in size, and yet smaller ordinations have unexpectedly emphasized to many the importance of the involvement of the local Christian assembly in its diversity, and the roles played by the few people present were made unusually clear.

What previously looked like preparatory rites for the laying on of hands – the recommendation of candidates to their bishop by those responsible for their formation; the announcement of the local churches in which their ministries are to be exercised; the assent of the gathered people of God to their ordination – all took on new meaning.

The director of ordinands, or the archdeacon, confirming to the bishop the good character of the candidates, does so in place of all those responsible for the years of formation and formation in the colleges and theological courses, and for the discernment that started in the local church. And it is according to the old custom that the assembled assembly gives its assent to the ordination and fervently prays for the candidates.

Even in the smallest gatherings we saw for ordinations during the pandemic, care was taken to include and give voice to representatives of the clergy and laity related to the past and future ministry of the ordinands, as well as others. deacons, priests, or bishops serving in the diocese.

In many dioceses there has been an increase in the number and a dispersion in the location of diaconal and priestly ordinations, so that many take place in the current or future context of the ordinand’s ministry. A service in the local church, perhaps in the context of an ordinary service attended by the regular congregation, can provide an opportunity for the worship community itself to become involved – indeed, heavily invested – in the community. preparation and participation in the service.

Another significant way in which the typical standards of ordination services have been altered in Covid-tide has been the minimization of touch in the liturgy. One can get the impression that the key liturgical moment, the laying on of hands, has taken on a clinical aura, with a disinfectant, held by the chaplains as if it were an expensive ointment, distributed to the bishops and priests who lay hands on at the appropriate times.

Sam cavender Laying on of hands at this year’s ordinations in Bristol Cathedral

The moment of touch, for the hands are placed not near but on the head of the ordinand – the very moment when physical proximity of bodies becomes real contact – has become the most physically dangerous moment of service. The powerful meaning of anointing a new priest or bishop can seem compromised when a disposable applicator is used to impart chrism.

Other moments of contact are also hampered: the newly ordained may not be greeted by shared gestures; Peace is not shared conventionally either, and the ordinands are not dressed by others in the customary clothes of their new order. (It must be remembered, however, that at various times in history, candidates have in fact arrived already dressed in the garment of their future order.)

Some may have discovered for the first time that, despite the omission of other symbolic gestures, the gift of the scriptures is an obligatory part of the service!

The “rugby scrum” at priests and consecrations may also have disappeared: we no longer see as many priests or bishops as possible gathered for the laying on of hands. In fact, while we can all remember this practice that dates back decades, it is not very old.

For some, the gathering of so many ministers has been a powerful symbol; I vividly remember the paradoxically uplifting downward pressure on my head and shoulders of about 40 pairs of Episcopal hands when I was ordained bishop. To others, however, it seemed like an awkward break in the continuity of ordination prayer as the clergy sought to position themselves.

Perhaps the post-Covid ordinations could reflect on how the supporting clergy participate in these times.

Unexpectedly, during the ordination of priests and bishops that I attended during the pandemic, I found myself moved by the sight of only three priests, or bishops, successively laying their hands on the ordinand in a silence that speaks eloquently of the connection of individual ministries with the ministry of the universal Church.

ONE final observation: despite all the restrictions, despite the advice to minimize public worship in length and complexity, and on one or two occasions despite the initial proposals to the contrary, all the ordinations still took place in the context of the celebration of the Holy Communion.

Even if the newly ordained are not visibly able to attend the liturgy of the Eucharist in the usual way (preparation of the gifts, presence with the bishop during the Eucharistic prayer, etc.), they can participate. to the meal of thanks and praise given to us by the great High Priest, who called his people to be a royal priesthood.

The whole history of God’s people is present in the Eucharist and, by participating in it, we are linked to each Eucharist and to each ordination, past, present and future, in years of persecution and in years of calm.

After the liturgy of ordination, the liturgy of the Eucharist reminds us of the great acts of God in Jesus Christ.

So, beyond Covid, as we fervently pray with our deacons, priests and episcopal candidates for the exceptional gift of the Holy Spirit, we find that we are celebrating a grace that will inspire and protect newly ordained in their ministry for many years to come.


Dr Ipgrave is the Bishop of Lichfield.


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