I’ve come to have a low sacramental view of ordination.
I say “low sacramental” because I see it much the same as I see our practice of communion (or the Lord’s supper or the Eucharist). I think these are “graces” from God and I feel they are more than merely symbolic practices but I have friends who receive them in a way that is “other” than how I do, full of more substance than I do, so I feel the need to distinguish between their practice and my own.
So I consider their practice “high sacramental” and my own as “low sacramental” and still other’s practice as “no sacramental.”
Because of the experiences that I have had in 35 years of ministry and what the Spirit of God has worked in my own soul, I believe something mystical happens in marriage and in communion and in ordination and in praying for the sick and in burying our dead and in making confession to one another. I’ve felt the practice of these moments transcend the natural and felt a tangible sense of the presence of God in remarkable ways. I’ve experienced this in hospitals and living rooms and AA rooms and counseling rooms and surrounded by nature and sometimes in church buildings.
Worshipping together can feel intensely sacramental to me. Sometimes this is why I close my eyes and sing – the act can feel so personal and vulnerable and heart rending that I need to step back into some “private space” within. I’ve had my whole world re-ordered by an encounter with God during a single song of worship.
I think it’s because of the experiences I’ve accumulated in this way that I feel fiercely protective of these times and hyper-sensitive to man’s tendency to weaponize or commodify these sacraments.
Historically, access to the sacraments has been used as a weapon of coercion. You will conform to our version of the will of God for your life, you will agree with our version of our Creed, you will behave as we deem appropriate and even, you will vote the way we understand Christians should vote or we will deny you access to this sacrament.
I’ve married Roman Catholic couples who were devoted to their priest and parish but because of a previous marriage and divorce, had been denied access to the sacrament of marriage in their new relationship.
I’ve invited to the table and offered the communion elements to a friend, dying from AIDS complications, who had been denied them by the church of his upbringing.
I’ve ordained woman to ministry while in a church system that denied that women were allowed to be in leadership of the church. Not to be rebellious for the sake of being rebellious but because my best understanding of the Holy Spirit’s leading was that the obvious call and gifts in the woman in front of me made her a candidate for ordination.
I suppose I am writing this as a confession of sorts. This is a hill I am willing to die on. I fall back on Peter’s argument about the baptism of the Gentiles, “And since God gave these _______ the same gift he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to stand in God’s way?” (Ac 11:17)
The danger of having nice things, things like the sacraments, is that they can be used as weapons or levers against you. They can become points over which others – those who are the gatekeepers for the sacraments – can lord them over you and me.
It might go something like this…
Man Behind Wicket: Welcome to Generic Church of the Fuzzy Set. We want to empower you for ministry by ordaining you for ministry and providing official papers verifying that you are GCFS ordained and authorized to pastor one of our churches.
Person At Wicket: Thank you very much! What do I need to do?
MBW: Just sign off on this paperwork and conform to our expectations.
PAW: (shuffling through papers) Hmmm. I very much feel called to pastor but I’m not sure I can sign off on all these things.
MBW: No problem at all! You’re not required to.
PAW: Fantastic! I’d like to be ordained then.
MBW: Then you’re required to sign off on all these things.
PAW: O. So I don’t have to sign off on them UNLESS I want to pastor a GCFS church is what you mean.
PAW: So, let’s say I sign off on these and then a few years later I change my mind about one or two of them? What if GCFS asked me to agree to something I don’t feel is where God is leading me?
MBW: No problem at all! We simply pull your papers and then you are removed as the pastor of whatever church you have been pastoring.
MBW: You are ALWAYS free to leave.
PAW: So by being ordained by GCFS will I have input, will all of us have input on what GCFS is all about?
MBW: Ah! Yes, of course, the suggestion box is always back there on the back wall and you can always send in your thoughts. We promise to read every thought you submit and we will keep a very close record of who suggests what so we can keep an eye on you but your opinions will in no way have enough weight to change the decisions of the 12 of us who decide to do what the 4 of us have already decided.
PAW: So to pastor a GCFS church I have to have GCFS ordination papers and if I ever violate any, let’s call them “foul lines” that y’all lay down, you can not only remove my papers unless I recant but you can also terminate my employment?
MBW: Exactly! Isn’t it wonderful?!!
It’s a dangerous thing to enmesh your faith in God, your closest relationships with friends, your employment and your sense of self. And when someone establishes a system where they can literally “lord it over you,” despite the injunction of Jesus to do no such thing, based on a means of God’s grace to you and the Church, I feel like we are coming to a very dangerous place in pursuit of an illusive things we call “accountability” but often only really mean “control.”
Beware of those who weaponize the sacraments against you.
Our goals can be noble. We’ll motivate someone to clean up their act. We’ll inspire someone to get with the program. We’ll make the masses safe by enforcing our vision of orthodoxy. We’ll appease the guardians of goodness by securing paperwork that guarantees people can’t violate our groups mores and values.
But Jesus invites to the table. He doesn’t ask us to filter his guest list.
If we really believe in the call of God, ordination should be managed by the local church who are impacted by the vocation of the one called. Are they a safe shepherd? The home office might think so because “the paperwork” but the local sheep might be getting sheered or turned into mutton chops. The only accountability that matters is the accountability that comes through the empowered relationships of my everyday life.
I believe that people who pastor should pass through a liminal ordination process. I believe in the sacrament of vocation. I oppose with all I am the turning of this sacrament into a means of commerce (to collect dues and fees) or a weapon (to lord it over or punish ordained pastors by revoking or threatening to revoke their ordination.
And that’s all I have to say about that.