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Should ordination be a sacrament?

ordination_10One of the most memorable experiences of my life was being presented to the Church by my Bishop at my ordination(s). This powerful affirmation was a grace that has propelled me into my life as a presbyter among the people of God. Yet, I have come to ask myself, “why is this experience the property of a few? Should this incredible experience not belong to Baptism? I mean, what greater consecration or state is there than baptism?”

Orthodox Bishop Nicholas Afanasiev, in The Church of the Holy Spirit, explains that when ordination became a consecration, it lay the foundation for becoming an “ontological change” in a person, rather than naming the role of the ordained as “functional.” He suggests this cut the Body in two—the consecrated and the non-consecrated. As the church adopted Roman law, the liturgical distinction between laics and clerics “gradually led to the appearance of two heterogeneous strata or states of being”—the consecrated cast was imbued with political and salvific power.

Afanasiev argues that this distinction was at odds with the understanding of orders in the early Church. Irenaeus (202+) would proclaim that “all the righteous possess the order of the priesthood… He has made us all kings and priests to his God and Father.” Later, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) affirmed the impossibility of the “laicization of clerics” cementing the ontological distinction into western theological consciousness.

This division ruptures Paul’s radical claim: “there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) It is Baptism that distinguishes a humanity yielding to its highest calling, to its inheritance, its priesthood, indeed our personhood: Christ’s own forever. “All the participants of the assembly together with their presiders, constituted a single people of God, the royal priesthood,” Afanasiev argues. “A bishop or a presbyter, presiding over the people of God, celebrates the sacraments only together with the people without whom their role as presiders would be mere phantasy.” The Eucharist and all sacraments are events that happen through the whole people of God, with their presider, rather than holy magic performed by a holy cast. In other words, ordination is functional. Presiding over the sacramental encounter is a revelation performed and celebrated by all the people of God. The particular role of the ordained is imbued with the gifts of the Spirit just as every other particular calling of the baptized is, whether custodian, Sunday school teacher, nurse, chorister, mother, father, paver, social worker, bartender or politician. Why don’t we consecrate them?

It seems that we have an impoverished view of the sacrament of baptism. What does it mean anymore? Something to get done when the dress fits, the family is in town, or a way to grow our parishes? Do we really invite a solemn and committed intention when making our renunciations? How about the vows of the baptized, and the vows of the community? Is it any wonder that all of the other Sacraments (which flow out of Baptism) so easily become casual events carefully manicured so as not to offend or appear exclusive? Is it any wonder that there is still the lingering feeling that to be called, or to minister, or to be in the church belongs to the real Christians: the ordained?

If baptism is the experience of passing through and into the paschal mystery; if we believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins; if baptism is death and rebirth into life forever in God, as an anointed, a Christ, where we find the beginnings of true personhood; if baptism is where we share in the divine nature, life forever in the communion of the Holy Trinity, the claiming of our image and likeness, and participation in the restoration of all creation, as heirs, indeed as gods, what further consecration could we possibly want?

Gregor Sneddon

About Gregor Sneddon

Gregor Sneddon is a Presbyter in the Diocese of Ottawa and the Rector of St Matthew’s, Ottawa. He received an MA from the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies and is the founding Coordinator for Contemplative Outreach of Eastern Ontario. Gregor is a council member of the Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission and serves on the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation. He is a husband, a dad, and enjoys being in the woods, a good dinner party and swinging the blues.

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17 Responses to Should ordination be a sacrament?

  1. Our gifts should be acclaimed

  2. Yes, Ordination should be a sacrament. We entrust so much to a priest……

  3. They do not follow the bible any way so why would it rate as a sacrament.

  4. Ordination is no sacrament. It is an exercise in delegation of authority by the bishop. Those ordained thus are made responsible for order and control. The laity are all imbued with the Holy Spirit at baptism thus all responsible for celebration, community, sharing the gospel etc.

  5. Not yet

  6. Very good article. I agree that ordination to the priesthood is a professional occupation similar to a Physician or CPA. I would extend it to everyone christian or not. If someone is following their “calling” they are ordained by God I believe. I have been asked a few times why I didn’t go into the priesthood, my reply: I have been ordained by God as much as I need to be and there are advantages to not being ordained
    My favorite quote attributed to St. Francis: “preach the gospel always, use words if necessary”.

    • Gregor Sneddon

      WOuldn’t it be cool if the Church held baptism as high as it holds ordination now…All of our vocations could flow as divinely expressions of the People of God.

  7. Isn’t ordination the very definition of a sacrament, Mark? There is an outward and visible sign (the laying on of hands by the bishop) and an inward and spiritual grace assuredly given (“RECEIVE the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands…”)

    • Gregor Sneddon

      Matthew, would you suggest this is an ontological change in the ordained, that would set them apart from the baptized, or is it a particular vocation among the baptized that has a function? Must it be a “consecration?”

      • The Scriptural witness suggests as much, as does the witness of Christ’s Church. I would point in particular to St Mt 10 and 16, and also back to II Sa when David recognises that Saul remained God’s anointed.

        These verses suggest that God has given a particular equipping to those who enter into Holy Orders, and that the equipping/anointing is permanent. They become set part in some particular way and for a particular work that goes beyond the laity.

        I think this is backed up by the Patristic witness when you look at Sts Augustine, Irenaeus, Ambrose, Chrysostom, etc. They spoke very highly of the office of priest, just as St Paul did in the Scriptures.

        Finally, as I referenced in my previous post, that is also the witness I believe that is given in the BCP as a fundamental statement of Anglican understanding.

        What I don’t think it needs to do is in any way minimize the importance of a priests baptism or their continued unity (and place within) the laos. Much like how when a Deacon is priested, their roles and responsibilities are not lost, just as our baptismal responsibilities are not replaced by those of a priest. Still I would argue a fundamental change and distinction: without which why is there an emphasis on God’s calling people to and setting them apart for the office of priest, which the Church tests and proves before laying hands upon the ordinand. If it were something which any baptised person could do, surely there would need to be far less emphasis on that, as opposed to the whole breadth of the ordination rite which specifies the importance of the calling (again going back to the Scriptural witness).

  8. Wow. Did I read the same article as all of you? Thanks, Gregor.

  9. Ordination is a Sacrament. And the three orders are biblically founded.

    • Gregor Sneddon

      Yes, the orders are Biblically based. But – should we use the language of “consecration?” Do holy orders name a function of the Body, or is there an ontological change, a “holy status” in she eyes of God and the Body – set apart as particularly “special?” To me this seems to undermine the profound claim of Baptism.

  10. One thing that is left out of this discussion is that there IS a change in the ordinand’s relationship both to the church and to the world. Instead of being another individual, the ordinand becomes a symbolic being, acting ” in personae ecclessiae” and therefore “in persona Christi,” acting both in the place of the church and Christ, ie., signifying them. This of course is properly the role of a bishop, but the priesthood (properly presbyterate) arose out of the impossibility of a bishop to be in several congregations at the same time on Sundays. Someone said above that the priesthood is a delegation from the bishop and he is absolutely right, both theologically and historically. But I digress. My point is that the designation of someone as bishop, priest, or deacon, places (the real meaning of ordaining) a person in a symbolic relationship to others. Whether we call that a sacrament or not, the symbolic nature of orders is there, whether we like it or not. (And yes, it is more cross than priviledge!). This is precisely why the sins of clergy are so much more scandalous than others’.

    • Gregor Sneddon

      Hi Juan – I wonder, however, should ordination continue to use the sacramental language of “consecration?” If our liturgy is our theology, what are we saying about the ordained when we consecrate them? It seems to me that this perpetuates the idea of a holy caste and diminishes baptism. Would anything be lost if we moved ordination away from “a sacrament” and found a way to uphold ordered ministry as functional, indeed important in its particularness, but no more “holy” than any other batptized particularness?

  11. Is the problem considering ordination a sacrament, or in the way the rite is structured. One of the most powerful ordination moments for me (not my own ordination) occurred quite unscripted. The bishop overruled an objection to the ordination, and the cathedral erupted in a spontaneous standing ovation (and the bishoo was so taken by surprise that he forgot to ask the question: “Is it your will than these persons be ordained?”, but the question was moot. The assent of the assemly was manifest and definitely not merely pro forma.
    All too often, cathedral ordinations, while wonderful liturgies, relegate the laity to mere spectators, and do much to reinforce the exalted status of the ordained and diminish the ministry of the laity. I am grateful to have been ordained in the parish in which I was serving, surrounded by the people who were giving me my on-the-job training and ministering to me, so it was the choristers, lectors, servers, chalice administrators, sidesmen and other ministers within the parish who exercised their ministry alongside me, and my priesthood was not in the abstract, but situated and grounded in the context of their ministry.
    Last year, the bishop of Los Angeles (I may have the diocese wrong, but it was in California) ordained a deacon in a laundromat where he based his ministry to the homeless and working poor or the neighbourhood — very powerful symbolism and wonderful inclusion of those who formed his community.
    One of my seminary professors advocated for the laity joining in the laying on of hands at ordination. I dismissed the idea at the time, but now I think it has merit.

    • Gregor Sneddon

      Interesting idea Jim. In the “Becoming the Story We Tell” material, for the baptismal rite or the re affirmation of baptismal vows, those being presented are facing the priest AND the congregation. The presider is the voice of the people and the candidate is presented to the whole body.
      In the ordination rite, it is the Bishop to whom the candidates are presented, as they are making vows of obedience to the Bishop in particular. I wonder if there might be a way to “massage” this to allow for a more fulsome participation of the body?
      I still ask the question, however, should we be using the language of “consecration?” How someone be “re-consecrated” after Baptism?

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