Sunday after the Ascension

images-1May 8th is a complex day. It’s the Sunday after the Ascension. It’s that in most churches, but at St Martin’s, it’s the day after Linda Mackie Grigg’s ordination as a priest, and the day of her first celebration of the Eucharist. It’s a baptism Sunday, and it’s also Mother’s Day. I intend to address Christ’s Ascension in the Adult Forum at 10.45 a.m. For those of you reading this only, I can refer you here to learn more on the theme. This now allows me to concentrate on the remaining three areas: Linda’s priesting, Mother’s Day, and baptism.

Linda’s ordination as a priest is not only a huge event in her life but also in the life of the community of St Martin, Providence. Over the last 18 months, we have witnessed a process that most parishes never directly experience. Since Linda took up the position as Director of Christian Formation, we have had the opportunity of experiencing what happens to a person as they grow, stage by stage into an ever-fuller expression of God’s call for them. Usually, this process of growing through the initial developmental stages preceding ordination as a priest is not so visible from a community’s viewpoint.

The difference with Linda is that she arrived fresh from seminary to take up her post heading Christian formation as a laywoman. During the time she has been among us we have been able to experience the changes in her as she has moved from laywoman into the transitional diaconate before emerging, like a swan, into the full expression of God’s intention for her as a priest.

I don’t mean to imply this journey is now complete. Linda’s ordination as priest reminds me of that famous utterance of Winston Churchill’s:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

A little historical detour

The English Reformation was characterized by a long process of incremental change. Instead of the decisive break with the past that marked the Reformation elsewhere, in England reformation took place through an evolution of catholic structures under the influences of incresingly Protestant theology. As a result, Anglicanism came to be known as the middle way – via media.

After the death of Jesus, the Apostles represented the continuance of Jesus’ ministry in the world. They needed to focus on evangelism and so the internal care of the community was delegated to a group of ministers known as diaconoi – deacons or servants. As the Apostles died out either through martyrdom or natural causes they passed on their authority to new men who came to be known as overseers or supervisors, in Greek episcopoi, or in English bishops. As the Church continued to expand, instead of making more and more bishops, each bishop began to delegate some aspects of this authority to a new class of minister known as presbyters or elders.

The three-fold order of bishop, presbyter or priest, and deacon is the structure for ministry that we share with other Churches of the Apostolic Tradition, i.e. Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Lutheran Traditions. In an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic State like Rhode Island, our use of the word priest to refer to the order of ministry Linda was yesterday ordained into can be a source of confusion, especially as the Episcopal Church is now home to a growing numbers raised in the Roman Church. The historic three-fold order is the same, the name is the same, but you simply have to spend only a little time in the Episcopal Church to intuit that the understanding of this ministry is somewhat different.

This difference in feel is an example of middle way understanding. In Roman Catholicism, the priest is set apart through the transmission of apostolic authority through the bishop to stand in the space between the baptized and God. As a mediator, he is both gatekeeper and custodian of the divine.

In Anglicanism the priest is likewise, set apart by the transmission of apostolic authority through the bishop, but not to stand between the baptized and God as a gatekeeper or mediator. For Episcopalians, the priest stands as one set-aside in order to represent to all the baptized a fuller realization of their vocation as a royal priesthood of all believers. Anglicanism really only recognizes one main category of ministry, that of the baptized. The threefold order of ministry is simply a grace-filled functionality for the benefit of the life of the Church.

Linda does not stand in a space between us – the baptized, and God. She continues to stand firmly on our side of the line, only now invested by us and graced by God to exercise a ministry of spiritual and sacramental leadership among us. 

Ordination is the end of the beginning of priestly ministry. It is not the completion of that ministry. Ordination confers authority through what we call the grace of orders. Authority and grace are the two elements that define a priest. So how does this all work?

A dynamic view of priesthood

We are already beginning to view Linda differently. We may not be aware of this happening, but it is happening. To get psychological for a moment, we now project a new set of expectations onto her. These expectations reflect that which we as a community, as well as individually, need Linda, as a priest to embody for us.

For Linda, she will begin to catch glimpses of her priestly identity through the way we begin to use her differently. She experiences this difference as we now bring a new set of expectations in our relationship with her, as a priest. We now look to her for qualities and capacities that we have hitherto not expected in our relationship to Linda as a deacon, or Linda as just herself.

As this is Mother’s Day, we can be reminded that we all come to know ourselves through experiencing ourselves reflected back in the eyes of our mother or principal caregiver. We first experience love through our mothers gaze. We glimpse our identity as we come to experience ourselves reflected in the eyes of our mother’s gaze. We first experience love through the shape of our mother’s facial gestures, the quality of her touch, the sound of her voice, the smell of her skin, the taste of her milk.

I use the feminine pronoun here because mothering has been traditionally a woman’s role. Traditionally, priesthood has been a man’s role. Yet, today, both priesthood and mothering are no longer gender specific roles. They are qualities of being that both men and women can possess. In the case of mothering, it’s the infant’s total dependency that triggers the qualities of mothering in his or her principal caregiver, whether this person be male or female. Likewise, priestliness is a quality triggered in the new priest as we – the baptized – come to see her or him as worthy of our trust. In both cases, infant and priest come to know themselves through the way they are known by others.

The grace of priestly ordination operates as a signal to the rest of the baptized that God is from now on working in a particular way through this person for the good of the whole body of the faithful. Through ordination, the new priest becomes recognized. So recognized, we have the opportunity to entrust them with our vulnerability. Through our trust in them, they catch glimpses of themselves as a channel for the loving acceptance of God, the grace of God flowing through them into the life of a community and into the lives of its members.

Anglicanism really only recognizes one main category of ministry, that of the baptized. May 8th is the day when Ione Rose is to be baptized. Through baptism, Ione Rose will become a member of the Body of Christ in this world. Through her baptism, Ione Rose joins the community in which Linda now begins her ministry as a priest. Our prayers today are that both Ione Rose and Linda will through God’s grace and our help grow into the fullness of the persons God is calling them to become.

From the collect for the ordination of a priest in the Book of Common Prayer:

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look 
favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred 
mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry 
out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world 
see and know that things which were cast down are being 
raised up, and things which had grown old are being made 
new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection 
by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus 
Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity 
of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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