Saturday, January 7, 2012

Lying in Ordination Vows

Over the last few weeks (a month or so) I've participated in conversations about the diaconate. Many of my seminary classmates have said that at their ordinations to the diaconate they would have to lie in their ordination vows. A professor said that many people have to. One said his bishop said he could cross his fingers. Where would people be lying in their ordination vows? And why? The vow in question is the first question of The Examination (BCP 543), "My brother, do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to the life and work of a deacon?"

As these conversations have been happening, others have been as well, and a big event has, too. On December 21 I knelt before my bishop and he prayed, "Therefore, Father, through Jesus Christ your Son, give your Holy Spirit to Joseph; fill him with grace and power, and make him a transitional deacon in your Church." I was ordained as a transitional deacon, it's in the prayer.

Actually it's not. The constant references to my being a transitional deacon or to the transitional diaconate have annoyed me the last few weeks. I don't want to get into the idea of cumulative orders where they stack up like nesting dolls. or talk about direct ordination to then presbyterate. I'm not an advocate of that. I am, however, an advocate of deacons, their work, their lives, and their ministries.

My classmates have said that they will have to lie in their ordination vows, but I think that presents a problem. Rather, I should say I did not have to lie in my ordination vows. I do believe that right now I am truly called by God and the Church to the life and work as a deacon. Saying that I'm a transitional deacon betrays the importance of that life and work. While some people advocate ordaining people directly to the presbyterate, one of the reasons I pursued orders in The Episcopal Church was to serve time as an ordained deacon, called to a  special ministry of servanthood under my bishop modeling for all the baptized that servant ministry to which we are all called.

My understanding of my call to the priesthood is that the Church forms its priests by serving as ordained deacons first. I don't believe that I am called to be an ordained deacon for life, but I am a deacon right now. I am not a "transitional" deacon anymore than Bishops Harris, Robinson, Parsley, Gray-Reeves, or Curry were transitional presbyters. While some say that those called to the priesthood should be ordained right to that order, I think that instead we might discern as individuals and in community when people are called to be priests.

Rather than setting the date of an ordination to the priesthood six-twelve months to the day from the diaconal ordination, why not take the process of priestly ordination just as seriously as we do postulancy, and candidacy, and diaconal ordination? While people seem to hem and haw and build up loads of anxiety before their first meeting with the commission on ministry or for getting candidacy, it seems like skating from that point on, and no one seems to question if they will be ordained to the priesthood in an exact timeline per their diocese.

Apparently that I'm even saying these things could hold my process up in some dioceses, too! When discussing a GOE answer from this past week I told classmates of my intentional inclusion of a deacon in a liturgy and cited the diaconal ordinal. They were from the same diocese and almost both immediately said that in their diocese my advocacy for the ministry of the deacon would lead to questions among the committee if I might not be called to the vocational diaconate.

Throughout my seminary career I have been such an advocate, and I think it has to do with my formation about ordained ministry happening a)with vocational deacons around and b)such a strong teaching on the tradition of the church that I could never have thought about being ordained directly to the presbyterate - although one of my closest friends and mentors (in the tradition from which I came) was pursuing just such a process. During that time, however, she was on trial and discerned herself and in community when she would be ordained an elder.

Scott Gunn wrote tonight about Broken Things in the Church. I think one of the things broken in The Episcopal Church is not the diaconate, but our treatment of the diaconate. As Episcopalians we say that we firmly believe in the three-fold ordering of ministry. Our understanding of the ordering of ministry is important to us in ecumenical dialogue, but I think oftentimes we act like there are really only two orders of ministry: priests and bishops.

In a sermon at General Convention 2009 Bishop Barbara Harris implored the church to stop treating LGBT people called to ordained ministry as though they were "half-ass baptized." If we continue to treat vocational deacons as though they're half-ass ordained (limiting their use of the title "The Rev", disallowing them from wearing collars, making them wear grey clergy shirts to tell them apart, saying that "the clergy" follow "the deacons" in procession, etc.), while encouraging deacons pursuing the priesthood to act like priests in waiting, we devalue the ministry of all deacons.

Rather than celebrating our three-fold ordering of ministry we say that only people who want to be priests and people who can ordained are ordained. Those other people who've had the prayer prayed over them are just fixtures, regardless of the good work they do in prisons, with seafarers, in schools, and all the other places deacons go to serve. I love telling people in the subway that deacons taught me to knit and explaining the ministry of the deacon to random New Yorkers who just wanted a picture of me knitting.

I'm called to that ministry at this point in my life. Maybe it's easier for me to embrace this because I don't have an ordination date yet, and I don't know what the timeline is. There are a lot of variables that may need to be worked out. Maybe it's a good thing for me, though. I'm not a priest-in-waiting because I don't know when I'm waiting for! I am a deacon called "to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by [my] word and example, to those among whom [I] live, and work, and worship, ... [and] to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world." (BCP 543).

The Prayer Book knows nothing of transitional deacons, only deacons called to special ministries of service under their bishops, whether they are pursuing the presbyterate or not.


  1. Thanks, Joseph. I've heard and seen lots of what I call "temporary deacons" behave as if the work they were doing as deacons wasn't as important as the work they would be doing when they celebrate (and I have heard this more than once) their "real ordination."
    Why do I want to hear you sing that River City song all of a sudden? :)

  2. Thanks Joseph. I don't think my diaconate, while "transitional" in the sense that I was a deacon before I was a priest, was not in fact transitional at all but permanent. I don't think of orders as cumulative either. To say that I somehow stopped being a deacon when I became a priest is like saying I stopped being baptized when I was made a deacon. No, my ordained offices are built on baptism.

    For many years I was a hospital chaplain in a Catholic hospital. Except for occasional annointing and periodic communions from the reserved sacrament, I would go for months at a time without performing traditional priestly functions. The important part of the ministry was not what I *did* but who I was and how I approached people. There is no question in my mind and heart that the main stance I took towards patients, loved ones and staff was diaconal.

    I believe the ontological change that the diaconate bestowed neither stopped nor went away when I was became a priest. So the only transitional part of my diaconate where the transitions I've experienced in growing into the calling that has been unfolding throughout my walk with Christ.