nesting clergy dolls

In a recent blog post of his, Bishop Jim White quotes the rubric in the service to ordain a bishop in The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer (page 511):

The bishop-elect is vested in a rochet or alb, without stole, tippet, or other vesture distinctive of ecclesiastical or academic rank or order.

I cannot remember noticing this rubric previously, and I would be very interested in its history.

The person about to be ordained bishop stands there as a baptised person – wearing the ‘uniform’ of a baptised person.

I am not keen on the nesting-clergy-doll theory that inside every bishop there is a priest; inside every priest there is a deacon; inside every deacon there is a confirmed person; and inside every confirmed person there is a baptised person. I think serious international, ecumenical debate should discuss per saltum ordination – being ordained to the order that God calls you. I also think serious international, ecumenical debate should discuss the requirement to be confirmed prior to ordination.

The current approach demeans the diaconate, turning it into a mere stepping-stone required for priesthood. The diaconate should be for those involved in radical service, leading the sacrificial service ministry of the church – I envisage those leading the church’s care for the poor and the homeless, those spearheading the church’s response to injustice, these are leadership ministries for which one could be ordained to the diaconate.

I respect those who see priests as called from those serving radically in the diaconate in this manner, but that is not what is currently happening.

An interesting comment to the recent blog post about ‘part-time priests‘ was “I function as a priest when I teach, consecrate, bless and forgive. The rest of the time I function as a deacon.” Whilst I respect that priest, I think we should think twice about such a comment. It seems to me in danger of clericalising Christian service. As if real Christians are those who are ordained. In the nesting-clergy-doll approach (I’ve already indicated I do not follow this approach), might it not be better to say “I function as a priest when I teach, consecrate, bless and forgive. The rest of the time I function as a lay person.”?

I do not think in terms of collecting orders like postage stamps, or coin collections – the best is to have the whole set. I think we should renew our orders so that all the baptised are seen as equal, whatever their order: lay, deacon, priest, bishop. It is tragic, I think, that the church’s word for ordering our community, “hierarchy” (holy rule), is the one that most springs to mind when people are wanting a word that expresses a pyramid of unequal ranking!

We intensify this sense of inequality amongst the baptised by further ranking pyramidally within an order: Venerable, Canon, Very Reverend,… especially when these titles (often of increasing sounding holiness) do not indicate a role but are retained beyond their functional lifespan. I regularly get asked questions like: “Is a Canon above or below a Venerable?”

Theologically we get to bizarre comments like one I often hear, that a bishop presides at the Eucharist “because a bishop is still a priest”. That is about as back to front n regular ecclesiology as one can get. It is the bishop who presides at the Eucharist because of being the bishop!

I recognise that in the case of the bishop it is practically impossible to visualise a way of normally ordaining directly to the episcopate (although historically that has happened). The previous paragraph notwithstanding, there is another theological discussion to be had whether the bishop is the senior priest to whom priests have delegated their right to ordain (the indication of that being in the way we ordain itself). Such a discussion would help ecumenical discussions with denominations that do not have the episcopate but ordain presbyters. In any case, the practical difficulty to ordain directly to the episcopate is the exact opposite of the issue about ordaining directly to the priesthood. In the latter case, with rare exceptions, one is called to priesthood, and diaconate becomes little more than an apprentice-priest year, usually lost on many in the congregation who struggle to make sense of many of the church’s esoteric distinctions.

Some previous per saltum discussion is found here and here.

Image: nesting clergy dolls – Patriarch, Metropolitan, Bishop, Priest, Deacon, Subdeacon, Reader.

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