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Friday, November 11, 2011

After the Order of Melchizedek

The ordination of a priest
Ordinations are, for me, more of an opportunity to reflect on my priesthood in particular as well as priesthood in general than even the traditional renewal of ordination vows during Holy Week.

And so it was that, during the ordination of Lauren Kilbourn in North Carolina on Thursday night, I found myself deeply moved, once again, by what it is we purport to be doing when we ordain anyone to the Sacred Order of Priests.

I believe in the "priesthood of all believers". I believe that our baptism is our initiation in the priesthood of Jesus.

That's a pretty high consideration of the laity - more than some are willing to claim - but I find, recently, that I grow more and more concerned about the devaluation of the priesthood by a growing number of Episcopalians.

Perhaps it is a reaction to the abuse some priests have made of the order - arrogantly flaunting their status as "above" or "better than" others.

Some laity defer or surrender their own authority to that of the priest, even when the priest is in error on a particular point. They surrender this all on their own and yet some become angry at - and resentful of - clergy when they have done so.

Perhaps it is symptomatic of the general weariness of our culture about all authority figures who have squandered the trust of the people in a variety of ways - from abuse of power to abuse of children and women, to fiscal irresponsibility and even corruption.

Perhaps it is that we have lost our understanding of what a priest is and does that has led to my perception of the devaluation of the priesthood.

Indeed, I'm not sure I fully understood the role of the priest until I had been ordained about five years.

I am also reminded of the thinking of some that, whenever women become more integrated into roles that have been traditionally held by men, there is a devaluing of the position.

Conversely, when men become more involved in roles that have been traditionally held by women, those positions are not only held in higher esteem, they receive higher compensation.

Whatever it is, this attitude is finding its way into application of policies which express a cynicism about the role of priests.

Changes to Title IV canon, for example, assume guilt based on allegations and negatively impact the relationship between the priest and the bishop who, because of legal concerns, must suspend the role as chief pastor to the priest.

In this difficult financial climate, churches are feeling especially pinched. "Crunching the numbers" at year's end and trying to forecast figures for the next year's budget become an exercise in anxiety for many.

Clergy who wear black shirts with white collars become easy targets for the old red pencil - especially when it is difficult to articulate the "bang for the buck" to the managerial types among the laity in terms of productivity of priests.

So much of what we do is confidential - even the fact that we are meeting with someone - that an actual Very Busy day can look like a day at the beach in the priest's "official" day appointment calendar. Indeed, I still keep my pastoral counseling schedule in a separate small appointment book even though I no longer have a parish secretary or Senior Warden who might glance over at it.

Fearful of a diminution of the congregational pledge, diocesan types often find it irresistible to balance the diocesan budget on the backs of clergy who, for the most part, never came into this vocation thinking we were going to get rich.

Many of us live a sacrificial life, so we are used to making sacrifices for the greater good. Unfortunately, that is a posture which can be easily taken advantage of - especially when anxiety is heightened in tough financial times.

In the ordination service, we are made "priests forever, after the order of Melchizedek". That means that there is an ancient tradition in which priests stand.

In Genesis 14:18, Melchizedek offers a sacrifice of bread and wine. Christ therefore fulfilled the prophecy of Ps 110:4, that He would be a priest "after the order of Melchizedek," at the Last Supper, when he broke and shared bread with his disciples.

This is different from the Levitical order of Aaron, for whom continual sacrifices were required. Jesus becomes a priest after the order of Melchizedek and is sacrificed, once, and for all. 

Episcopalians take seriously Christ's command that the Apostles should "do this in memory of Me." As such, we continue to offer sacrifices of bread and wine as the "outward and visible sign" of the sacrament of the Eucharist. It is a reminder of Christ's sacrifice for us all.

On Sunday, Lauren will preside, for the first time, at the Celebration of the Eucharist. The preacher at the service of ordination was the priest from the congregation which had raised her up for the priesthood.

He began his sermon with story about the first time he had presided at Eucharist.

It was an outdoor service and he had very carefully set out the bread and the wine.  Just before the service was scheduled to begin, one of the acolytes came running in to tell him that some seagulls had come and ravaged the bread.

Thankfully, he had another loaf, but this time, one of the acolytes held it - all hunched over it during the service so that no other seagull might fly off with it.

Indeed, even as he presided at Eucharist, he found himself cradling the loaf in his arms, protecting that which would become the Body of Christ.

That image has stayed with him, low these many years later, as a symbol of priesthood. In his sermonic "charge" he challenged Lauren to be "fiercely protective", to "safeguard the vulnerable" and be a "guard and shield" to the Body of Christ.

That's as wonderful an image of priesthood as I've heard. It doesn't easily translate into productivity sheets. Neither does in justify, in some people's minds, the compensation we receive for our employ.

Indeed, what I have discovered is that, when one stands in solidarity with those who are most vulnerable in the world, we often take on the very oppression which is directed at the oppressed.

There came a moment in the liturgy, however, when those who were priests acted out our understanding of that in a most deeply profound and moving way.

It is traditional for the one to be ordained to prostrate themselves before the altar during the Litany of Ordination. Lauren didn't do that. To my surprise, however, she prostrated herself during the time when the bishop calls down the Holy Spirit by chanting that ancient hymn, "Come Holy Ghosts, our souls inspire". The congregation chants back, "And lighten with celestial fire".

I think we were all a bit surprised by that but slowly, one by one, we gathered 'round her, kneeling beside and around her on the floor. We were mostly women, there - and a few men - all ordained after the order of Melchizedek.

I was kneeling to her right and put my hand on her arm. Suddenly, Lauren reached up and was holding my hand. Tight. I opened my eyes and saw that one of the women clergy on staff at her church was kneeling besides the bishop, half hidden by his cope. She was holding her left hand.

I looked around and saw women lining her body on both sides, eyes closed, touching her body, chanting along with the rest of the congregations, knowing all the words by heart.

"That through the ages all along / this may be our endless song."

I felt the hands of other women on my back. I looked up and saw the smiling face of a woman who was a seminary classmate of Lauren, now a priest, who is confined to a wheelchair.

I knew she wouldn't be able to reach over and touch Lauren, so I reached out my left hand and held onto her shoe. I looked up and saw that she was beaming.

"Praise to thy eternal merit / Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

The chanting ended, we all helped Lauren to her feet, and, as she kneeled before the bishop, we put our hands on her as the bishop prayed.

Again, that also doesn't usually happen. Usually, the bishop prays and then we all move in as the bishop says, "Therefore, Father, through Jesus Christ your son, give your Holy Spirit to Lauren; fill her with grace and power, and make her a priest in your Church."

Usually, after that, we all back off. Not so with this ordination. We continued to surround her, as if she were a loaf of consecrated bread we were fiercely protecting her from any unexpected evil passing by.

Indeed, we didn't take our hands off Lauren until everyone said a loud, "AMEN!"

Even then, we hovered.

We knew.

We understood.

It takes great courage to be vulnerable enough to fiercely protect the vulnerable and still not get mortally wounded.

It takes enormous strength to safeguard the weak and still keep your stamina and endurance.

It takes a strong faith to be a guard and a shield and not lose your own faith and belief.

That's not something you understand in the moment of ordination. It certainly doesn't happen overnight.

It is a gradual awakening to the fact that ordination after the order of Melchizedek means that, unlike the Levitial priesthood of Aaron which required endless sacrifices, Christ was sacrificed, once, for all - so our own spiritual lives don't have to be sacrificed on an altar to the God of Expediency and Efficiency and Productivity.

That does not forgive the requirements of the sacrificial life of the priest, but it means that the priest does not have to sacrifice herself because Jesus has already done that.

Being a priest after the order of Melchizedek does not mean that the priest saves anyone or is personally responsible for the salvation of anyone. Jesus is the only savior. Priests are His ordained representatives, allowing Jesus and the Holy Spirit to work salvific grace through us as vehicles.

Finally, being a priest after the order of Melchizedek means that Jesus has ever been, is, and will ever be the only totally perfect priest (Hebrews 9:7). We'll never achieve that perfection - not in our lifetime.  This understanding liberates us to be all of who we are, with our perfectly unique gifts and charisms to become midwives to a new creation.

We have a new priest in Christ's one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

Indeed, since Thursday, we may even have quite a few more new priests ordained in the church.  I know of one that will take place on Saturday.

Note to my dear friend, Jonathan: I'll not be able to be with you physically, but I'll be there in prayer and spirit.

This business of being priest is an impossible vocation.

It's an impossible task and one that is almost impossible to explain.

It's certainly one that is increasingly impossible to justify to a culture that has eaten too much of the Bread of Anxiety and an institution that has said, "Peace, peace" when there is no peace - except that which passes all human understanding. 

Still, on reflection, I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Especially to a world that seems to value it less and less and would ask us to be compensated less and less for more and more of the impossible vocation to which we have been called.

I suppose that's not unlike those in the "priesthood of all believers" who are called to impossible vocations of teaching young minds, or making music or art, or laboring in fields to bring food to our tables, or the healing art of mending broken bodies or minds, or tending to our families, or struggling for justice amidst corruption and greed.

Perhaps that is the greatest challenge of the priesthood in these times: to lead the People of God to be faithful to our baptismal vows to "seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself" and to "strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being."

Then again, it has ever been thus for priests, who stand forever in the ancient priesthood, after the order of Melchizedek.


it's margaret said...



JCF said...


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Margaret - so was I.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - Amen.

RevMama said...

Thank you, Elizabeth, for reminding me of the deep mystery of this vocation that we share. I love the image of the women gathered around the ordinand and touching her. I recalled the hands laid on me. Someone had told me to keep my back straight, which I did, and the bishop circled my head with his hands and held me up, -or I would have fallen under the pressure of all those hands "pressing me down into ministry" - a phrase the preacher used in his sermon that day. Only one pair of women's hands in the whole bunch. I was only the third woman to be ordained in Dallas, and #2 was there, giving me strong support through her hands.

Since then I have joined in the laying on of hands for many women and men. Always I marvel at God's strength flowing through our hands, as we midwife a newborn priest. What an awesome mystery it is, this priesthood after the order of Melchizedek.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Maybe that's it, RevMama. Maybe we've lost that sense of the "deep mystery of this vocation". Everyone of us - priests included. Perhaps we have to recover that sense and preach and teach it. Thank you.

Daniel Weir said...

Our mutual friend Christopher Duraisingh suggested in a class at Episcopal Divinity School that we reserve "priest" as the designation for all the baptized. That led me to at refer to myself as an "elder brother" in communication in the parish. Years earlier I tried to avoid talking about "my" minstry or priesthood, framing it instead as my and our sharing in Christ's ministry.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I understand the intention, Daniel, but I disagree that everyone should be called 'priests'. Indeed, I think it's part of what contributes to a devaluation of the order.

It's sort of the way some of my straight friends want to talk about domestic partnerships and civil unions as "sacramental marriage". It may be so in my heart but I can't take my DP or CU to states where there are neither and have it mean anything.

As I say, I understand the impulse but it just doesn't make sense. I'm no one's "elder sister". Neither am I anyone's "mother". I think we simply need to value each order for its distinct contributions to the whole. You know. The way we do with each person of the Trinity.

Now, the part about the ministry we share? I couldn't agree more.

Matthew said...

Is there a good book, in the Anglican tradition that describes and delineates the role of the priest, deacon, bishop and laypersons with respect to boundaries and what the roles are. That might help clarify things, at least in my own mind.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Wow. Simply Wow.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - if there is, I don't know it. Maybe someone reading this does and will comment.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Wishing you had been there, Kirke.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

My spine shivers just thinking about it!

Matthew said...

What I am getting at is that I think our terms are confusing because our clergy are called priests, but we also say we believe in the priesthood of all believers, Its confusing to newcomers. A question I get asked a lot from newcomers is that they ask if the role of the laity in our church is more or less similar or roughly the same as other mainline Protestant denominations like Lutheran or Presbyterian. Or, is it the same as or similar to the roman catholic church or eastern orthodox. Which, they ask, or something entirely different. In their mind, priest is a role they think of in relation to Rome or eastern orthodoxy. Many Protestant denominations that talk about the priesthood of all believers don't use the P word to describe professional clergy (though some Lutherans do). So, they are perplexed and I always struggle to answer this question. At least I struggle with it theologically because practically in imy personal experiences our laypeople are not much different in terms of roles than most Lutheran laypeople. But I agree with you that we should not give up use of the word but it makes explaining the dichotomy harder. Any advice appreciated.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - I hear your question and I understand it. I don't think it's just the laity that are confused. Some clergy don't understand their role. As I say, I didn't fully "get" it until I had been ordained about five years.

Maybe this will help:

Kirkepiscatoid said...

The best book I've ever seen on that is "Living on the Border of the Holy," by William Countryman. My priest had me read it as part of a "pre-discernment" exercise. He talks about our "fundamental priesthoods" as baptized Christians and the "sacramental priesthood." What I came to learn from the book is no one should ever trade the former for the latter. I have come to believe that too many sacramental priests in the Church either sold out their fundamental priesthood for the sake of a collar, or they were uncomfortable about their fundamental priesthood and use their collar to cover up their self-doubts. Conversely, the sacramental priests I know who never gave up their fundamental priesthoods, their fundamental priesthood literally bursts out from under their collars. I have also, as I have come to understand my own fundamental priesthood, it is so obvious and all over the room that it can, at times, create jealousy and resentment among more insecure collared folk. I didn't "do" anything, it just "is." What I love about priests like Elizabeth is that she is not a bit afraid of the giant, glowing fundamental priesthoods of empowered laity but instead kicks at them to go do something with them!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Kirke - for the reminder about Countryman's book and his notions about "fundamental priesthood" - and how we all must "kick each other's butt" to be all of who God made us - and calls us - to be.

Matthew said...

Many thanks. Yes, it was very helpful. I also recall two other posts (close together in time) about the job description of a priest/training/what you need to know how to do, sort of best practices. Another question I get alot that is also hard to respond to is, what is the role of a priest in a parish with a full-time perpetual deacon? How does that role vary compared to a parish without a perpetual deacon? Also, what is the role of the laity if you have perpetual deacon? I hate boundaries and turf but I find its endemic to even the healthiest of parishes. OTOH, if we are going to continue to disallow lay presidency then we are already committed to *some* boundaries so I think its best to be clear about where they are and communicate them.