United Church of Canada ordination. (CC 2.0)
Though the denomination and the country is different, the scene at the right may be a familiar one for many United Methodists. It is from an ordination service in the Maritime Conference of The United Church of Canada, just a few weeks ago.
Beginning in 1996, United Methodists added an element to the whole process of ordination and life as ordained persons when it created “orders” of deacon and elder through which persons in the respective offices were to relate to and support one another.
It seemed a very new idea at the time.
But for Methodists in particular, this 1996 “innovation” was really a kind of “double recovery” within both the Methodist and the larger Christian tradition.
A Methodist Recovery
The Methodist side of the recovery was that to a certain degree, the annual conference itself had originally been a kind of “order” for elders. Elders were the only ones who were full members of those earliest conferences after 1784, and so the only ones with full voice and vote. But more importantly, especially early on, these conferences were really like a gathering of a chapter of a religious order to a large degree– times for the elders to get together to discuss with one another how it was with their souls and how they could support one another in their common ministry.
Certainly, it has been a good thing for Methodists since that time that Annual Conference is no longer an “elders only” club, that we now regularly have more laypersons present than clergy, and that we also treat both deacons and local pastors as clergy, even if the latter may not yet have the same voice and vote in the clergy session that persons in full connection may have. We didn’t and don’t need to go back to a less representative Annual Conference!
Yet, what that has meant is that in effect the only time all the clergy are together, much less all the clergy of a particular kind of ministry, may be the few hours of a clergy session spent largely on dealing with issues brought by the Board of Ordained Ministry, or perhaps a “pastor’s school” where, once a year, those who can afford it may come for fellowship or learning. While it’s good we still do these things– we do need to!– that the clergy session itself may have become our most regular contact with each other was not ideal, to say the least.
So we began to correct that in 1996, creating through the orders and fellowship of local pastors a structure and leadership intended to help deacons, elders, and local pastors support each other in the forms of ministry they share, thus recovering in spirit, if not exactly in form, something of what the earlier Methodist annual conferences themselves had provided for those who attended them.
A Christian Recovery
The creation of the orders was more than a Methodist recovery. It has had at least the potential for to be a more deeply historical Christian recovery in our denomination, restoring a practice of gathering and set of relationships much older than Methodism, Anglicanism, Protestantism or even the Roman Catholic Church.
Generally speaking, at least the Western Christian tradition has typically understood that persons ordained to an office were thus also ordered into a relationship with all others in their diocese or region sharing that office. Ordination was “ordering”– not only of the life of the church, by providing Spirit-empowered leaders, but also of the life of those who would lead and their life as a community of leaders in our midst.
We see examples of this throughout Syria, North Africa (including Egypt), and Turkey, at least, in the early centuries of the church. A composite of these practices looks something like this. A bishop or presiding elder (there were a variety of titles and roles this person might have) would regularly gather all the elders in a particular region for a spiritual strengthening, study, and strategic support about how best to lead in the situations they faced in the particular contexts they had been sent to serve.
In the earlier periods, when the dioceses (regions watched over by a given leader) were smaller, and the number of presbyters involved was fewer, it may be these gatherings, while intentional, were a bit more grounded in the bonds of mutual affection each had for each than any clearly formal agenda. (I suggest this on the basis that we don’t have evidence from earliest periods what sort of agenda, if any, there may have been). But as the church expanded rapidly, beginning in the fourth century and especially after becoming the legal religion of the Roman Empire in 375, so did the size of dioceses and the number of presbyters per bishop in many areas. And as that happened, we do know that the nature of these gatherings shifted from a focus on face to face relationships (which were now harder to sustain) and more on a renewal of living out the vows– the Rule of Life– of their office.
That practice continues in Anglican, Roman Catholic, and some Protestant bodies to this day– at least ritually– through annual services of renewal of ordination vows, often held on Maundy Thursday in the Roman and Anglican traditions, and through “Ember Days” in the Anglican tradition in particular– times when all clergy and all clergy candidates (for all orders) are to check in with their bishop, in writing or in person, to discuss how they’re fulfilling their vows of office and where they may need additional guidance or support to do so better. This practice is, to be sure, in many ways vestigial. And it could be much more. But at least the vestiges remain.
How “Recovered” Are Our Orders?
From my angle and experience, it seems to me United Methodists haven’t quite figured out what to do with our “recovered” structure of ministry orders. We may use them for gathering folks in the orders for continuing education, or retreats. We may use them to seek to know each other better. We may use them to commiserate.
But to be honest, in talking with clergy colleagues from around the connection, many are not really sure why we’re doing this, or what difference it is making in our lives or ministries. Since we’re unclear about the purpose, while some time away from the parish or other settings with colleagues may be welcome, sometimes it may feel more like one more meeting we’re supposed to show up for. Or worse, it may feel like a division among our body as clergy based more on status than necessarily on who we are or what we do or the life we have vowed and been empowered to live.
And so I offer this as a modest, but serious proposal.
Ordination Vows as a Rule of Life for the Ordained and Template for the Work of the Orders and Fellowship
What if we take the step many of our colleagues and spiritual ancestors in other traditions have done, and order the work of our orders (and our association of local pastors!) explicitly around the vows of office we take?
What would it look like for deacons, elders, and local pastors every year, to gather with the agenda of helping each other live out these vows, common to both orders and the fellowship of local pastors?
Imagine, if you will, a two-day quarterly gathering of all clergy leaders in a conference. The first day might involve conversations and equipping for all present around these vows, common to both orders and, in effect, to the fellowship as well:
and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?
Now, for Day 2 of the quarterly meeting, the orders and fellowship divide into their separate groups to report, support, and learn better how to live out the vows of their particular order.
For the deacons in their particular gatherings, this:
Likewise for elders and the fellowship, what is it like to help each other live out these vows:
Might an agenda for quarterly gatherings built around concrete ways we can help each other, in our orders or fellowship, live the life we vowed to live be a source of wisdom, courage and strength, as well as accountability, now and for the foreseeable future?
Not that I have any particular authority to ask this, but as a member of the Order of Elders in this church, and as the Convener of the Ordinal Task Force, I do have a genuine passion and interest for this:
Perhaps it’s time for a few of our orders or fellowships to order their orders and fellowship around our actual vows– for at least a few years– and see what you discover about the nature of your life as an order and the strength of your vocation within your order when you do.
Peace in Christ,
The Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards
The United Methodist Church