Remembrance Sunday, 1993. My first as an ordained minister, newly settled in a small charge buried in the forest of southwestern Nova Scotia, but I wasn’t anxious: the Act of Remembrance would be led by veterans in the congregation, and I’d heroically set aside my inclusive-language qualms and chosen all the “proper” Remembrance Day hymns. The service would surely unfold beautifully.
Which it did — until we arrived at the singing of “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” and it quickly became clear that the only person singing with any degree of confidence was me. Turned out, I discovered afterward, that though they’d all kindly tried to give it a good go for their new minister, none of the congregation had ever sung it before.
How was that even possible??! We’d always sung “Eternal Father” on Remembrance Sunday in my home congregation in Montreal, and in four years of seminary and internships in Vancouver there’d been annual debates over its language — but annual concessions to its importance nevertheless. How could it be that the folks on this charge in Nova Scotia had never even heard it?
That was the day I learned something new about the meaning and purpose of ordered ministry. Like most of my friends in seminary, I’d struggled with the concept of ordination in relation to the United Church’s emphasis on the ministry of the Whole People of God. We’d flinched at what we perceived to be the inherent self-glorification of being “set apart”, disdained any definition involving “authority”, and generally assumed that ordination itself was precisely the post-Pauline measure-of-expediency it appeared to be in the later Epistles. Interviewed by committee-people similarly wary of any understanding of ordination that veered uncomfortably into “separate but equal” territory, we’d muddled through seminary feeling that whatever exactly it was that we were feeling called to, something about it — somehow — just wasn’t quite right.
It was in trying to make sense of the restriction of celebration of the sacraments to those in ordered ministry that I finally found a way in. Could I claim, in my early twenties, to be in any way sufficiently “strong, loving, and wise” — as our liturgy textbook had put it — to celebrate the sacraments more rightly than any member of the United Church? No, I could not. But what I could claim, after ordination, was that when I celebrated the sacraments in the midst of a congregation it was — if nothing else — as a visible manifestation of the wider church. The congregation would gather around table and font, in other words, not simply as themselves but also manifestly — with me — beyond themselves, with the whole Body of Christ.
This became for me a central piece of my understanding of ordination: the notion of the person ordained being rather like an stealthy reminder, in the day-to-day and on Sunday morning, of the church being more than one particular congregation.
To this, as ordination approached, was added a second element that became for me so crucial to my understanding of ordination that I still mourn its loss. Because in 1993, ordination meant settlement. The very first act demanded upon acceptance of orders, in other words, was submission to the needs of the church. Not that there wasn’t compassion: we were, for example, allowed to identify a few hopes for settlement, and even a presenting need or two. But inherent in our ordination, even just symbolically, remained this notion of placing the church’s needs above our own. In accepting orders, in effect, we agreed to accept orders. We submitted to the church. We went where we were sent.
Which is, of course, how I’d wound up buried in the forest of southwestern Nova Scotia, manifesting at once obedience to and the existence of the wider United Church as the ordained minister of a pastoral charge. But on that first Remembrance Sunday I also came to realize a third important element of ordination in the United Church closely tied to the second. By virtue of settlement, as it happened, I’d wound up in a completely unfamiliar part of the country carrying with me all the assumptions and traditions learned both at home and where I’d studied and interned. And if on that first Remembrance Sunday my congregation found itself the unwitting victim of what they enjoyed teasing me was my ‘Upper Canadianness’ showing, I also got firmly Maritimed in return during the years I spent there. The nature of ordination in the United Church, in other words — its capacity to require through settlement or allow through transfer the movement of its leadership from one part of the country to another — was, I realized that day, strikingly enriching to the denomination as a whole. Not only the fact of a national church, but also the broad landscape of traditions and issues and contexts represented around a vast and diverse country could be reflected in — but also brought to bear on the life of individual congregations by — a member of the order of ministry “from away”, who would then of course carry that ministry experience on to a subsequent pastoral charge. Though a congregation’s primary focus of discipleship would always be its own local context, in other words, the leadership in but not of the congregation inherent in ordered ministry could not only offer a gentle corrective to parochialism, but also broaden perspective, awareness, and mission.
As we contemplate a drawing together of all our variations of paid, accountable ministry, therefore, including those that emerge from and remain in particular congregations, what I struggle most with losing in our understanding of “orders” is this unique manifestation at the local level of not just the fact but the diversity of a wider church beyond: reflecting experiences and traditions completely different from our own, stretching our awareness of issues and contexts we might never have considered — and sometimes even surprising us with a brand-new Remembrance Sunday hymn like “Eternal Father, Strong to Save”.
Betsy Hogan is the ordained minister at St. Matthew’s United Church in downtown Halifax.