Friday, November 25, 2011

Ordination and the Laying-on of Hands: College of Presbyters, or Moonie Wedding?

Percy recently attended an ordination of priests where the prescribed ritual for sharing in the laying on of hands was ignored, to problematic effect. Instead of all priests participating in laying-on of hands, individuals who had some sort of special relationship with or interest in the particular candidate came forward, lunging for the head in question before scurrying away, lest they be seen too close to the next ordinand, who might be of the wrong social network or theological stripe.

The Book of Common Prayer, which is authoritative in Percy's own Church, is clear enough: "the Bishop with the Priests present shall lay their hands severally upon the head of every one that receiveth the Order of Priesthood". This clearly envisages a collective action, not by certain priests but by the whole group present.

The practice is not an Anglican peculiarity; although Roman Catholic ritual involves a sort of serial hand-laying, with each priest in turn going from candidate to candidate after the bishop's own prayer, the intention is the same, and in fact Roman canon law requires each priest present thus to act.

The significance of the action is however sometimes misunderstood; in a Church with episcopal polity, some may imagine that what really counts is that the bishop lays on hands, and the presbyteral involvement is icing, rather than cake. In a controversy of a very different kind, a writer of a more conservative stripe than Percy refers to a conversation with a bishop of the Church of England who thought the priests' action at ordinations was "just a blessing". Not so, right reverend sir.

English liturgical books may reflect this slippage; the notes to the current ordinal for the C of E state that "priests" (not "the priests present") who take part "do so at the invitation of the bishop, who determines where they stand, and by what gesture they indicate they are joining in prayer with him". This is unfortunate language, for granted the need for the bishop to lead, the involvement of presbyters in this rite is not a matter of a bishop's "invitation" or other discretionary act, but an imperative that derives from the character of the relationship between bishop and priests as a collegium.

The ultimate authority however is biblical: "Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders" (1 Tim 4:14). So priests do not take part in this action to bestow some sort of individual grace from their own private hands or prayers or office, but as members of a group, into whose membership the newly-ordained are moving in the very act of ordination.

The cost of failing to uphold this ancient and general custom can be very great. In a situation where, as in many places today, there is difficulty holding together the reality of the Church, the failure to express a corporate presbyteral identity at ordination is at least a lost opportunity. Each priest present is receiving a new colleague in every ordinand, not merely a new fellow-traveller for their own cause if and when certain conditions of theological agreement are met.

More than this however, the emphasis on individual relationships in this rite is coming to signal a new and pernicious form of clericalism. Ordinands are sometimes treated like (e.g.) graduands, or like newlyweds, whose individual "big day" is celebrated with liturgical trousseau, family fuss and such (in the case that provokes this reflection, family members and supporters of each candidate are told to stand during "their" person's ordination prayer, distinguishing them within the group rather than reflecting their common ministry). The collective character of the event is thus relativized quite drastically; it is more and more like a Moonie wedding, where the individual's celebrations happen to take place together. And it is hardly surprising if the result is clergy who understand their own ministry as a matter of individual tastes, opinions, and prerogatives, rather than as part of a greater whole.

Some will object that there is a practical problem at ordinations when dozens of clergy are present. It is simply not possible for every priest to lay on hands in the "scrum" that forms around each candidate. Yet it is not uncommon, even in circumstances like those discussed here, for a larger group of priests to form something like a layered set of circles, where some are immediately around the candidate and others then around them, perhaps extending into a group on either side or otherwise to accommodate the reality of a particular space and group. The Roman solution of "serial" hand-laying is another real possibility, but would have its own cumbersome character where more than a handful of candidates are involved.

These logistics would be worth struggling with to state clearly what is being achieved in a priestly ordination. Priests are ordained by the Church, for the Church, not by their teachers or mentors or friends. To be ordained is to be available for more than those with whom you have learned to agree - it is to be at the disposal of a Church with different members, whose sprawling character and unity might well be expressed in the awkward crowded space of a Cathedral, and in the clumsy but faithful efforts of a diverse group of presbyters physically to welcome one more into their midst.


  1. Absolutely agree - and the issue goes back not just to tradition or Ordinals, but scripture: 1 Timothy 4:14. A lot of the problem is due to the medieval individualising of 'priesthood', and thinking of each priest as being separately empowered to preach and preside. Rather, such personal ministry is characteristic of the bishop. In the early churches, the 'presbyterate' was indeed corporate, with little specific liturgical function - often 'elders' literally. Under pressure in the third century, bishops began to delegate presiding to them, and under the influence of Graeco-Roman ideas of priesthood this was soon understood in sacrificial terms of less than biblical warrant (in the OT only the high priest performs any sort of atoning rite - priests 'give Torah', ie engage in pastoral preaching, hence Cranmer's model in BCP).

    So BCP's rubric is quite correct, and derives from Cranmer's scriptural and patristic re-reception of holy order - a deacon (and there's a topic for another day) is admitted to the college of presbyters, not just a selcet group among them ...

  2. I am grateful to Percy for this explanation and for the inclusiveness he displayed at the ordination in question. As a candidate for ordination to the priesthood in the Diocese in question, and attending an ordination for the first time, I was extremely disappointed to find the selective practice Percy describes. Should I, God and Church willing, be ordained priest some day I hope that all present would be helped to see this as an ordination by the whole Church for the whole Church.

  3. I agree totally with this concern. At the ordination yesterday I felt that we were enacting a very poor ecclesiology in the custom that has developed that only the friends and supporters of a person lay hands with the bishops. I have the same issue with the family and friends standing while 'their' person is ordained and then coming to receive communion with them. These sentimental practices developed under the previous archbishop and were not Melbourne customs before then. Anglican ecclesiology walks a fine line between a priest being set apart for the Church and also being able to commit to a marriage. One is not more important than the other which the new 'customs' suggest.
    I simply did not have the courage to lay hands on everyone yesterday but my catholic heart was wanting to. Next year I will follow my heart - and practice the ecclesiology I believe in.

  4. My first ordination was as a Churches of Christ minister in a ceremony led by the president of the denomination with the hands of a representative of the church laid on my head. Those chose to lay hands were both lay and ordained and in my own case was coincidentally a former minister of the church I was to go to as my first placement. While this is definitely a reflection of the non-conformist traditions of Churches of Christ it has a ring of catholicity.

    I appreciate Percy's sensitivity to these things so much that I suspect he would squirm, as I do, when in company of some non-episcopally inclined, any present who are especially related to or interested in the candidate should join in the laying on of hands. I am afraid I really like the "representativeness" of the function described by Percy. Thanks