Discerning the essential in sacramental liturgy: ordinations in a time of pandemic

August 2020, still in a time of pandemic…in many liturgical conversations (with different people in different countries) the reality that a quick-fix to the restrictions of the coronavirus is not as close as hoped for is making a second (or third) round in discussions, official and unofficial, layered with exhaustion, depression, and, in some cases, surrender to what is more easily accessible. The vast majority of these conversations (sometimes in person, mostly on social media and omnipresent Zoom) are centred around the celebration of the Eucharist – to do, how to do, or not to do…
The broader reality is that there are other sacramental arenas which have been urgent and necessary throughout the past six months, above all rites with the sick, the dying, and the dead. More recently, there are increasing parish conversations regarding rites of initiation (postponed, in many cases, from the Easter Vigil and Easter Season), and family conversations about weddings beginning to emerge.

I would like to turn, however, to another sacramental conversation, ordinations, specifically ordination to the ministerial priesthood. In my unofficial research, many diaconal and presbyteral ordinations have been delayed, while episcopal ordinations have mostly adhered to the original calendar, if not the original liturgical plan (sometimes having a total of seven to ten people present to meet the minimum canonical necessity). Are ordinations urgent? In many situations they are not – regardless of how disappointed the individual ordinand feels – and could simply be postponed. But in other cases, communities are counting on the newly ordained to lead them, in-person or virtually, in positions now vacant for months. And so a new ordination season has begun, and depending on where they take place (particularly under the imposition of differing civic and episcopal restrictions), the liturgies have been small gatherings, generally without music (or at least without congregational singing), masks (particularly at moments when human closeness is unavoidable), and done with suitable shifts in some ritual patterns. Bishops and dioceses (and religious orders) must do what they need to do, but a disturbing trend in some Anglican circles has been the jettisoning of the eucharistic context for ordination in these extraordinary circumstances. Is the celebration of the Eucharist essential in ordination? What follows is a contribution to a conversation based on Anglican ordinals, hopefully with some ecumenical interest.

Because the Anglican ordinal has many different manifestations around the Anglican Communion, I limited my brief survey to three contemporary versions of the ordination of a priest: the US Episcopal Church (1979 BCP); the Anglican Church of Canada (BAS 1985), and the Church of England (Common Worship 2006), in this order as all three incorporate long traditions and reflect the fruits of the liturgical movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, building on one another.
In the US, BCP 1979 has very little in the way of theological praenotanda, heading straight to the rubrics themselves – first about where the bishop does the liturgy (from a chair in front of the people – until the offertory); then the gifts of bread and wine brought to the altar by family and friends; then the new priests and other priests standing at the altar during the eucharistic prayer; finally receiving communion first with the bishop who is the chief celebrant (page 524). Without any rationale, the assumption is a eucharistic liturgy. These rubrics are repeated in the liturgical texts themselves, so that following the ordination proper, “The liturgy continues with the Offertory, Deacons prepare the Table” (535) Finally in the additional directions following the ordination liturgy, the several pages begins with “at all ordinations: the celebration of the Holy Eucharist may be according to Rite One or Rite Two”, and specifically “at the ordination of a priest” the newly ordained “join the bishop and other priests at the Altar for the Great Thanksgiving.” (554)
In Canada, BAS 1985, the rubrics reveal the extensive borrowing from the 1979 US prayer book in the opening rubric (the location of the bishop), and in many of the rubrics within the liturgy, such as the rubric following the Peace, “the newly ordained priest joins with the bishop and other presbyters in the celebration of the eucharist and in the breaking of the bread” (page 649). In the ‘Further Directions’ following the liturgy, the second section states that “according to the rubrics, the ordination eucharist is to be concelebrated. In such celebrations of the eucharist, other bishops and presbyters stand at the Lord’s Table with the presiding celebrant…” (gestures and verbalization instructions follow, 666) Finally, “the congregation must always be given an opportunity to communicate at an ordination eucharist. The administration may take place at several conveniently separated places in the Church.” (666)
In the Church of England, Common Worship 2006 volume on ordination services the same liturgical assumptions hold, that the ordination leads directly into the eucharistic celebration presided over by the bishop. Instructions following the outline of the liturgy simply state that any number of texts and rubrics may be used “from the authorized forms of service of Holy Communion.” (churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/ministry/common-worship-ordination-services) With regard to the newly ordained priests, the directions further state “after the Peace, the newly ordained presbyters may be presented with the bread and the wine that are to be used in the Liturgy of the Eucharist which immediately follows. They may then stand at the Holy Table with the bishop, as he may direct.” (see online reference above)

This fast overview of rubrics in three Anglican communities makes clear that ordination to the priesthood (as well as to the diaconate and the episcopate) takes place in the context of the eucharist. There are no rubrics or instructions or directions which use “may” language – the ordination and consecration is followed immediately by a eucharistic celebration. But why? Is it custom or essential to ordination? Does it allow for extraordinary changes to be made in time of pandemic? What is the connection?

The first connection is articulated in the many theological links made between the celebration of the eucharist and the church which counter a popular (and sometimes official) understanding of the eucharist as a product of the church only, either in celebration and/or in the consecrated elements. The eucharistic character of the church (and of all Christian faith) instead understands the body of Christ and the celebration of the eucharist as mutually constitutive. While evident in early church writings, the trajectory of ecumenical writings in the 20th century, from Henri de Lubac (Roman Catholic) through Nicholas Afanasiev and John Zizoulas (Eastern Orthodox) to Rowan Williams (Anglican), have made mainstream the bumper sticker summary drawn from de Lubac “the church makes the eucharist and the eucharist makes the church.”

The second connection is not as clear from various ecumenical perspectives as the relationship between eucharist and ecclesiology. The role of the ministerial priest as it relates to the priesthood of all believers as well as to the eucharist has been a bumpier ride over the past 60 years (and well before that). I remember in graduate courses on the history of sacraments a recurring diagram to make the extremely complicated history of holy orders simpler: ‘priest-eucharist-church,’ used to summarize the rise of priestly power in confecting the eucharist as the highpoint of a priest-centred church (not a model to emulate but rather to disdain). This approach also fit with the placement of the eucharistic celebration at a particular point on the spectrum of meanings of sacrifice. In part, this was a central theology of the eucharist that led Leo XIII to condemn Anglican orders (“absolutely null and utterly void “) because Anglican priests were not ordained to offer the eucharistic sacrifice in the sacrificial understanding understood by Apostolicae Curae (1896). But more than 100 earlier, Samuel Seabury, first bishop of the fledging Episcopal Church in the new United States, argued that a sacrificial understanding of the eucharist needed a sacrificial priesthood, successors to Christ the high priest. However, Seabury reversed the argument “the eucharistic sacrifice created and constituted a sacrificial priesthood…” (see Dan Handschy’s article in Anglican and Episcopal History 85 (2016). Seabury and others, particularly through the 19th century, reimagined the blackboard flow-chart to make more sense when considered: “eucharist-priest-church”. It remained especially for “new theology” to bring these two conversations together, such as de Lubac’s writing in The Splendour of the Church in which he argues against priests making “the eucharist for the private faith of the individual” rather than the corporate body of Christ. (Alexander Irving ATR 100 (2018).

The third connection, returning to the liturgy as primary theology, is the teaching of the church (here presented by three short examples from the Canadian Anglican ordinal) embedded in the ordination liturgy itself. First, the one to be ordained priest makes a solemn vow which includes, “…and I do solemnly promise to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Anglican Church of Canada.” In the examination, the ordinand is charged with a number of sacramental and pastoral obligations, including “to preside…at the celebration of the mysteries of Christ’s body and blood…” The consecration prayer includes the request that God “set him/her among your people to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable in your sight…”

The fourth connection might be simply a bringing together of these points, especially as the blackboard chart of “eucharist-priest-church” in point two above is still not completely satisfying. Might “church-eucharist-priest” make more sense, or perhaps even better (and more faithful to theology and the theologians in question) “Christ-church-eucharist-priest”? This latter begins with Christ, whose body (physical-mystical-real) is the source and summit of all (including church and eucharist), and who acts on the priesthood of all believers in the eucharistic celebration and from whom the ministerial priesthood draws its grounding from within the whole baptized body of Christ.

While bumper stickers and flow charts do not get at the complexity of theological articulations, all of these proposals point to the relationship between the ministerial priesthood and the eucharist as essential. When joined to the rubrical and textual emphases of the liturgies themselves, it seems that the eucharistic context of the ordination liturgy is not an option, but actually of the essence of the sacramental action of the Trinity and the Church. Ordination to the ministerial priesthood is linked to the eucharist, not simply because the priest will preside at the eucharist, but even more so because the priesthood is of Christ and the Church, and it is the eucharist which is constitutive of the church, and the church performatively constitutive of the eucharist. One often overlooked manifestation of this is the direction for the newly ordained to stand at the altar with the bishop during the eucharistic prayer (and even more clearly in the Canadian rite, which states that “the ordination eucharist is to be concelebrated” 666).

These are strange days to be acting in-person, trying to maintain ways that are embodied and proximate. But the pandemic has also presented us with the necessary opportunity to dive deeper into what matters, why it matters, and how we might reconsider or reconfirm our sacramental actions.

One comment

  1. Lizette, what I see in this is a full out example of what Louis Weil has constantly complained about: we’ve adopted the texts of liturgies while rejecting, or ignoring, their theology. If you go back 75 years in TEC or even more so in ACC, you’d see only occasional eucharist at ordinations. There was active discussion in the planning for my diaconal ordination in the Diocese of Toronto (a little over 40 years ago) as to whether it would be done in the context of evensong. We are saying 1979 (or 1986) words in a community that still thinks in 1662 contexts. Any excuse (and the pandemic is one that’s really good to use) and our communities will ditch the sacramental richness of the newer liturgies for the ease (functional and spiritual) of what we (or our grandparents) learned 100 years ago.

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