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Ordination lessons learnt in a crisis

by
09 July 2021

Michael Ipgrave considers the effect of Covid regulations on services

Simon Jones/Diocese of Lichfield

Technicians at the Lichfield ordination services at the end of June

Technicians at the Lichfield ordination services at the end of June

LIKE other bishops, soon after the start of the first lockdown, in early 2020, my thoughts began to turn to the forthcoming ordinations. What would be possible in the circumstances?

If not at Petertide, surely by Michaelmas things would be back to normal, I found myself thinking. As it happens, of course, we are now at the beginning of a second year of ordinations where things have been very different.

Those to be ordained as priests this year have experienced a stressful and unusual first year of deacon’s ministry; and those to be ordained deacons are leaving colleges and courses, and in many cases moving to new communities, at a similarly disrupted time.

Some ordination retreats have been moved online, and Zoom fatigue affects us all. Many have missed some of the longstanding conventions that have grown up around ordinations in the Church of England, and some have even felt that their ordination into the continuity of Christian ministry seems diminished if it looks very different from that which has long been practised.

It is, indeed, sad that singing and physical contact, so meaningful in ordinary times at ordinations, are limited in scope and strictly regulated.

 

IN 2020 and in 2021, the Church of England’s Recovery Group, advised by the Liturgical Commission, has worked carefully to outline what is needful at ordination services; yet operating within the prevailing guidance in a sensitive way has not always been easy. Nevertheless, there are also ways in which this crisis has helped us to focus and reflect on the rites of ordination as deacon, priest, and bishop, and to learn more about God and one another in the tense fragility of our current arrangements.

Perhaps one of the foremost concessions to Covid at recent ordinations has been that, although ordinations are normally intentionally public occasions, they are currently being carried out with very small numbers of clergy and laity in attendance.

It has sometimes been painful for ordinands to have to select a few friends, members of their families, and supporting ministers; in some ways, their experiences have mirrored those of couples planning weddings.

In these celebrations, important connections are usually made between ordinands, their bishop(s), other clergy, and the wider people of God, and the seeds of ordained vocation are sometimes sown.

It seems against all our instincts that they should be limited in size, and yet smaller ordinations have unexpectedly emphasised for many the importance of the involvement of the local Christian assembly in its diversity, and the parts played by the few people who have been present have been made unusually clear.

What may have previously felt like rites preparatory to the laying on of hands — the commendation of the candidates to their bishop by those responsible for their training; the announcement of the local churches in which their ministries are to be exercised; the assent of the gathered people of God to their ordination — have all have taken on new significance.

The director of ordinands, or the archdeacon, confirming to the bishop the good character of the candidates, does so standing in the place of all those responsible for years of training and formation in theological colleges and courses, and for the discernment that began in the local church. And it is in accordance with ancient custom that the assembled congregation gives its assent to the ordination, and prays fervently for the candidates.

Even in the smaller gatherings that we have seen for ordinations during the pandemic, care has been taken to include, and give voice to, representatives of clergy and laity connected with the ordinands’ past and future ministry, as well as fellow deacons, priests, or bishops serving in the diocese.

In many dioceses, there has been a growth in the number, and a dispersal in the location, of diaconal and presbyteral ordinations, so that many take place in the ordinand’s current or future context of ministry. A service in the local church, perhaps in the context of an ordinary service attended by the usual congregation, can offer an opportunity for the worshipping community itself to become involved — indeed, strongly invested — in preparing for and participating in the service.

 

ANOTHER significant way in which the typical norms of ordination services have been altered in Covid-tide has been the minimisation of touch in the liturgy. It can feel as if the key liturgical moment, the laying on of hands, has assumed an aura of the clinical, with sanitiser, held by chaplains as if it were a costly unguent, dispensed to hand-laying bishops and priests at appropriate moments.

Sam Cavender Laying-on of hands at this year’s ordinations in Bristol Cathedral

The moment of touch, as hands are placed not near but on the head of the ordinand — the very moment when the physical proximity of bodies becomes actual contact — has become the most physically dangerous moment of the service. The powerful significance of anointing a new priest or bishop may seem to be undermined when a disposable applicator is used to convey the chrism.

Other moments of touch are similarly impeded: the newly ordained may not be welcomed with shared gestures; nor is the Peace shared in conventional ways, and ordinands are not being dressed by others in the customary vestments of their new order. (It should be remembered, though, that at various points in history candidates have in fact arrived already dressed in the vesture of their future order.)

Some may have discovered for the first time that, in spite of the omission of other symbolic gestures, the Giving of the Scriptures is a compulsory part of the service!

Perhaps, most noticeably, gone, too, is the “rugby scrum” at priestings and consecrations: we no longer see as many priests or bishops as possible joined together in the laying on of hands. In fact, while we all may be able to remember this practice stretching back decades, it is not of any great antiquity.

For some, the coming together of so many ministers has been a powerful symbol; I vividly recall the paradoxically uplifting downward pressure on my head and shoulders of 40 or so pairs of episcopal hands when I was ordained bishop. For others, though, it has felt like an awkward pause in the continuity of the Ordination Prayer, with clergy jockeying for position.

Perhaps post-Covid ordinations could give some thought to the way in which supporting clergy take part at these moments.

Unexpectedly, at the ordination of priests and bishops which I have attended during the pandemic, I have found myself moved by the sight of just three priests, or bishops, successively laying hands on the ordinand in a silence that speaks eloquently of the connecting of individual ministries with the ministry of the universal Church.

 

ONE final observation: in spite of all the restrictions, in spite of the advice that public worship be minimised in length and complexity, and on one or two occasions in spite of initial proposals to the contrary, all ordinations have still taken place in the context of the celebration of holy communion.

Even though the newly ordained may not be able, visibly, to assist in the liturgy of the eucharist in customary ways (preparing the gifts, standing with the bishop during the eucharistic prayer, and so forth), they are able to take part in the meal of thanks and praise given to us by the great High Priest, who has called his people to be a royal priesthood.

The whole story of God’s people is present in the eucharist, and, as we take part, we are bound together with every eucharist and every ordination, past, present, and future, in years of persecution and in years of calm.

After the liturgy of ordination, the liturgy of the eucharist recalls to us the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ.

So, above and beyond Covid, as we pray earnestly with our deacons, priests, and episcopal candidates for the surpassing gift of the Holy Spirit, we find that we are celebrating a grace which will inspire and protect the newly ordained in their ministry for many years to come.


Dr Ipgrave is the Bishop of Lichfield.

Forthcoming Events

20 September 2021
Online book launch: Black, Gay, British, Christian, Queer
Author Jarel Robinson-Brown in conversation with Rev. Winnie Varghese.

25 September 2021
Festival of Faith and Literature: Food for the Journey
With Stephen Cottrell, Peter Stanford, Lucy Winkett, and Rowan Williams.

More events

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