Most of the readers of this blog are not Anglicans and do not come from a liturgical or Prayer Book tradition. Rather, they identify with the Free Church tradition in American Christianity, represented by denominations such as Baptists and Mennonites, quasi-denominational networks such as the Vineyard churches, and multitudes of congregations which classify themselves as independent or non-denominational. I grew up in that tradition but, as I have noted countless times in these blog posts, about ten years ago my wife and I began to be drawn toward a more liturgical form of public worship. That led, in time, to our confirmation as Anglicans and, in the spring of 2011, to my ordination as an Anglican priest.
As I reported in a post on November 9, my credentials as a priest have recently been de-activated by my request, I have been released from both the privileges and responsibilities conferred upon me by my Bishop when I was ordained a priest, and I am no longer authorized to carry out sacramental ministries (such as celebration of the Eucharist) in congregations associated with the Anglican Church in North America.
A few of my readers have asked me to say a bit more about that matter, including what led me to request “laicization” only eighteen months after ordination, and what all of this means for my future ministry. I have decided to use this post (which is far longer than usual) to address some of these issues, and then I intend to move in an altogether different direction in future posts.
In a nutshell, I determined that I needed to request release from my ordination vows when I came to the conclusion that there was no place for me to exercise my gifts and fulfill my call to vocational ministry within the context of the Anglican Diocese of the Great Lakes. But I’m getting ahead of myself just a little.
My love of liturgy developed slowly. I grew up in Christian fundamentalism where we looked with suspicion and disdain on formality and ritual in worship. (Truth be told, we looked with suspicion and disdain on nearly everything.) I was taught that inflexible ceremony, strange-looking robes, and prayers read out of a book must surely be signs of spiritual torpor. We referred to Catholics and Episcopalians, not as the chosen people, but rather as the frozen people of God.
Somewhere along the line I came to see that even the worship services in my home church relied on formal structure to a degree. We did the same things in the same order every week. We may not have read our prayers out of a book, but that was because we had essentially memorized the words and the cadence we used when we prayed.
Moreover, I observed that the greater the importance attached to a service or public event—such as a wedding, a graduation ceremony, an inauguration—the more formal was its structure, with significance attached to the order of the service and the symbolism reflected in the words and forms. Eventually I determined that, if a graduation ceremony or the dedication of a building required such meticulous care in the design of the service, surely the worship of God required no less.
My growing appreciation for liturgical forms and patterns coincided with my increased disenchantment with the structure and content of what has come to be called “contemporary” worship. This consisted of forty-five minutes of singing, in a pattern of interminable repetition, to the accompaniment of guitars, drums, and an electronic keyboard, followed by a forty-five minute lecture, often delivered while the preacher was seated on a high stool, and incorporating as many cultural references and popular catch-phrases as it was possible to cram into the time allotted.
I don’t mean to be snarky, but I came to resent a worship pattern which “dumbed down” an experience which should rather require our best efforts and fullest involvement since it constitutes an offering, a “sacrifice of praise,” which we are privileged to present to God each week. I grew weary of contemporary worship forms and content, not simply because I desired something more, but because God deserved something more.
I found what I was looking for in the patterns and prose, the mystery and majesty, the beauty and bounty of liturgical worship. I came to regard the Book of Common Prayer as a treasure chest full of inestimable riches, a priceless gift to the Christian community whether one had grown up in the Prayer Book tradition or not.
In the summer of 2006, my wife and I began attending worship at an Episcopal church northeast of Columbus, OH, some thirty-five miles from where we lived. I soon learned that a transition from the Free Church tradition in which I had grown up to the liturgical tradition toward which I was being drawn was going to be far more costly and complicated than I could have imagined.
Along with liturgical worship, we had to be educated in the patterns and protocol of Anglican (Episcopal) polity. In the church world, the word polity refers to the form of government under which a group or denomination functions. Anglicanism operates according to an episcopal polity (from the Greek word episkopos, meaning “one who oversees”). The English word “bishop” derives directly from that Greek form.
In the Anglican tradition, the primary locus of authority in the church rests with the Bishop of a diocese. A diocese is the “territory” over which the authority of a particular Bishop extends. It comprises all the parishes (local churches) and the clergy (priests and deacons) who serve those parishes, either directly (in pastoral ministry) or indirectly (as counselors, chaplains, etc). In a very real sense, the ministry of a parish priest is merely an extension of the ministry of the diocesan bishop, by whose authority the priest carries out his or her priestly and sacramental responsibilities.
Historically, Anglican dioceses have been geographically determined, and the boundary lines between dioceses have been firmly drawn. Among other things, this meant that no priest could carry out ministry within the bounds of a diocese other than his or her own without the permission of the bishop of the other diocese.
Anglican theology defines a far sharper distinction between the role of the clergy and that of the laity than I was accustomed to in the Free Church tradition. Preparation for Anglican ordination (or Holy Orders) is frequently an arduous and time-consuming process. I came to Anglicanism after forty years of vocational ministry. I had already been ordained twice—as a Baptist in 1970 and as a Mennonite in 1982—and had earned a Master of Divinity degree in 1985. I was not a novice. Even at that, the time required for my preparation for Anglican Holy Orders, from my initial inquiry to ordination as a priest, was nearly two years.
I approached the process with utmost seriousness. I knew that God had called me to vocational ministry; the testimony of hundreds of people over four decades had confirmed that truth. When I concluded that identification with the liturgical tradition in Anglican Christianity was important enough to risk termination from a job I loved dearly, I believed I was following the leading of God into a new faith community. Since God had used me in vocational ministry throughout my pilgrimage up to that point, I assumed that pattern would continue as I transitioned to Anglicanism. That’s why, in the summer of 2009, I embarked upon the process which would lead to ordination as a priest.
I repeat, I took the matter very seriously. In June 2009, before I had even met with my Parish Discernment Committee, I attended a three-day conference called “Ancient Wisdom—Anglican Futures” at Trinity School For Ministry, an Anglican seminary near Pittsburgh. In January 2010, I traveled to Greensboro, NC, to attend the annual Winter Conference of the Anglican Mission in the Americas.
I took four graduate-level courses—in Anglican Heritage, Patristics, Liturgics, and Moral Theology—through two Anglican seminaries, in order to meet the academic requirements (in addition to my M.Div. degree) for ordination.
Since I knew that I was going to be commissioned, upon ordination, to plant a church in the vicinity of The Ohio State University in Columbus, OH, I traveled to Dallas, TX, in January 2011, to attend a conference sponsored by Anglican1000, the arm of the Anglican Church in North America charged with overseeing the daunting challenge of planting 1000 new Anglican churches in North America by 2014.
In May 2011, I traveled to Chicago to attend a seminar devoted to social media, with a particular emphasis on its use in church planting and outreach. In September, my wife and I drove to Wheaton, IL, to visit The Church of the Resurrection (Anglican) and to talk with several staff members about that congregation’s ministry to the large number of Wheaton College students who attend its services. In November of last year, I attended a conference in Durham, NC, again sponsored by Anglican1000, which explored the most effective and innovative ways of using Anglican liturgy in church planting. I did all of this (i.e. everything referenced in the last four paragraphs) at my own expense.
I read scores of books, in addition to those required for my coursework, on subjects ranging from the character of worldwide Anglicanism to the interface between the church and contemporary culture. I drove long distances to attend ordination services for new priests and deacons, and I attended the periodic clericus and annual synod meetings required of all diocesan clergy. In short, I did everything I could to equip myself for ministry in the Anglican tradition. I took my ordination vows seriously and was faithful and consistent in showing respect for the Bishop and support for the diocese.
I did have some opportunities to preach and celebrate Eucharist during my eighteen months as a priest. For four weeks during the summer of 2011, while the rector of the church where I had been ordained was on vacation, I helped to fill in for him. In September I filled in for the rector of a parish in southern Ohio on a Sunday when he was out of town.
Toward the end of that year, my wife and I began to relate to a small Anglican congregation which had just started that fall. Most of its members had come from our home church, and while the dynamic which developed between those two congregations has had a significant impact on my experience as an Anglican priest, it is far too complicated, and I am still too emotionally invested in that situation, to address it here.
The rector of the new church invited me to preach and celebrate Eucharist on occasion, and between January and July of this year, I preached and celebrated at least nine times. I am grateful for these opportunities to use my gifts in ministry, and the experience was invaluable. Apart from the occasion in southern Ohio, however, I received no financial compensation for this ministry.
Although Anglican ordination is far more than simply an appointment to a particular assignment, a new priest does not generally receive Holy Orders apart from the designation of a setting in which to carry out those Orders. Most often that would likely involve some facet of ministry in a specific parish.
The Anglican Diocese of the Great Lakes, in which I was ordained, was top-heavy with clergy at the time I was ordained, and there were simply no ministerial openings among the established parishes of the diocese. Even now, if an ordinand is not already involved with a congregation at the time of ordination, or if he or she is not called to a ministry such as counseling or hospital chaplaincy, about the only option for a newly-ordained priest is church planting. It is an altogether worthy ministry, and there will always be a genuine need to plant new churches. Church planting will always be the most efficient means by which to extend the Kingdom of God in a community and attract new believers to the community of faith. But it is difficult work, under the best of circumstances, and my personality type, skill set, and spiritual gifting are not those generally associated with an entrepreneurial church planter.
Still, at the time of my ordination to the priesthood, I was commissioned by the Bishop to plant a church in Columbus, OH, in the vicinity of the OSU campus. In the summer of 2011, I wrote a prospectus (which is still available here) in which I laid out my vision for the new church and described what I believed to be the most likely scenario in which the vision could become reality.
I made it clear that I would need to serve alongside and among a dedicated “core” of people who could own the vision I had articulated and were committed to the level of sacrifice and devotion that this kind of undertaking would require. I distributed the prospectus to 50-60 people. It generated almost no response. I scheduled a meeting this past spring in Columbus for the purpose of sharing the vision in person. I promoted it widely and sent out a number of personal invitations. No one came.
I have no material resources which I can bring to this endeavor. I have been unemployed for more than four years. We live in the same small apartment we lived in while I taught at the Mennonite Bible college. It is located on the edge of that campus, more than thirty miles from downtown Columbus. Its location near my wife’s place of employment and the reasonable living costs are major reasons we are still financially solvent. Relocation to the community where we had hoped to plant the church has simply not been possible.
I should note, at this point, that the new church I mentioned earlier volunteered to underwrite, for one year, the cost of renting a small office in Grandview Heights, a community near the OSU campus. That year will end on November 30. I genuinely appreciate their generosity, and the office is a great place to work while providing some minimal presence in the community. Beginning December 1, however, we will need to trust God to provide some other means to pay the monthly rent.
Earlier in my ministry, God opened doors for me to minister in a variety of ways—Bible conferences, local Bible institutes, seminars, renewal meetings—all across the country. I have no network of contacts for such a ministry among Anglicans, however, and the diocesan structure which I described earlier as part of Anglican polity would make such a ministry difficult in this communion in any event.
Last summer, more than a year after my ordination as a priest, I had made no significant movement toward development of the church which the Bishop had commissioned me to plant. For a variety of reasons, I felt isolated and alone. Since I was not involved in regular parish ministry, I determined that the better part of prudence and responsibility required me to seek release from my ordination vows. When I sent my request to the Bishop, I was directed to meet with the diocesan Canon to the Ordinary. After a lengthy conversation, I agreed to withdraw my request, at least for the time being.
My circumstances did not improve. I continued to feel isolated, unproductive, and frustrated. In late September, in a moment of unusual frustration and discouragement, I posted a status update on my Facebook wall in which I suggested that I would even be willing to accept appointment to a parish in the Episcopal Church if it would provide a setting in which I could use my gifts in service to Christ and His Kingdom for the remainder of my active ministry.
Within just a few hours I was notified by the diocesan Canon that I was under suspension from my “priestly faculties” and could not engage in sacramental ministries until such a time as I was summoned to appear before the Bishop and explain why I had published a post which embarrassed the Bishop and the diocese. I immediately deleted the post. I felt humiliated and chastened, like a child punished for acting up. Except that my “acting up” was altogether inadvertent. I never meant any disrespect.
After a few days of pondering and praying, I sent a letter of contrition and apology to the Bishop, asking his forgiveness for any embarrassment I may have caused him or the diocese. I also asked that my request to be released from my ordination vows be reactivated.
On November 9, thirty-nine days after my second request for release from my vows, I received a formal notification of the “laicization” of my priestly orders, signed by the Bishop. And thus my brief tenure as an Anglican priest has come to an end.
I am sad but not despondent. I enjoyed serving as a priest. In more than forty years of ministry, I have never sensed the presence of God with me more keenly, affirming His calling and gifting, than when, as part of the celebration of the Eucharist, I would elevate the host and the chalice of wine and declare, “The gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”
I no longer have authority to engage in sacramental ministry in any congregation of the Anglican Church in North America. But I am still called by God to devote my life to vocational ministry. I’m not altogether sure what form that ministry will take, but I am eager to see where the next steps of my pilgrimage, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, will take me.
I still love liturgical worship, and I still believe that the Book of Common Prayer is a wonderful gift to the church at large. I still cherish a vision for a church in the vicinity of The Ohio State University, with roots in a local neighborhood but with a vision for outreach and ministry to the campus community. Since I am still an ordained minister, just not an Anglican priest, I may still wear the clerical collar, at least on occasion. I found that it opened doors of conversation for this introvert, and substantive ones at that.
I plan to continue this blog and even to expand it. In one of my next few posts, I will describe some of the themes I plan to explore in the months ahead as I return to regular writing.
I hope this review of the past few years of my life and ministry has been helpful and enlightening for those who wanted me to say a bit more about my circumstances—past, present, and anticipated. It has been cathartic for me and has helped bring closure to this significant chapter of my life.
It has been an eventful and, I think, productive six years. We have made some wonderful new friends. Even though I will no longer serve at the altar in an Anglican church, we will still join you there for worship from time to time, I’m sure. At the moment I am a bit burned out on the institutional church, but that will probably pass, in time. If it doesn’t, I’ll let you know.
In six years of association with the American Anglican community, I learned a great deal, laughed a little, cried a lot, and was forever changed in significant, substantive ways. It has been really difficult at times, but I say with all honesty that I am glad for the experience. I think it has made me a better servant, a more caring pastor, and a more sensitive preacher. To all those whom God brought alongside us to offer counsel, encouragement, and assistance along the way, we are in your debt. You know who you are. For you I pray the blessings of God’s grace and peace on your lives. And, as always…
Soli Deo Gloria