Monday, March 18, 2024

On ordination vows

A Twitter comment about a letter to the Church Times (15 March 2024) triggers this post ("trigger" being used in a good way!): 

Let's leave aside the particulars of Simon Butler's disagreement with Ian Paul and focus on the question whether the ordination vows of a clergyperson in an Anglican church preclude "arguing for" a change to doctrine.

Obviously ordination vows are focused on upholding the doctrine of the church.

Our own ACANZP ordination services include this kind of wording (from the ordination of a deacon):

Bishop Do you hold to the doctrine of the faith as this Church understands them?

Candidate Yes, I do. My duty and my joy will be to witness to Christ crucified and risen.

Such commitment is further underlined when a clergyperson signs declarations before being licensed to an appointment.

In an obvious sense of the meaning of "hold", and "I do," this means I am committed to the doctrine of the church as taught and I am not committed to loosening the meaning of "hold" along the lines of "Well, I hold to doctrine when I agree with it and I argue against it when I do not."

But is that really the end of the matter, especially in a Protestant church (i.e. a church where we understand that some predecessor clergy once vowed to hold to the doctrine of the medieval Catholic church and then changed their minds on some matters of soteriology and ecclesiology but didn't give up their ordinations)?

Deliberately avoiding the specific "That Topic" question Samuel Butler has in mind in the letter above, let's think about being a clergyperson in the day when the church had a doctrinal position on marriage which precluded the possibility of remarriage after divorce, yet the same clergyperson, engaged with changes in society re divorce and remarriage found her or himself unable to apply the teaching of the church as it stood to the reality of members of her or his congregation. Do nothing or seek change via synodical decision?

Or, if we don't want to think about marriage, how about the ... epiclesis (the calling down of the Holy Spirit on the celebration of communion so that the bread and wine of communion become for us the body and blood of Christ). There was none in the BCP (1662) and that book for centuries expressed our doctrine as Anglicans (along with the 39A which also said nothing about the epiclesis). Cue liturgical revision in the 20th century and a church such as mine own, ACANZP, thought hard, wide and long (way back into eucharistic history) and proposed - wait for it - change!

Every clergyperson who was ordained prior to, say, 1966 in our church, and remained ordained through subsequent liturgical revisions and embraced the new (but also very old) epiclesis did or did not maintain their ordination vow to uphold the doctrine of the church?

Answers in the comments please!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I suggest the general point we might make is that the church is committed to both upholding what it receives (through Scripture and tradition) and testing it (do we fully understand what we teach? Are there dimensions we have not yet fully comprehended? Have we, somewhere in our history, gone down a path which neglected something previously part of "the doctrine of Christ"? Is there a greater fullness to which we should admit recognition by way of updating our doctrine ("aggiornamento")?)

A case in point coould be the ordination of women (another example of where - arguably, on a certain understanding of ordination vows - vows were broken to enable this to happen). Social change through late 19th and 20th centuries opened the question whether we understood "ordination" fully in respect of "who" might be ordained, "what" did Scripture actually say about ordained ministry? (Did Scripture actually lay down all conditions for discernment of who might be ordained at any given future point in the history of the church?).

There is a lot to think about: discernment, development, decision-making in the determination of doctrine, its maintenance and its evolution, in respect of the duty of clergy in relation to their vows!

1 comment:

Mark Murphy said...

How does a community, and the leaders within that community, hold to what is "core", eternal, enduring while remaining open to what is evolving, temporal, taking form in pastoral application and discernment, and/or open to (tolerant of) a multiplicity of readings and views?

Anglicanism specializes in these sorts of problems, doesn't it?

...I think you had a post/we had a discussion on this core/peripheral discernment lady year.

Does this basic common agreement really need to be secured in written, contractual, legal form? What are the strengths and risks of proceeding this way?