Monday, March 21, 2011

Clergy as Superheroes? Questions about Ontological Change

photo by Elvis Santana

It's been said that when someone is ordained, they receive an indelible character; that is, their soul is somehow changed to allow or enable the execution of their ministry. In other words, it is said, ordination effects an ontological change in the person receiving ordination. There is what they were, and now their very being has been changed.

Right off the bat, I find this idea a little dodgy. Are we really saying that ordinands are superheroes? Is it like the Roman Catholic billboard that puts the white silhouette of the clerical collar against a black background with the words, "Yes, you do get to fight evil. No you don't get to wear a cape"? While George Sumner's book Being Salt has helped me understand better how we might mean indelible character when translated into an evangelical key, I'm still uncomfortable with the idea.

But there is a problem: anecdotal evidence mounts.

When I was ordained a deacon, something happened. It was like something settled on me and stuck there. I felt it. I felt it that day and felt a resulting confidence in my ministry. The call was settled and received; I felt a new freedom to be a minister of the Gospel.

But then, when I was ordained a priest, something else odd happened. I work at St. Matthew's Riverdale in Toronto, which shares its facilities with a daycare. The children paid me no mind the six months I worked there before. But, the first time I saw them after being ordained, several of them stopped what they were doing and ran to me. There was an awe, a wonder, on their faces. Needless to say, it was an unnerving encounter!

And I'm not the only one to have these types of experiences. They are whispered about and wondered over everywhere I talk to clergy.

What does it mean? How could we explain it theologically? I'm not sure, and I think we might have gotten ourselves into trouble by trying too hard to do so. I'm no superhero, but I know that I am now different than I was. I am coming to believe that my fathers and mothers in faith wrestled with the same experience in their own ordinations. I might not like their formulations, but I am grateful that they tried to bring their experience to speech. Even though I might use different words, I don't think I could bring these experiences to expression without their help. Thanks be to God for the wisdom of the ages.

Are you a clergyperson? What was/is your experience?


Jody Howard said...


Thanks for writing about this so thoughtfully. I do think that the language of ontological change is off-putting to many people, especially those of us raised in strongly protestant traditions. That being said, I do think it is descriptive of *something,* as you have expressed.

It might be most helpful to position the discussion of any change that takes place at ordination in the over-arching context of the indelible character the Christian receives at Baptism through the work of the Holy Spirit ("you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever"). If the ontological change is considered primarily as a way of expressing the equipping of the saints for particular forms of ministry, including ordained ministry, it would seem to be more palatable from an evangelical perspective. As the old saying goes, God doesn't call the equipped, he equips the called. It makes sense that this equipping would have a particularly distinct character among those who are called by God to the ordained ministry and have that ministry then affirmed by the people of God. If Christ left to his church the power to bind and loose, then surely there is also some effect to having one's calling confirmed by the people of God.

Determining how much of this change is of divine origin and ontological vs. what is anthropological would be an ongoing discussion...

Unknown said...

Thanks for the kind words, Jody+.

Your last bit about determining how much is divine and how much is anthropological I find very interesting. One way of framing the question suggests that the divine and human are in a zero-sum game, such that the more that God acts the less that human beings have to do with it; the more God expresses His freedom, the less freedom human beings have, etc.

I wonder if we could say, like John Webster suggests, that instead of an inversely proportional relationship between the divine and anthropological, there is a directly proportional relationship between the two. The more God there is, the more humanity there is.

We see this kind of relationship in Christ, I think. God is fully present in the union of divine and human in Christ and that presence does not ruin or destroy the humanity but frees it to truly human life.

Could we say the same for this? Could we give a thoroughly anthropological account that considers the effect on us of our going through a long process to Orders, of being brought to that decision with the help of a vast sea of others, of the accumulated expectations, hopes and dreams those others have for us, of the ritual of the laying on of hands? Could we give that account and still find faith to name God there? I know I'm tempted to only name God in the 'extra,' in the gaps of our descriptive powers, as it were. But, I'm not sure that's my best instincts at work.

What do you think?

Jody Howard said...


I like and appreciate the direction you're going here. It reminds me of a bit of a George MacDonald sermon that I quoted last Sunday. If you'll indulge me, I'll include the bit of it here:

Our Lord became flesh, but he did not become man. He took on him the form of man: he was man already. And he was, is, and ever shall be divinely childlike. He could never have been a child if he would ever have ceased to be a child, for in him the transient found nothing. Childhood belongs to the divine nature. [...]

In this, then, is God like the child: that he is simply and altogether our friend, our father–our more than friend, father and mother–our infinite love-perfect God. [...] With him all is simplicity of purpose and meaning and effort and end–namely, that we should be as he is, think the same thoughts, mean the same things, possess the same blessedness. It is so plain that anyone may see it, everyone ought to see it, everyone shall see it. It must be so. He is utterly true and good to us, nor shall anything withstand his will. Unspoken Sermons: Series I, II, III (Greek: Epea Aptera), p. 22-23

What MacDonald is getting at here, I think, (which I've also seen reflected in the work of William Porcher DuBose), and which you seem to touch on is that it is in God--particularly as revealed in Christ, but always present even before the incarnation--we find the perfection of Humanity. This is why the expression "I'm only human" is a poor one--it neglects the fact that Christ does not show us what it means to be "super-human" but what it means to be human as is intended by God.

Similarly, I think you're right about the negative aspects of falling into an assumption of a zero-sum that pits God and humanity against one another--instead, God works through humanity.

The question is how we might talk about Holy Orders in the context of a robust understanding of God at work both in the individual life and in the community.

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