Today is the seventeenth anniversary of my ordination as a priest in The Episcopal Church. In 2001 this was not a particular feast on the church’s calendar, lesser or otherwise (cue the hymn “Hail Thee, Ferial Day” – thanks, Jed Holdorph!) though evidently it is now a trial remembrance for John Bosco and Samuel Shoemaker, priests. To be honest, there are years when this date just slips right by without my recalling it, but it’s on my mind this year. This week I’m preparing for a weekend retreat for the newly constituted vestry in our parish, who were just elected this past Sunday at our annual meeting. As I do each year for this occasion, I’m preparing some materials about what the canons (that is, church laws) have to say about the authority and responsibility of the wardens, vestry, and rector (that is, elected lay leaders, board, and priest in charge) – not so that we’ll all know how to play by the rules, or to establish who’s really in charge, but so that we can understand our respective roles, how we work and minister as a team, what is expected of us, and the ways in which we are accountable to one another and the people we have been called and elected to serve. And in an age in which the majority of our members do not come from a background in our tradition, and may have skipped that (admittedly boring) part in Inquirers’ Class, a basic understanding of our denominational polity is helpful, too.
This year, for the first time and in order to help the vestry better understand my role, I’m including some material from the liturgy “Ordination of a Priest” in The Book of Common Prayer, specifically the words the bishop says in the Examination and Consecration, which begin this way (p 531ff):
As a priest, it will be your task to proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to fashion your life in accordance with its precepts…to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor….to preach, to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God’s blessing, to share in the administration of Holy Baptism and in the celebration of the mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood, and to perform the other ministrations entrusted to you.
And then the bishop says this:
In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come.
Shortly before my ordination I took a short retreat, in which I spent time repeatedly praying and meditating on this examination. Every time, every single time, I could not get to that last sentence without crying; even today, as I type and reflect on the words, there’s a lump in my throat and my eyes are tearing up.
Not every priest will be a rector, of course, though every rector must be a priest (in rare cases, a bishop will take on that role). The canons of the church give tremendous authority and control to the rector of a parish: worship (including music), religious education, use of buildings and furnishings, determination of who may and may not exercise ministry in the parish and congregation, oversight of programs and staff. There’s very little outside the rector’s purview, actually; yet such authority and control always must be exercised in light of the sacramental responsibility we have to the people God has entrusted to our care, to nourish them from the riches of Christ’s grace. This can only be done from a posture of humility. If I cannot remember that, as I go about the business of being a parish priest, then God help me.