Saturday, April 25, 2009

Forrester and the Ordination Process

A blog post by Greg Griffith at Stand Firm shows that Bishop elect Forrester re-wrote the liturgy for Baptism and for the Eucharist for Easter, 2008. I am not going to do a point by point reffutation of what Forrester has written. Others have done that much better than I (see here for a great example).

I think he is trying to be true to the faith as he understands it and THAT IS THE MAJOR PROBLEM IN THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH TODAY.

For the past several decades, we have stopped doing the hard work of discernment in our ordination process for deacons and priests. The majority of dioceses no longer concern themselves with trying to verify that the Aspirant has any formation as a Christian - that (s)he understands and can articulate the faith in a way that shows they can form other Christians - before sending the aspirant off to seminary.

During the years at seminary, too many postulants and candidates are not interviewed to verify that they still hold, understand, and can articulate the faith. Too many are sent to seminary because they can successfully negotiate The Process (queue dramatic chord), not because they have a valid call to be priests and have received sufficient formation in the lay order before moving on to academic formation for the clerical order. Not having a good grounding in the faith, they are unprepared to discern between wheat and chaff in what they learn academically. In order to make good grades in seminary, they start writing papers that get good grades and they start to believe what they write.

My dad was ordained in the 1980s and he told me "If you can get out of seminary with your faith intact, you should be ordained because seminary will test your faith like nothing else." I believe there is a lot of truth to that, but too many bishops, COMs, and standing committees don't seem to check that last part - that the person believes the Faith, understands the Faith, and can teach the Faith.

What we have substituted instead is Process. Step 1, meet with the Bishop (or representative). Step 2, jump through the hoops put out by the COM etc. We have substituted process for discernment. We have substituted subjective "I sense a call" for objective "John understands the faith and can articulate and teach it."

Now, I have nothing against the Ordination Process per se. I learned an great deal about ministry and about the faith during my discernment process and my ordination process. I had a lot of my assumptions challenged and I am very glad that I went through the process. But (and this is a huge) the COM and the Standing Committee both asked me questions concerning my understanding of the faith and challenged me on several issues. They did their jobs.

One problem I see now in TEC is that too many priests and deacons lack the basic formation as Christians, let alone priests and deacons. And it is from the Priests that we take our Bishops. We have too many people in positions of authority and influence that are not willing to tell a nice person "no" if they don't understand the Faith, can't explain it, and can't teach it.

Jesus Christ did not defeat death to make us nice. Jesus Christ defeated death so that we could die with him and be raised to new life. I wish more priests and deacons (and bishops) would understand and teach that.

Phil Snyder


Bryan Owen said...

This is a very well-written piece, Phil, that gets at part of the core of the problem in the Episcopal Church.

Working with discernment committees, with examining chaplains, and as a mentor/tutor for seminarians who have graduated but have also failed most of the canonical areas on the General Ordination Exams, I can say from my own experience that the Episcopal Church is failing in the area of basic Christian formation. And we are harvesting the fruits of that failure.

It's true in our seminaries, and it's also true in many of our parishes. The attitude still prevails in too many places that once you go through confirmation class in high school you have "graduated" from Sunday School and never again have to darken the door of a Christian education offering, read a book addressing some aspect of the Christian faith, or study scripture for formation (and not just information).

And our seminaries seem to be too caught up in teaching esoteric electives rather than giving students the thorough grounding in the basics that they will need to serve as priests. Professors don't like teaching the intro courses. It's far sexier to offer something else (which, of course, assumes mastery of the basics, an assumption that often proves wrong). I think that if someone wants to study Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, great! They can go to graduate school in a Masters or Ph.D. program. But if you're in seminary, concentrate on mastery of the canonical areas.

plsdeacon said...

Thanks Bryan,

I've often thought of a "seminary boot camp" that the Bishop could require that will give the aspirants a good grounding in the faith before they go to seminary.

I also believe that personal interviews with local examiners (aka canonical orals) should be required. It is very hard to see if a person understands the faith by a series of three page papers in two or three parts.

Phil Snyder

Robert said...

I couldn't agree more with you, Phil. I have heard some Episcopal priests, and I won't name names, say some terrifically unorthodox things. I have heard one imply that some words of Jesus aren't to be taken seriously. This same one quoted approvingly from an uncanonical gnostic gospel - written by the enemies of the early Church.

For the first time ever, I was tempted to walk out in the middle of a church service because the priest doing the service so obviously had no clue.

This was a super nice person too... but they weren't supposed to be there to be a super nice person. They were supposed to be a Christian priest.

No wonder we have so many liberals in charge of TECUSA.

quietly priested said...

Hi--good post, and I enjoy your other postings elsewhere from time to time.

I am still 'buffaloed' about one aspect of the Episcopal discernment/formation process. You mention formation in the lay order as a prerequisite for formation in the clerical order. As a lifelong RC with seminary training, and now publicly an ECUSA layman, I can't get my mind around this idea.

My own priestly vocation, derailed because of my sexual orientation, is something I am now living out in a network of free independent Catholic priests, having worked with a good bishop and received Holy Orders at his invitation last fall.

(In every other respect I am as orthodox, sensible, and mainstream as you could ever wish for; and my sexual theory is a well-researched, very scholarly, and very "surgical" one. I don't believe "anything goes," not by a longshot. I believe I would be a great colleague to you.)

I say Mass at home most mornings, and it is the high point of my life...yes, I believe that the Mass is the greatest and best reason to become a priest, and I am wearing a genuine asbestos chasuble as I write this! ;-)

I am absolutely called to the priesthood. Every Roman priest I ever spoke with validated these feelings one hundred percent. The one Episcopalian I met with bullied and shamed me. I can't accept the limited process he "closed" to me: EFM and Discernment Committees, etc. It's not a path I can walk.

I have a successful "day job" in a lay ministry as well. These two aspects, so far, have not met on a public, institutional level, but I feel utterly at home in my identity as a priest. I don't think I have ever been a layman, been called to be a layman, or felt at ease being a layman.

Truly, I think I was born in the clerical state...sorry if that sounds like Genpo...I don't mean this literally. But "zeal for thy house hath eaten me up" from childhood.

My future journey will probably involved a greater integration of my ministerial identity. One day at a time.

But, my point: I don't believe that one called to Orders is supposed to become a "compleat layman" first. Laymanship (?) isn't my calling at all. I just don't agree with Episcopal polity as you describe it.

I hope you hear this in the respectful way it's intended. Can you clarify or explain your ideas further?

Respectfully, your brother in orders and in Christ. (must remain anonymous)

plsdeacon said...


This is not the post to argue sexual morality. Let's just say taht we all can have well researched and "surgical" reasons for our besetting sins.

When I say that people need to have formation in the lay order, I mean that they should have a good grounding on what it mean to be and to be a Christian.

Before going to seminary, a person needs to understand the basics of the faith. They need to have a good grounding in Holy Scripture, they need to understand that we worship one God in three Persons. They need to understand that Jesus is fully human and fully divine.

Seminary is not about giving a foundation in the faith. Seminary should be designed to build upon a solid foundation and prepare its students to ground others in the faith.

A priest's "job" is not just celebrating Holy Eucharist. A priest's "job" is to form others as Christians - to fit their souls for heaven.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

I think you're right, Phil, that seminary should not be about "giving a foundation in the faith," but rather about "build[ing] upon a solid foundation" to help others grow in their faith. Unfortunately, for the reasons I cited in my comments above, I don't think the Episcopal Church is doing a very good job of forming our people as Christians. So when they go to seminary, many of them haven't been sufficiently formed in the faith to begin with. And when they arrive in seminary, too often the agenda is more akin to the graduate school agenda of calling everything into question, deconstruction, etc. Upholding and teaching the faith of the Church as the norm against which our own individual opinions and faith-states is measured and found more or less adequate doesn't always get put at the forefront.

plsdeacon said...

I think you are right, Bryan. I've long held that the major problem with an M.Div. is that it is an academic degree, not a fundational degree (such as a M.D. or J.D.)

I have no problem with academics or academic learning. But the M.Div. should be about forming priests to work, primarily, in parish ministry. You can do exegesis in the original languages all day long; you can deconstruce Matthew and Luke to reconstruct Q all you like - you can discuss and debate "the Synoptic Problem" till the cows come home. It will not help you with the husband who in in tears in your office because his wife is leaving him and charging him with molesting their infant daughter with "digital to genital contact." (This actually happened to a man I worked with. He said that he did touch his daughters "private areas" but we was putting medicine on diaper rash.)

The academic training will not help you with recruiting and caring for volunteers or with church budgets or how to deal with the Matron or Patron of the parish. It won't tell you what to expect from deacons either (we're a rather subversive order, don't cha know. :)

Phil Snyder

quietly priested said...


Thanks for your thoughts. I regret having posted, if only because I raised too many points in too small a space. Still, a few thoughts, if I may.

1. I still am not satisfied with a theology that requires a priest to be fully formed as a layman first. Perhaps simply a poor choice of words is involved.

I do agree that a priest must have a firm foundation in faith. Maybe that's what you meant.

2. Never did I say that a priest has a "job," or that this "job" is saying Mass. I witnessed to the centrality of the Holy Sacrifice. I stand with that. Frankly, it sounds like you are wedded to an unproductive Protestant model of ministry yourself.

Is the priest's job really supposed to be part life coach, part soccer coach, part amateur philosopher, part editorial writer, part group facilitator, part administrator, part worship leader...part arbiter of Anglo-American taste...part armchair expert on the Middle East...and full-time narcissist? I don't think so.

I recommend "The Soul of the Apostolate" by Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, OCSO. It was the bedside book of Pope Saint Pius X. It wouldn't know what to make of the peculiar sideways claim that the priesthood is only for laymen.

3. Surgical theology is preferable to ax theology. And I did not confess to "besetting sin." I wish you wouldn't judge so quickly.

4. The onerous process of vetting and gatekeeping candidates in the ECUSA is absurd. Disrespect for the laity is pervasive at every level.

5. In the Episcopal lay ranks, there are by most estimates two or three hundred consecrated bishops, and many more priests. Their identity is known to a community, but not to your increasingly peculiar community.

The independent sacramental movement is filling a deficit that the church's dreadful vocation "process" cannot even envision. Your church is Swiss cheese.

6. Unhealthy foods are "processed." Vocations cannot be "processed."

7. Deacons are surely not called to theological reflection!

plsdeacon said...

Quietly Priested,

Where to begin. Let's start with "Deacons are surely not called to theological reflection."

What a terrible thought. Do you think that Francis was not called to theological reflection? How about Athanasius? The Order of Deacons predates presbyters by several decades. All of God's people are called to theological reflection, not just the priests and bishops.

Next, I think TEC's ordination process is too complicated and open to manipulation.

Next, I was taught that a priest is a priest forever - so is a bishop. Now you may be referring to "laicized" priests from the Roman Catholic Church. I am not aware of laicized bishops, but I do know a few laicized priests.

Third. While you did not confess besetting sin, you must have one (or more). Everyone who is human is has a besetting sin. Mine is gluttony (along with pride, anger, sloth, lust, avarice, and evny :) ). I did not accuse you of any specific sin. All human being are very good at lying to themselves about their sin life. WE love to rationalize our sins and tell ourselves that the sin is not really sin because (you fill in the blank). I do not judge you. I merely offer scriptural truth that all have sinned and we all still sin. That will not be cured this side of the eschaton.

Third, A priest is not a "life coach." A priests is not any function. A priest is not just someone who says mass. A good priest is not just a "sacrament dispensing machine." Good priests are those who take seriously their cure of souls and work to fit those souls for eternity. The sacraments are a part of that, but so it teaching, preaching, counselling, spiritual direction, and leading people into ministry.

finally, I meant "a firm foundation in the faith" by formation as a lay person. I don't think it necessary that a person be fully formed as a lay person before being ordained to the diaconate and I don't think a person should be fully formed as a deacon before being ordained to the priesthood. But some formation as a lay person is necessary before becomming a deacon and some formation as a deacon is necessary before being ordained as a priest. Just as a good priest never ceases being a deacon (and, thus, continues to undergo diaconal formation), so a good priests never stops being part of the people of God (that is the meaning of lay) and continues to be formed as a person of God, as a deacon, and as a priest.

Phil Snyder

Robert said...

I think there is a temptation to believe that when someone has completed all the necessary "coursework" they are qualified to be a priest. In fact, people seem as likely to lose their faith in a seminary as be strengthened in it.

Ideally people should show their leadership first and gain the position second. Leadership meaning, not simply good at organizing bake sales and raising money.

After they are already leaders in fact, perhaps they are strong enough to brave the dank perilous halls of seminary, lol.

Dale Matson said...

Excellent discussion. I want to pick up on your comment about the problem of Priests having Academic degrees (MDiv). I think this is a historical holdover. As time has gone on, more an more professional degrees are being granted. The original terminal degree was the Ph.D. As time went on more and more professions changed to a professional degree such as the M.D. or in the case of Psychologists the PsyD. In the DSJ where I trained, the instructors were practitioners (Priests and Deacons). I think this provided us with an instructional experience combined with the practical aspects of faith. I'm not sure how well I would have done in an Episcopal Seminary. There is a lot to be said for having a good catechist in charge of Christian formation. Blessings,

plsdeacon said...


Like you, I was trained in a Diocesan formation program (actually a joint diocesan formation program between Dallas and Fort Worth). We were taught, mostly, by priests and deacons who had been involved in parish ministry for years. This is a great advantage as they did understand the academic issues, they also understood and imparted the pastoral implications of those issues.

Phil Snyder