Truth of doctrine and innocency of life
On the Ember Day Collect and Contemporary Theological Education
Today is one of the fall Ember Days, one of the days that the Church prays for those preparing for ordination. At morning prayer this morning, I used the Canadian Book of Common Prayer 1962, as I usually do when praying the office by myself. And I was struck by the BCP 1962’s Ember Day collect (which is also, with slight variation, the 1962 ordination collect - and is also the second Ember Day collect and the ordination collect in the 1662 BCP):
ALMIGHTY God, the giver of all good gifts, who of thy divine providence hast appointed divers Orders in thy Church: Give thy grace, we humbly beseech thee, to all those who are to be called to any office and administration in the same; and so replenish them with the truth of thy doctrine, and endue them with innocency of life, that they may faithfully serve before thee, to the glory of thy great Name, and to the benefit of thy holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Specifically, I was struck by the things that we ask God to give ordinands so that they may faithfully serve him: “the truth of thy doctrine” and “innocency of life.” These, the prayer implies, are what ordinands especially need to faithfully carry out the work to which they are called. Ministers need to hold the truth of God’s doctrine and lead holy lives. To be sure, there is no sense that this exhausts the things that we ought to look for in ordinands! But these are the things that the prayerbook tradition holds out to us as particularly important – dare I say essential? – for ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
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This struck me because this emphasis on right doctrine and on holy living seems to me to be largely absent from how discernment and training for ministry occurs in the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Church of Canada – and I daresay mainline North American denominations more broadly! I hasten to add that I do not mean this as a criticism of my particular ordination process or seminary education, or indeed of the seminary with which I am currently affiliated as a PhD student! I am deeply thankful for my theological education and formation in seminary, for the care that went into my parish and diocesan ordination process, and for the chance to continue to pray and study alongside those preparing for ministry. What I am concerned about is something rather more global in scope: the question of what we as churches look for and seek to foster in our would-beministers.
Let’s begin with the first part, right doctrine. One of the great tragedies of a church that boasts that ‘you don’t need to check your brain at the door’ is that it has chosen to live out this boast not in fostering careful intellectual investigation about the truths of the faith but rather in embracing a doctrinal indifferentism for clergy and laity alike. To be sure, both Canadian and US Anglicans swear at ordination to follow the doctrine of their respective churches, a doctrine which is defined in the constitutions and canons of these churches. And in the US context, the General Ordination Exams do evaluate the capacity of ordinands to express themselves theologically. But for all this, there is surprisingly little attention paid to the question of what, in fact, future ministers believe about the person and work of Jesus, the nature of God, sin, salvation, the resurrection, and other core tenets of the Christian faith. Perhaps this is small surprise given that the Episcopal Church until recently counted among its bishops a man who openly rejected Christian claims about most of the above. But it is, I think, a problem.
My wife was a licensed minister in the Assemblies of God, and she was nearly denied licensure over her scrupling of a very technical question regarding eschatology. Now, I am not suggesting that this extreme is healthy, either; I am dubious that someone who doubts that, say, general councils must always be called by the command of princes (Art XXI) ought to be denied Anglican orders for that reason. But the difference – the seriousness with which intellectual questions of doctrine were taken in a church which many Anglicans would look down their noses at as ‘unintellectual’ – is really quite dramatic. Perhaps in part it is a matter of overlapping jurisdictions – seminaries expect that diocesan processes will see to candidates’ doctrinal soundness and vice versa – but I worry that in part it is a sense that advanced theological training can and should only result in quasi-agnostic doctrinal indifferentism. When I began seminary, I would hear over and over (from the broader ecumenical divinity of which we were a part, not the Anglican seminary within that school of which I was a member) that project of divinity school was one of deconstructing, breaking down immature accounts of God or faith or the Bible. And to be sure, leaving aside childish things and seeking maturity in the things of God is vital for ministers! But building back up was not much talked about. I worry that no one is really checking that, after the outcome of this process of deconstruction, our ministers can say the creeds without crossing their fingers.
If questions of doctrinal assent are generally downplayed in ordination preparation, the notion that holy living ought to be a necessary qualification for ministry is not infrequently held up to open derision. That ministers should be particularly holy is seen as a form of clericalism, an insidious clerical power-play that renders clergy less approachable to their people. In some areas, especially around sexuality, the very ability of the church to make binding moral claims upon its ministers and people is often called into question, and the project of seeking holiness (or at least of seeking holiness according to standards collectively rather than individually discerned) is cast as oppressive. One’s relationship with God (the ground of holiness in any proper Christian anthropology!) is seen as a largely private affair, something important to have and to nurture with a spiritual director, and something you could certainly discuss with a professor outside of class or a bishop outside of formal ordination evaluation – but something largely distinct from training and evaluation for ministry. The training that I received about clergy behavior was entirely of a ‘professional ethics’ nature, which would have sufficed equally well for a wholly secular social work or teaching job. It’s not that this training was wrong by any means. It is important for clergy to observe good boundaries at work and live in a physically and emotionally sustainable way and be vigilant about avoiding even the appearance of sexual misconduct with their parishioners. But surely we have more to say about how our ministers should live than this, both about moral and ethical questions and about the relationship with God from which one’s moral behavior flows! And yet it is entirely unclear where exactly this is supposed to come from.
The Episcopal Church’s full communion partner the ELCA used to have a document called “Visions and Expectations” which outlined the expected pattern of life for candidates for ministry and pastors alike. Unfortunately, from its inception, the document was wrapped up in the question about the inclusion of lgbtq people in the church. As far as I can tell as an outsider, it was largely due to this that the document was officially jettisoned in 2020. But without being interested in defending the document in its particulars, a document of that sort would, I think, be hugely helpful for both the ACC and TEC. Sure, we have disciplinary canons for flagrant misconduct (usually cast as professional misbehavior). And flagrant immorality will indeed get one removed from an ordination process, if it comes to the attention of one’s bishop. But this is not the sum total of the holiness of life to which all Christians, and Christian ministers especially, are called! Given the crystal-clear Biblical expectation that those called to offices in the Church of Christ would be marked by pronounced holiness, the denigration of such a goal seems to me to be frankly scandalous. For as often as Anglican clergy recite the offertory sentence ‘Let your light so shine before others…’, and as often as Anglican preaching is blandly moralistic fare, the notion that clergy ought to even seek to be holy, not just socially just, but holy, has been almost entirely cast aside.
If right doctrine and right living are not foregrounded in ordination preparation, what is? To answer this requires rather more than a Substack post. But to speak in generalities, it seems to me that instead a set of technical proficiencies tend to be emphasized in evaluation: pastoral care (understood primarily not as a theologically-rooted care of souls but as a set of tradition-independent practices broadly applicable across confessional boundaries), preaching, liturgical leadership, knowledge (primarily historical-critical) of the Bible, and – rather vaguely – a sort of capacity to facilitate ‘spiritual experiences’ for one’s people. None of these things are wrong, and I daresay that all of them are, to some degree or another, important for the work of ordained ministry. And I am deeply thankful for the training that I received in each of these, and for how this training was evaluated at a variety of levels. But it does strike me as rather a matter of getting right the tithing of dill, mint, and cumin and forgetting justice and mercy and faithfulness. And as the Lord says, these former things are indeed important, and should not be neglected! But it is all the more important, the prayerbook seems to be telling us, to maintain true doctrine and holy living.
Now, this shift in what is emphasized for ordination did not happen overnight (and of course, one might reasonably look back at the history of the Anglican ministry and ask whether righteousness and holiness were ever particularly foregrounded in deed no matter how much they were praised in word). A well-known history of the New England clergy in the 18th and 19th centuries is titled From Office to Profession; the transformation of Christian ministry into a profession like that of medicine or law or engineering with a similar set of technical professional standards has a long history in the church’s adaptation to modernity. And those who nurtured this shift, and those who follow in their footsteps, were not mustache-twirling comic book villains, seeking to undermine the integrity of the Christian ministry and the church more broadly. They were generally deeply faithful, pious people striving to figure out how the church might be best led in a rapidly-changing world. And their efforts did bear some good fruit: the ways that seminaries provided for the undertaking and dissemination of theological, church-historical, and Biblical scholarship are much to be admired, especially in a moment in which the old seminary system is crumbling.
The outcome of this long process has been one in which the very qualities which the prayerbook (along with, it must be said, some fifteen hundred years of Christian tradition lying behind it, never mind the Bible itself) considers most important for Christian ministry are seen as secondary matters, or matters beyond the purview of those training and endorsing candidates for holy orders. And as the aforementioned crumbling of the seminary system forces us to look at theological education anew, I hope and pray that we will return to what the prayerbook has to teach us about what makes a Christian minister. I hope that we will not only pray, but also structure our processes of formation and evaluation for ordination, that by God’s grace our ordinands may be “replenish[ed]…with the truth of thy doctrine, and endue[d]…with innocency of life, that they may faithfully serve before [God], to the glory of [his] great Name, and to the benefit of [his] holy Church.”
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