Wednesday, July 8, 2015

On Seminarians and Their Formation and Training — I, by The Rev. Peter J. Van Hook

This summer our congregation is fortunate to have two seminarians with us, David Carlisle and Tim Yanni. I say “fortunate” because it is unusual to have even one seminarian being an active part of a smallish congregation like St. Mary's Church. These two add a different voice to our preaching, and bring different skills and backgrounds to our fellowship.

My intention in these next two blog posts is to describe the process through which one goes in order to become a Deacon or Priest in The Episcopal Church, and specifically describe how they are working with me and the congregation this summer as a part of their formation and training.

The Process

When one senses a call to the Diaconate or Priesthood the first step is to take counsel with their pastor, who makes the first determination of the soundness of the person’s call. At some point the person approaches the Bishop. The person is connected with the diocese’s Commission on Ministry, and the formal process of discernment begins by way of physical and psychological examinations, a series of interviews.

Upon the recommendation of the Commission on Ministry and the person’s sponsoring clergy and parish, the Bishop may then make them a Postulant for Holy Orders, which is simply being listed by the Bishop on a roster of those seeking ordination, and is understood to be a time of further exploration on the part of the church leadership and the aspirant. Seminary education may then begin with the permission of the Bishop.

The aspirant then applies to the Bishop to be admitted as a Candidate for Holy Orders, which is understood to be the primary formal step toward ordination. More interviews with the Commission and the Bishop are held, and with the concurrence of the Standing Committee of the diocese (the elected representatives of the diocesan Convention whose members form a Council of Advice to the bishop and act as the board of directors of the corporation). Following admission as a Candidate, theological education continues, and the person, toward the end of their formal education, then applies for ordination to the Diaconate or the Priesthood. Following more interviews (!) and approvals by the Commission and the Standing Committee, the Bishop may then announce the person’s date(s) of ordination.

All of this can take as much as five years, and sometimes longer. In other words, just getting to ordination is a huge commitment on the part of a person and their family, and often includes significant displacement in the lives of all.

Holy Orders

The formal title of the office held by ordained persons in the Church is Holy Orders. That is, one is formally set aside and placed in an order (sometimes called a college) of Deacons or Priests. This is not to be understood as being placed above everyone else in some sort of hierarchy, but rather as being set within a body of persons under the authority of the Bishop.

Deacons are particularly responsible for guiding the members of the Church in ministry of service to the world at large, symbolized by their liturgical role as the one who calls the church to faith (the Creed), humility (Confession), and ministry (the Dismissal). Priests are primarily responsible for the sacramental life of the congregation, and for the administration of the parish, and with the Deacons for the educational and pastoral life of the local church. These are distinct historical formal roles within the Church. (In fact, there have been times when certain parts of the Church had more than twenty ordained ministries!).

Deacons are usually non-stipendiary (unpaid) and part-time ministers; Priests are typically stipended (paid) and formally employed by the church in some capacity. However, there are Deacons who are paid staff in various places, and many priests are intentionally serving in unpaid roles.

All Deacons are understood to be under the direct authority of the Bishop, and are therefore assigned by the Bishop to a particular ministry. If in a parish, they then work under the direction of the priest-in-charge. In both cases, Deacons and Priests exist to serve the church and help organize its activities and ministries.

One helpful conception of the difference in these Orders is to think of Christian life as an ellipse that describes a course of seven days. The Priest stands at one locus, calling the members of the church to gather around the Lord’s Table for worship in order, as the Eucharistic prayer suggestions, to experience solace and strength, for pardon, and renewal (that is the one day, Sunday, of the ellipse). The Deacon stands at the other locus, calling the members of the Church into service in the world (the other six days). This describes a continual process of gathering and dispersal. At St. Mary's Church this is partially expressed by the Priest standing at the door of the church before worship welcoming people and leading them in procession to the Lord’s Table, and by the Deacon standing at the door of the church at the end of the service sending the People out “to love and serve the Lord.”


Next Week: David Carlisle and Tim Yanni, Postulants and Seminarians

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