Thinking allowed

Rites of Ordination: Their History and Theology

book cover
Paul F. Bradshaw Rites of Ordination: Their History and Theology London: SPCK, 2014 ISBN 978-0-281-07157-9. pp. ix + 218. £19.99 pbk.

What does it mean to be ordained as a minister? This question stands in large print on the back cover of Paul Bradshaw’s excellent book. If it attracts those hoping to find vocational direction or insight into ministerial identity, they will be surprised by the contents. Bradshaw is not uninterested in these matters as they are expressed in ordination rites, but they are not at the centre of his study.

With an enviable combination of profundity and economy, he has produced a survey of eastern and western rites of ordination that stretches from the practices of the earliest Christian communities to the present day. This approach makes it possible to show what elements have been essential, which biblical images have been sustained in the language and theology of ordination, how relationships between orders have been understood, how the role of the laity has been acknowledged or eclipsed, and how candidates have been chosen. The first three chapters, which deal with typology of ministry, ministry in the earliest Christian communities, and ministry in the earliest ordination rites are particularly helpful in setting the scene for what is to come.

Bradshaw is the sort of historian who makes the evidence of his workings exciting. As his exploration moves to the rites themselves, we learn a good deal about how to establish a likely ‘original’ text by comparing versions of it in different near-contemporary documents, or by sifting out common features of later rites which must have come from a shared source. The account of the East takes up one chapter to five which might be defined as preoccupied with the West. This does not necessarily mean that the origins of the Eastern rites of ordination are more straightforward: only that they stabilised whereas patterns in the West continued to change. Thus it was not too long before bishops began to be appointed by the Pope and not by the popular acclaim of the local community.

Rites converged as the Church grew and spread. The ordination services which result from the meeting of Roman and Gallican traditions become far more elaborate than the individual streams which have come together. At the same time, there was a move away from local acclaim, relationship to place (the idea of a title), and the involvement in the laity in the choice and ordination of ministers. What increased was an emphasis on the sacrificial priesthood, to the exclusion of other aspects of this order, like shepherd and prophet. This attracted the criticism of the Reformers, beginning with John Wycliffe and trenchantly uttered by Luther and Calvin. Once again the question of what clergy were for, and how they differed from the laity, was at stake.

These are questions that the Churches, including the Church of Rome, have gone on asking – although it was not until 1990 that Rome had an ordination rite significantly different from the first printed pontifical of 1485. There is now considerable convergence on many of the desirable characteristics named by the World Council of Churches document, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982). But Bradshaw gives us a picture of work still very much in progress. Churches continue to ponder how to accommodate the laying on of hands in the ordination prayer without splitting it into three. They go on seeking ways to allow the voice of the laity to be heard in the rite and to represent local communities where ordination is celebrated in central locations. They keep trying out secondary symbolism to accompany the laying on of hands and prayer for the work of the Holy Spirit. No Church seems as yet to have got this quite right, and part of Bradshaw’s achievement is in showing how choreography can assist in solving certain problems. There is plenty of material here to guide practice, and to root it historically without allowing any irresponsible and badly-informed appeals to the Early Church. It is unlikely that any Church will embark on the revision of its ordination rites in future without first studying this book.

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