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. 

Buy this book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *