The absurdity & necessity fidelity

My post last night about the meaning of a vow provoked a fair amount of reaction fairly quickly. I assume it his a nerve for some folks.

As I often do, I pose questions and open topics on this blog to help me think through them. So, everything I wrote in that post and write in this one is the state of my heart and mind at the moment. I welcome further conversation as it helps me see my own mistakes and misconceptions.

To me, there are two parts to questions about the meaning of ordination vows. The first is fairly simple: Is a vow binding on us for life?

The answer, to me at least, is yes. It is simple, but that does make it easy or even rational. By taking vows we are doing something we actually cannot do. We are binding our future self to the words spoken by our present self. The absurdity of doing such a thing is exactly why Wendell Berry argues that no person is ever actually prepared to get married. We can’t actually enter into such vows with, to use the medical term, informed consent. We do not know what the future will bring, and yet we vow to live in accord with words spoken at a specific time and place.

The more complicated questions have to do with what it means to actually live in fidelity to our vows — especially when the one two whom we make our vow is imperfect or even sinful. Even Jesus, depending on which gospel we read, described terms under which wedding vows were null and void.

Living in fidelity to vows is not simple at all. It is deeply fraught and often confusing. Sometimes our vows come into conflict with each other. In the end, though, I am constrained to believe that the vows I made before God and to my wife bind me in the same ways the vows I read in the Book of Worship will one day bind me. I might fail to fulfill them because I am a frail creature, but I cannot disavow them without rejecting the one to whom they were made.

These are my thoughts and convictions. Some of the comments on my previous post are really worth your attention if this conversation touches a nerve for you.


9 thoughts on “The absurdity & necessity fidelity

  1. John,

    The baptismal vows are truly for one’s whole life as a Christian. The baptismal covenant is, in a very real way, THE covenant for Christians, the one that defines and underlies all others we may enter into for a a time in this earthly life.

    The vows of ordination are considered binding upon those who receive and are continued in ordained office or the episcopate. They shape how these persons will live out their baptismal covenant among us while they are in these offices. The gifts and callings of the Holy Spirit bestowed in ordination are, however, as scripture notes, irrevocable.

    The same is true for the vows of marriage in our church. They are binding as long as the marital relationship is intact, not separated by death or some degree of brokenness that makes the relationship threatening to one or both partners or otherwise irreconcilable.

    This is part of why it is more responsible to speak of marriage and ordination as “derivative covenants” or “specifications” of the one covenant of baptism for Christians, rather than as covenants in their own right.

  2. Taylor wrote “The gifts and callings of the Holy Spirit bestowed in ordination are, however, as scripture notes, irrevocable.”

    Yet the number of people who leave ministry and/or surrender credentials each year would suggest to me that it is not irrevocable. People revoke them regularly. Are gifts and calling really bestowed in ordination? I have my doubts.

    1. Dear Anon:

      Yes. We’re still in perplexity on this in some of our polity, but ordination, per se, is not generally rescinded. What is rescinded is authorization to function as an ordained minister in a particular fellowship– whether at the individual’s initiative or the judicatory’s. These are fundamentally two different things– just as ordination (proper) and conference membership are two separate things. The deal is we sometimes still confuse them, or place polity before theology (or indeed simply ignore theology at times, it seems) in deciding how to respond.

      Our theology of ordination, as embodied in our Ordinal (note– the version in the Book of Worship is superseded by the current version, here: approved by General Conference (and so functioning as our church’s official teaching on these matters) is a pneumatological one.

      That is to say, we believe the Holy Spirit does actually act to pour upon those ordained the gifts needed for the work of the office to which they are being ordained.

      When the Holy Spirit acts to pour forth gifts, those gifts are not revocable.

      However, the capacity to USE these gifts among us has, historically, nearly always been understood to be properly constrained by the ordaining and supervising authority.

      There are historically, and in our Ordinal, two “manual acts” in ordination– the laying of hands on the head by the bishop (ordination proper) and the laying of hands on the hands, The former is primarily an act of the Holy Spirit through the Church in the person of the bishop. The latter is the further work of the Church, as work of authorization– “Take authority,” the bishop says, “as a deacon/elder.” The first is unconditional and irrevocable. The second remains conditional upon the discipline and needs or conditions of the Church and the newly ordained. For United Methodists, the second corresponds to the ongoing supervisory and supportive work of the Board of Ordained Ministry, the cabinet and the bishop in ensuring that clergy are properly accountable and placed in service (or not).

  3. That all sounds good, but in real life things are not quite so easy to interpret. People are ordained who seem to lack the gifts and calling of the spirit, or at least lack the fruit or evidence of those gifts. Others, who at least in their own judgment have the Spirit’s gift and calling, and maybe good evidence to support that claim, are not ordained after trying.

    My views and questions on whether or not the gifts are irrevocable are more than just theoretical to me. I am writing from the bias of my own experience of being an ordained elder who turned agnostic, and thus left the ministry because I could not keep the vows. I believe I had the gifts for ministry other than the gift of faith (and the church at large agreed and affirmed I had those gifts in ordination). Where those other “gifts” came from I cannot say – I would attribute them to personality, training, knowledge and other things now, but that is rather beside the point. Sadly, I could have stayed in ministry, in violation of the vows I took at ordination (and, I guess, that my parents and their church made for me in baptism and I affirmed when I became a professing member), and nobody would have ever known.

    1. Anon– Let me affirm your decision to cease functioning in an ordained role when you discerned you could not live out what the vows required. I respect your integrity in that.

      Ordination for us is not simply a matter of discerning gifts needed for a particular ordained office, but also one of trusting the Spirit to act in adding or strengthening them, as well as the person being ordained faithfully to continue to seek and respond to the Spirit’s initiatory and ongoing work– first in baptism (and profession of the baptismal covenant), and then in ordination. It’s all three– Church, Spirit and the ordained. The Church and the ordained may not live up to what is hoped. We continue to affirm the Spirit always does.

      I understand from your angle now our affirmation of this may no longer seem coherent. But it does remain so for us. The Spirit has surely given you gifts for the office and work to which you were ordained, and where the Spirit has done so, those gifts remain, however it came to be that you no longer uphold the faith of the Church.

  4. I feel convicted for the rawness of my reaction last night. Unfortunately I still have much to learn about charity and discipline in online communication.

    The reason I can’t make an apples to apples comparison between ministry and marriage is because we’re not Catholic due to the fact that some priests and monks who were Catholic 500 years ago felt that their obedience to God trumped their vows of obedience to the institution. Obviously the conditions for doing what they did would have to be extraordinary and for my own part, while my Biblical interpretation is at odds with the Book of Discipline on the unstated issue, I consider myself committed to faithfully upholding the Discipline in my ministry even while I try to make a case for what I think God has showed me in the scriptures in question and what He has put in my life for me to see. But I have the privilege of considering this issue in the abstract; I’m not serving in a community where my parishioners’ lives are at stake. I just need there to be some recognition that people who take the “gospel obedience” stance are not necessarily being flippant and contemptuous of the church to do so. I have been troubled by some of the tactics and tone on the “left” side as well.

    1. Not sure I understand your point, exactly about the Reformation.

      Ordination vows and marriage vows were actually treated pretty much the same by the Reformed, Anglican and Lutheran movements as they were by Rome. Both were considered to be “for life” as it were, but neither were, in fact, for life, if death or retirement or some such took place (divorce was still awfully hard for most folks to obtain in the 16th century, unless you happened to be King!). So I’m wondering what difference you see here?

      1. I understood her point to be that by getting married and adopting the theological emphasis of the Reformation, the clergy who did so were breaking their vows to Rome . Maybe I misunderstood her.

  5. Nobody is forced to take any vow. By their nature, vows are voluntary. If you don’t agree, then don’t take the vow. It’s really pretty simple. If you are struggling with your ordination vows, then maybe ordained ministry is not for you. But, if you take the vows, then live by them. Otherwise you are a hypocrite. Hard, but true. Whatever, be true to yourself. To do otherwise is to live a lie.

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