The Ordaining Church

I looked out over the crowd that had filled the Anglican Cathedral on an ordinary Thursday evening. I was amazed, surprised, overwhelmed. They had come, from everywhere, in droves: friends and family, colleagues and ecumenical co-workers. The church catholic was present in its fullest sense: Pentecostal, Baptist, Mennonite, United, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican and Roman Catholic (with the exception of the Orthodox tradition*). Especially Roman Catholic: a sea of them along with religious sisters, several priests and one higher ranking official. The happy grins spoke volumes: I was not the only one who had looked forward to this moment.

In the midst of this ecumenical community of faith I claimed my call before the bishop, made vows and promises, and knelt for the “holy huddle” – Anglican, Lutheran, United and Presbyterian clergy colleagues as well as two RC priests joining the bishop in the solemn laying on of hands.

Ordained a priest. I still struggle to find the words. The impact of the experience was profound. It was profound in my own heart-mind-spirit, in my experience of church, and in the effects upon my current ministry. Given the ecumenical make-up of the assembly that night, I felt truly ordained by and into the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church in the fullest sense of that term. I have not recovered from the experience – and I hope I never will.

I have always been mindful of the faith community’s role when one claims a call to ministry; one is called by and for the community, never for oneself. Now this crucial role was expressed in the most tangible way possible – the community’s presence and participation was their fiat. A deepening and affirmation, blessing and mandate all rolled into one holy Spirit-filled act of ordination. No wonder I still struggle to find words.

The next morning I presided over the (Anglican) Holy Eucharist for the first time in a Catholic retreat center, which included a renewal of marriage vows for Jim and I – it was our wedding anniversary. Like the night before, the people of God in all denominational diversity packed the worship space, hungering for a taste of heaven where divisions and barriers melt away: take and eat, take and drink, all of you.

Maybe a number of firsts occurred: RC clergy joining in the laying on of hands, one of whom bowing his head for my first priestly blessing; a religious sister leading music at the Anglican Eucharist the next morning while persons from various traditions served as acolyte, readers, communion assistants; communion bread baked by an Anglican-RC couple; those with different beliefs finding a space of respect and hospitality while getting caught up in the joy and gratitude of the occasion.

That I may at last taste the joy of fulfilling this vocation still feels like a miracle. What seemed elusive for several decades has come to pass. At the same time it was always there, for the priestly call lived in my heart as an animating light, a wellspring of grace and love. For this was the peculiar thing: despite the church’s prohibition, the call persisted. Moreover, despite the fear and self-doubt, the call grew me on the inside in ways that bore all the fruits of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal. 5:22-23)

A priestly vocation originates at the deepest level of one’s being, which is one’s essence. Roman Catholic sacramental theology calls it an ontological reality, an indelible mark on the soul. Years ago I spoke with a Roman Catholic friend who had left the priesthood because, as he said, he had all the external affirmation but none of the internal reality. To which I replied with new insight, “Yes, and I have all the internal reality but none of the external blessing/affirmation.” “I know,” he replied. Surprised, we looked intently at one another with waves of recognition, understanding and respect.

And so when the final report on the validity of my priestly call was issued by the national Anglican Church’s assessment body, a year ago now, opening the path to ordination, the tears refused to stop:

We find Marie-Louise to have a clear sense of call to the priesthood, a call which has developed in extraordinary circumstances over the past 27 years … This growing sense of call took place in the context of a lifelong faithful involvement in the Roman Catholic Church.

Marie-Louise has an impressive history of lay ministry in the Roman Catholic Church, demonstrating visionary leadership in the development of numerous ministries, which responded to particular needs in the church. Her involvement in ecumenical initiatives is most remarkable, beginning many years ago with studies at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon.

We were impressed with her deep Christian faith and her struggle over many years to be faithful both to the ecclesial tradition she has grown up in and her growing sense of call to priestly ministry. We affirm Marie-Louise’s call to the priesthood. She is a passionate servant of Christ and has a sincere desire to serve God in an Anglican context. (ACPO Report, May 2017)

No matter which denomination does the ordaining, the ontological truth, the imprint on the soul, presses deep; it feels like coming home to one’s true self. Even my friend Carmen, just ordained last month in the Pentecostal tradition, speaks of this reality in her recent blog reflection.

What’s more, nothing is wasted in God’s economy. I am now pastoring two rural parishes, Anglican and Lutheran. All the pieces of my life’s puzzle have come together: formation and ministry experiences of the past 27+ years are all bearing fruit in these two small parishes on the Canadian prairies – who would have thought.

Living Christian discipleship in the Anglican household of God now is opening new spiritual vistas and blessings. My heart is growing larger, unfolding like an expanding universe. My capacity to live from contradictions into paradox and relational truth is being stretched, deepened and refined. How do I know all this is from God? Because my joy has never been deeper, my love has never been more costly and intently, my spirit has never been more generous, my peace has never been more solid, even in the midst of chaos and turmoil.

Meanwhile my Roman Catholic family of origin continues to occupy a cherished place in my heart; in her bosom my faith was nourished and my vocation was born against all odds. I truly live a double belonging. The increasing opportunities for joint ministry with my local Catholic priest and his parishioners are therefore sources of deep joy and immense gratitude, weaving unity in my spirit and among our people.

We don’t make journeys like this in isolation. I extend therefore a heartfelt thanks for the company and friendship, prayers and support of so many on this road towards priestly ministry. It truly takes a community to call a priest/pastor. Pray that I will continue to fulfill this sacred trust faithfully, placing my priesthood at the service of the full visible unity of God’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

  • This is an expanded version of the last column (May 9, 2018) in a twelve month series entitled Double Belonging, co-published by the Prairie Messenger (ceasing publication) and the Saskatchewan Anglican from May 2017 to May 2018.
  • * The Orthodox tradition is active in ecumenical dialogues and circles, but my personal connections do not include many members of this branch of the Christian family.

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A New Season

I owe you, my faithful readers, an update. No, I have not been “hiding” behind the past four postings on the Theology of the Body and Ordination. I felt it was important that these installments were posted in sequence to improve flow and accessibility for reading. But while these postings appeared, some significant changes took place in my own life and ministry, changes I am happy to share with you now.

If there is one thing I have learnt, and keep learning, on this life and faith journey it is the absolute importance of good discernment grounded in deep prayerful listening in community. When the Anglican family of faith opened its doors to me a couple of years ago, it wasn’t just a triumphant grand entry. These things rarely are; to expect otherwise is a recipe for disappointment and frustration. The Anglican steps in the preparation process towards ordination challenged my capacity for both spiritual and ecclesial obedience in a spirit of surrender in freedom. I faced the need to stare down in my spirit impatience and entitlement, distrust, doubt and fear. These five amigos vied for a place in the driver’s seat of my denominational and vocational decisions. Each of them came with solid Scriptural backing, much like the devil did when tempting Jesus in the desert. It took courage to unmask their counter-witness; it took trust to turn away from their alluring yet shallow promises. It takes ongoing perseverance to wait in joyful hope.

It now looks like this discernment gamble is paying off. The developments of the past months were unanticipated, and thus can only be attributed to God’s own providence and blessing of this remarkable vocational journey. As of January 2017, I have been entrusted with the pastoral leadership of two small congregations in a rural community not far from home. What is more, all of my previous denominational and ecumenical ministry, as well as my vocational experience, are culminating in this new pastoral assignment, all of it. Why do I make this claim?

First, the two congregations belong to two different traditions – one Anglican and the other Lutheran (made possible through the Full Communion Covenant between the ACC and the ELCIC). Therefore two bishops had to approve my appointment. My Lutheran seminary training and my long association with all things Lutheran now stands me in good stead. As I quip to my Lutheran friends and colleagues, I may be Anglican now but you Lutherans got under my skin back in those seminary days and you clearly never left 🙂

Second, my continued grounding in Roman Catholic spirituality and theological knowledge is proving to be a rich asset. This Lent I am participating in ecumenical conversations in our little prairie town between Anglicans, Lutherans, and Catholics through the parish study Together in Christ. I find myself answering questions from all sides with a deep affection and respect for each of the three traditions.

Third, I sense a deep convergence towards Christian unity in my own spirit, thanks to the blending of the various traditions in both ministry, spirituality and ecumenical collaboration among the denominations in the community where I serve. I am increasingly relating and ministering from the perspective of the Lund PrincipleI am acutely aware that the positive disposition with which I engaged my denominational transfer is now creating the inner freedom to engage in joy and affection with the local Roman Catholic parish priest and parishioners. Had my denominational move been motivated by negative reasons and unresolved frustrations, I likely would have been greatly hampered in the current building of new friendships with Roman Catholics.

This ecumenical convergence in my own spirit is circling back to growing my Anglican identity. For Anglicanism at its best in today’s Christian family is to be ecumenical in vision, in spirituality, in practical partnering, in common prayer and witness. The Anglican tradition is animated by a deep desire to embrace the best in both Catholicism and Protestantism, humbly acknowledging its own need for the other expressions of Christian discipleship.

Finally, I am experiencing the truth of what Frederick Buechner said long ago (and his words have become a classic saying): The place God calls you is where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger. For so many years I have sensed a deep call to parish-based pastoral leadership ministry. Already some 15 years ago I wrote in my journal: if only I could pastor a little parish in the country somewhere I’d be perfectly happy. Now it’s one thing to “dream” about something as if this is a true calling. It’s quite another to experience it in real time. But I am in real time now and I am pastoring in a small prairie town. And yes, I’m over the moon (the honeymoon!) with this new assignment; some of it will wear off over time I’m sure. But that is okay. The current synergy and the joyful energy welling up inside me, as if an artesian well has been unplugged, is unmistaken. There is something so right about where I am, and the people of God in both parishes have welcomed me so warmly. Preparing weekly sermons and preaching has never been easier; I am no longer the guest preacher who gets parachuted into a congregation, preaches without any bonds to the people, and then leaves again. Now I can build thought patterns with the Scriptures over the course of several Sundays, and to my great surprise some people are taking note and responding.

I experience spiritual and ministerial “highs” as I try out new pastoral initiatives, as I bring communion to shut-ins, as I lead worship in both the church and the long-term care facility, as I engage with the local refugee committee (small town–big project, refugee family arrived last November) and the Ministerial Association, and get to know parishioners. I pinch myself periodically; is this really happening?

I have worked in “church-land” long enough to know that it will not always be this way. I will hit new lows and collect new bruises on my heart. The artesian well will eventually run dry, the excitement of new beginnings will wear off. The hard balls of living will knock me over again – they always do. The cross always looms over the resurrection light, but its darkness does not overcome it. For now, in this little window of joy and excitement, this feels a bit like storing up blessings as preparation for the lean times which inevitably follow. The very fact of making the journey itself is truly the destination. And all this even before ordination – Deo Gratias 🙂

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