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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Ordination Musings

I cannot help but share some musings on this coming Pentecost Sunday when I will be ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church (priesthood in late fall). This has been a long journey, some 25 years! But I would not have traded it for anything. Because through all the seasons of faithful and at times painful obedience, of death and newness of life, I have grown a solid relationship with God through Jesus Christ – oh happy fault. It is this intimate faith relationship that has helped me say ‘YES’ to God over and over again:

[Our] ‘yes’ to life may initially be a passive ‘yes’, born of lassitude and of regrets, but it can eventually become a ‘yes’ of openness, of acceptance, a ‘yes’ of joy. This ‘yes’ to life, which springs from the deepest part of us, is not a naïve or idealistic ‘yes’’; it is not saying yes to a dream or illusion. It is a ‘yes’ to our deepest self, a ‘yes’ to our past, to our body, to our family, a ‘yes’ to our inner storms, our winters, our pain; a ‘yes’ also to the beauty of life, to sunshine, to fresh air, to running water, to children’s faces, to the song of birds. It is the ‘yes, to our destiny and our growth. It is the ‘yes’ to our own true beauty, even if, at certain times, we cannot see it.  ~ Jean Vanier

It is mightily unsettling for a faithful Roman Catholic woman to encounter a deep intimate call to preaching and to priestly ministry. For a long time I made heroic efforts to talk myself out of it, dancing circles around it in persistent and creative ways – lay ministry is a valid contribution to the church (I still believe that), I had simply been among the Lutherans (and Anglicans) too long for my own good, I was not at the seminary for political reasons (e.g. advancing the cause for women’s ordination in the RC church) but to obtain a post-graduate degree in Pastoral Counselling etc. etc. Every lame explanation concealed my heart’s cry, echoing Jeremiah: do not call me, O God, I am only a Roman Catholic woman. Believe it or not, but for too long I placed ecclesial belonging before God’s will, even though fullness of life lie waiting in the embracing of the priestly vocation.

No surprise then that none of my escape efforts, or the labels I attempted to give my inner experience,  or the feedback from the faith community, or the response I tried to give God, succeeded in fulfilling the desire inside; in spite of that I soldiered on claiming a “call within a call,” i.e. to live an ordained calling/reality in a non-ordained capacity in the RC church for prophetic reasons; it was noble and took courage grounded in prayer.

A dozen years ago I stepped back from my RC involvements to enter an intense love affair with the Anglican tradition, in the hope of finding a new church home and to fulfill my calling. However, while the call to ordained ministry enjoyed strong affirmation, the denominational transition did not. In my heart of hearts I simply could not transfer with the integrity both the Anglican tradition and myself deserved. So after a 1 ½ year discernment period I re-entered RC professional ministry, hoping against all hope that there was more that God needed me to live as a Roman Catholic woman in ministry, however challenging that would be. But God indeed is faithful. Sure enough, there was more …

Yet even in the six years of rewarding pastoral ministry in a large RC parish, ecumenical engagement remained my primary nourishing and affirming faith community. I contended myself with a wide range of ministry opportunities from preaching in Protestant churches to offering retreats at a RC retreat center. And I enjoyed some extremely respectful and supportive friendships with Catholic priests and bishops with whom I worked well and could share details of my inner priestly landscape.

Despite a wide range of ministry opportunities, which afforded much joy and satisfaction, the priestly nature of the call continued to assert itself. Consciously grounding my ministry in the priestly charism, a charism which grew stubbornly in my heart in near-desert conditions, directly increased my capacity to love all people, to serve all people, to offer wise, patient and compassionate counsel to those in need. I derived a deep and abiding joy from my ministry which, while not sacramental in the traditional sense, nevertheless provided profound sacramental moments and dynamics.

The priestly charism served as a guiding light, providing rich soil for my personal prayer life; it provided the locus of meaning and purpose as I reflected on, prayed with and interpreted my ministerial experiences; finally, the faith community always managed to recognize, call forth and affirm the priestly nature of my being. I discovered the ontological nature of this sacred calling and that I could live it creatively even in a non-ordained capacity.

While settling into this reality as permanent, God was clearly not finished with me yet. A few years ago, I gladly accepted to lead worship and preach in my local Anglican parish (to which I remained very close since that first Anglican courtship) when its priest retired. My heart leaped for joy and lo and behold, the deep desire for ordination, to preside at the Eucharist and celebrate the sacraments, once again rose to the surface like cream on fresh milk. Its perennial newness and depth, beauty and intensity caught me off guard, revealing a sweet authenticating power pressed from the many years of cross and resurrection this calling had challenged me to embrace.

Ten years had passed since that first Anglican love-affair; I was now in a different place spiritually, emotionally and psychologically, with a lot more pastoral and ecumenical experience under my belt. This time God and my own heart released me; I fell into an unreserved yes with such fullness and joy, the likes of which I had not tasted since I uttered the “yes” to my spouse some 38 years previously. The joy, peace and clarity moved in swiftly, communicating an unmistakable affirmation and blessing.

I am discovering that nothing is wasted for our God whose love and guidance is steadfast and reliable, provided we keep our hearts open and soft to God’s merciful touch. But a priestly calling is never intended for the person nor for personal holiness; it is instead intended to serve the faith community. I have been acutely aware of this constitutive aspect of my vocational experience, and thus suffered from the withholding of that ecclesial blessing despite the manifold surprising ministry opportunities I have enjoyed over those same years. So to now receive the much longed-for ecclesial recognition of this vocation is overwhelming beyond words.

Moreover, I am profoundly grateful for my new ecclesial home in the Anglican tradition while I continue to cherish deep affection and healthy relational ties with my Roman Catholic faith family, my ecclesial birth home. The Anglican tradition has ample room for my Catholic heart and for my Protestant leanings. The Anglican expression of Christian discipleship has gifts and challenges that I need in my spiritual walk at this time. At the same time, I come bearing gifts of my own along with a willingness to serve the Body of Christ in the Anglican church family as well as continue to give my best efforts to the quest for UNITY in this same Body of Christ, the church universal.

DeaconMLT4

Finally, I am immensely grateful to our local ecumenical Women-in-Ministry group. This group of valiant women are faithful servants of Christ who serve in a variety of ministry roles across a wide denominational spectrum. Their friendship and support, their joyful witness and disarming capacity for mingling both sad and happy tears have been a source of soul-food, joy and inspiration to me. I am amazed that we are in our tenth year monthly lunches! Many friendships and professional partnerings have had their genesis in that small dining room at Queen’s House. And it doesn’t look like the lunches will cease anytime soon!

 

Diaconate_1And so my soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.

For God has looked upon this lowly servant
and called me blessed.

(adapted, Luke 1:46-48)

For more photos of the ordination, go to my Facebook Page

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