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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I have Seen the Lord!

Today, July 22, is one of my favourite feasts in the church calendar — Mary Magdalene. Deep connections and affection well up for this courageous woman of Christ, the first witness to the resurrection, the one commissioned by the risen Lord himself to “Go and tell.”

This “Apostle to the Apostles” has played a big role in my ability to embrace the priestly calling God placed in my heart some 25 years ago. Mary rushed alongside me as I struggled with the tension between the intimate new beckoning God was forging in the depth of my very being and the Roman Catholic prohibition to claim that same calling. It was she who made me realize that it was the risen Christ calling me, it was she who helped me echo the cry from her heart and recognize it as my own: “I have seen the Lord!” Rarely have I experienced such an intimate identification with a Biblical figure besides Jesus himself.

It is Mary’s bold witness that validated my calling as coming from God through Jesus. It is she who helped me to trust Christ’s summons in my heart to “go and tell.” It was she who held my trembling fearful heart as I allowed the priestly calling to mold and grow my inner landscape into a fertile field for God’s service at the heart of a Church tradition that both nurtured and inspired, dismissed and feared this calling in a woman. I owe Mary Magdalene a tremendous debt of gratitude and honour for her unbidden yet loving and generous gifts of guidance and strength, of courage and vision.

Given this personal and enduring friendship with Mary Magdalene, I fully endorse that she is regarded as a guiding light, an inspiration and role model for all women who feel a divine call to full priestly ministry, a call that Rome continues to resist and even deny. My heart is in full solidarity with these women, even as I am now preparing to fulfill this call in the Anglican tradition (which btw considers itself a full part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of Christ). But as I am now standing in a different ecclesial place, I am beginning to see different things and beginning to see the same things in a different light.

I have to ask the obvious: Why is it so painful to move to another expression of Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church? A rhetorical question maybe, for I know the reason well; I lived it intensely for many years. The Roman Catholic Church is my ancestral and spiritual home; how can I possibly “turn my back” on this holy Mother Church? Somehow leaving the home of our biological childhood seems obvious and expected. We consider it normal and healthy to leave the family nest in order to stand on our own two feet and find our own path. However, now that I have moved to the Anglican expression of Gospel discipleship I am making a surprising discovery: I have not left my ecclesial home, “home” went with me. Just as the lessons of my upbringing continue to guide me in adulthood, so the best of Roman Catholicism continues to animate life in my new ecclesial home.

But just as our upbringing bestows on us both blessings and curses, so does our ecclesial upbringing. Part of growing up, cleaning up and waking up is to exorcise and heal all that binds us in negative and hurtful ways. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to make the denominational move: I wanted to take as little unresolved negative baggage with me as possible, and worked hard to purify the motives for the move.

Blending the best Roman Catholic spiritual attributes with the Anglican gifts and blessings, new configurations are now growing in my spirit, leading to deeper insights and richer expressions of ministry and service. Would this have been possible had I remained safely (even though painfully) at “home”? Sometimes, no often, it takes leaving home in order to discover a bigger, wider and better home.

Which brings me to the next question. In the past 50 years the Christian family as a whole has been on a momentous ecumenical journey. We used to kill each other in the name of the Prince of Peace! It’s therefore momentous that we have now moved into the joyful recognition of the risen Christ in one another, animating and guiding each tradition according to its calling and charism. We have been echoing Mary Magdalene’s startling exclamation: we have seen the Lord in one another.

This remarkable achievement is truly cause for great rejoicing, especially in this 500th year since the conflicts of the 16th century splintered the Body of Christ in the west into countless fragments. And we are certainly celebrating this year, from small ecumenical study groups in rural communities right up to Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Orthodox patriarchs.

But in the euphoria of celebration, we also need to continue asking: what are the practical spiritual and ecclesial implications of the significant strides we have been making towards Christian Unity? What is the Christian Unity we seek? If it is not uniformity, as most will agree, then how does the abiding diversity of our ecclesial understandings and practices challenge our understanding of Church as encompassing more than one tradition? And if we truly honour other traditions for the unique gifts and practices they share in the Body of Christ, do all need to embrace similar practices? Do all, and Rome in particular, need to ordain women? Now I know that even asking this question will not go over well with RC advocates for women’s ordination. Nevertheless the question deserves attention. Notwithstanding the very valid critiques of ecclesial patriarchy and clericalism in the RC Church, I cannot help but wonder. Is the new thing God is working out in our ecumenical journey that we grow our ecclesial vision so large, that moving to another tradition will no longer feel like betraying and leaving “Holy Mother Church” because “Holy Mother Church” really includes all traditions who profess Christ Jesus as Lord and Saviour?

Mary stood at the tomb weeping in grief and loss. “They” had taken away her Lord and she didn’t know where “they” had laid him. She grieved deeply for what was now over and gone, what was now no longer possible, or so she thought. The One who had healed and transformed her life, the one who had fed her soul was gone, forever. Now what? I felt a similar desperation when I first realized God was calling me to priestly ministry. In fact, two Marys rushed to my side in that painful moment. That visceral reality-check caused two burning questions, each connected with each Mary, to spring from my heart in fear and trembling: “How can this be?” (Luke 1: 34) and “Woman, why are you weeping?” (John 20:13).

The two Marys and I have traveled a long journey together. We’ve grown a deep and abiding friendship. Each Mary modeled how to give my fiat to God. Their witness, each in her own way, have guided and sustained and inspired my trembling heart. Now with great joy and deep satisfaction, I serve two rural parishes as an Anglican deacon, preparing for ordination to the priesthood in four months. I have come a long ways.

Today I salute you, Mary Magdalene. You have fed my courage to give my yes to the summons of the risen Jesus: “Go and tell.” My tears of pain and grief have turned into tears of joy and fullness. You, Mary, are still my trustworthy partner in mission and ministry, as I lead God’s people in worship and preach each Sunday with your passion, courage and conviction: “I have seen the Lord!”

For another article on Mary Magdalene, click here.

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