O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom… (A Collect for Peace, BCP 1979, p. 990).
A priest is a man under authority, a man who has relinquished the false freedom of autonomy for the perfect freedom of service, or at least a man who is trying to do so. I might once have chaffed under the yoke of such authority, but no longer; I now willingly submit to my rector, to my bishop, and to the vows I made before and under Christ, which is to say, to Christ Himself and to those He has placed in authority over me. It is good theology and good sense. It is also freedom and simplicity and clarity. I pray for an abundance of each.
Around forty years ago I started wearing white, button-down, long-sleeve dress shirts – and only that style – for all occasions, dress and casual, in all seasons. That decision simplified shopping and dressing immensely. So, to make matters simpler still, I also decided on black dress shoes and black socks – always. I could reach into the closet and select a shirt and pants at random, pick socks blindly from the drawer, take any tie from the rack, slip on my one pair of shoes, and dress presentably without dithering over my selections: sartorial freedom, simplicity, clarity. At my ordination I experienced a brief moment of existential angst when I first donned a black clerical shirt, and not just for theological reasons. I realized that I could no longer select a shirt at random; ebony and ivory live side by side in my closet now, and I must choose carefully and deliberately. Fashion is more complicated than before.
Though the priesthood made my wardrobe more complex, it had the opposite effect on weightier matters; it is under spiritual and clerical authority that I now find freedom and simplicity and clarity. The vows in the Ordinal are to me as The Rule of St. Benedict is to the monk: not a prison of rules and regulations, but a scaffolding of relationships and mutual responsibilities that support me and liberate me to grow under the transforming power of the Spirit. Along with Scripture and prayer and wise counsel, the vows function as a fount of discernment.
There are many decisions I no longer have to make simply because I made them once for all in my ordination vows: freedom, simplicity, clarity. There are many decisions I no longer have to make simply because my church or my bishop or my rector has spoken, and I am under authority: freedom, simplicity, clarity. When asked, “What do you think about [fill in the blank with a controversial social or theological issue]?” I delight in being able to say, “It matters little what I think; my bishop has spoken to that issue and I am under his authority.”
When asked, “What would you do if [fill in the blank with a divisive action requiring a clerical response]?” I am content to duck under cover and reply, “I would do exactly what the Canons of the Church require since I am under their authority.”
When asked about parish practice or policy or mission, I am relieved to say, “Our rector has already addressed that and I am under his authority.” This is not unlike the safety of wise parenting. “Dad, can I [fill in the blank with any questionable request from your much loved daughter or son]?” the child asks. “What did your mother say? I agree with her,” the wise father responds: simplicity, clarity, freedom.
Will you reverently obey your Bishop, and the other chief Ministers, who, according to the Canons of the Church, may have charge and authority over you, following with a glad mind and will their godly admonition, and submitting yourself to their godly judgments?
I will, the Lord being my helper.
I cannot hide behind this or any vow, of course. It does not and cannot absolve me from personal responsibility or ultimate accountability for my own decisions and actions. It is never enough for a priest, or any man, simply to say, “I was only following orders,” or “I am, after all, under authority.” The twentieth century presents stark lessons in that folly, in realms both political and religious. No. No blind obedience to illegitimate authority or to legitimate authority acting in error. The vows commit me to obeying only godly admonition, to submitting only to godly judgments of those in authority over me. Before I took my vows I considered very seriously the proven character of the bishop and rector to whom I was yielding authority and pledging obedience. Could I look to them for godly admonition and for godly judgments? Had there been any doubt, in good faith I could not have taken such a vow, nor would I have sought to. There was no doubt.
The ordination vows bring freedom, simplicity, and clarity not only by establishing legitimate lines of authority and obedience; they also define and constrain my identity as priest – who I am and what I do. The priesthood, and its vows, delineate my spiritual and vocational boundaries.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places (Ps 16:6a, NIV).
Within those boundaries lie freedom, simplicity, clarity – and safety. In a directionless and anxiety ridden world in which people are encouraged to – and often forced to – create and define themselves, my vows tell me who I am and what my purpose is. When presented with a baffling array of choices, when confronted with difficult decisions, when questioning how to fill the minutes and hours of my days and how to fill those minutes and hours with meaning, I turn to my vows. There is no ambiguity there, only an exhortation to faithful diligence and diligent faithfulness.
Will you then give your faithful diligence always to minister the doctrine, sacraments, and discipline of Christ…?
Will you be ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away from the Body of Christ all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word…?
Will you be diligent in prayer, and in the reading of Holy Scripture…?
These are the boundaries within which a priest lives and moves and has his vocational being. The boundary lines have indeed fallen in pleasant places of freedom, simplicity, and clarity.
“Will you?” the vows ask as they challenge the ordinand to obedience and conversion of life. “I will, the Lord being my helper,” is the only proper response.
Photo: Mary Kathleen Roop. Used by permission.