I was in Melbourne a few days ago for a long-awaited and long-desired occasion: the ordination of Dr Avril Hannah-Jones, who blogs here.
The occasion was held at The Church of All Nations, a Uniting Church mission in inner-city Carlton.
I had a lovely time. Avril met me at the airport, and once her alb was safely dropped off at CAN we had lunch and browsed the wonderful Readings bookshop, before making our way back to the church.
The service was very good. Robert Gribben (Professor of Worship and Mission; former member of the Working Group on Worship; my co-editor for Uniting in Worship 2) preached an excellent sermon, which you may find at the end of this post.
After the ordination, these evidential photos were taken:
The next day, we were reflecting how ordination is one of those steps in life—like marriage, or having children—that you can’t take back. A truly life-changing step, after which you are not the same person as you were before.
Steps like that can take a little time to get used to. They can be anxiety-provoking. It has struck me since I got home that there are other steps that are life-changing; we should include baptism in this list, after all. But a few weeks ago my 21-year old son took another kind of step that he couldn’t take back. He took a step out of a little booth suspended high above us, and fell. The fact that his ankles were attached to a length of rope did not make his parents feel any better!
Chris didn’t hesitate in stepping out; I couldn’t do what he did myself. He’s braver than I am! Here again is photo evidence:
Is it a step too far to compare these two irrevocable steps? I don’t think so. Each requires determination; each—including bungee jumping—is a response to a call.
A bungee jump is of necessity a plunge into thin air. An ordination is a step into—what? Perhaps it is a leap of faith. The Brisbane-based spiritual director Patrick Oliver talks about ‘falling into God’. I was certainly glad Chris’s fall ended in the expected way; but as we each fall into God, how readily will we take that step?
One huge difference is that while bungee jumping has a definite time limit, falling into God is a lifelong project. When will it end? Never. Not even in eternity.
As an ordained minister falls into God, she falls in community. We are not shamanic figures, falling spectacularly to the awed gaze of the onlookers. We fall (in the words of Robert’s sermon following) as broken symbols, inviting faith in God. We fall into God as representative figures, joined by a common baptism, inviting others to fall with us. How will we land? All we know is that underneath are the everlasting arms.
Avril and Chris, both of you have taken wonderful, irrevocable, steps. I’m glad I was there.
And for those who still wish to read, here (with no mention of bungee jumping!) is Robert’s fine sermon:
THE JABBOCK LIMP
A sermon preached at the Ordination to the Ministry of the Word of
Dr Avril Hannah-Jones, Church of All Nations, Sunday 5th October 2008.
Genesis 32: 22-31; Matthew 5: 13-16
Gordon Lathrop, the Lutheran liturgical scholar, in his marvellous book The Pastor, a spirituality, begins by observing that pastors (which is the Lutheran word for priests, ministers, preachers) are symbols, and the tools of their ministry are symbols. This symbolic status might be glimpsed by the public in a cross around the neck or a clerical collar, or an icon on the study wall, or a well-thumbed New Testament for the home visit. These, he says, are secondary things: ‘the primary symbols in a Christian pastor’s care ought to be quite specific things, basically communal in their practice, historic in their ecumenical centrality, widely resonant in their meaning’.
He means, quite simply, what he often calls ‘Book, Bath and Table’, preaching, baptism and eucharist. From these three primary symbols, he sees all else flowing, especially the church’s concern for the world in intercession and in the collection for the poor, the first sign of social justice. These responses lose their point if they become unconnected to Book, Bath and Table. They are the fundamental implements of those called to the order of ministry in the Church.
This has often been insisted upon, and needs to be, but Lathrop’s point is that we had better understand them all as broken symbols. Take the Bible. The problem especially for Protestants, is that our reverence for the sacred texts may suggest that the scriptures are about some perfectionist society, populated by heroes and heroines of shimmering sanctity. Not so. A greater collection of unfaithful, unethical, unscrupulous and unsuccessful religious people it would be hard to find in the world’s literature. The stories are about sin and death and loss, mixed with faith, hope and love, and the surprising mercy of God. This holy Book is a broken symbol, like us; in its world there is room for us.
Or take Baptism. Its origin is in the story of the one human being who by his constant communion with God lived without sin or betrayal: and he stepped down into the murky waters with the unwashed crowd and accepted the baptism of John. Does baptism make us part of those destined for heaven? Yes, but only together with the little, the neglected, the oppressed, the dying, the marginal ones of the world. The symbol of baptism is profoundly a broken one.
Or take that holy meal hosted by One called a glutton and a wine-bibber, peopled potentially by the whole world, from the east and west, north and south. Is the table open to all, or reserved for the holy? The answer often seems to depend on the institutional church: but the truth is the Table is open to all who will put out their hands for the body and blood of Jesus Christ and, in mixing their life with his, will follow through on the implications. Anyone willing so to throw their life away is indeed welcome.
And the guardian of these mysteries? The servant of these sacraments? The proclaimer of this Word? Broken symbols.
What an extraordinary saga we have been following in our Old Testament readings these last few weeks. Here is one of those stories of brotherly betrayal, of lies and deception and at the point of today’s reading, lack of trust, and fear of reconciliation. Jacob is terrified of encountering Esau. And between his sending his family ahead of him across the Jabbock, and his final facing his brother, comes that strange wrestling match at Peniel. At the dawn, there emerged (as Bruggemann says) ‘an empowered, re-named cripple’. This was the blessed minister of the reconciliation which followed. The symbol of ministry is broken. We all limp.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes those who are blessed: the poor, the mourners, the meek, the merciful, the peace-makers. Then he turns to his disciples and speaks of salt and light. To be called ‘salt’ is to be compared to an indispensable commodity which gives flavour, which preserves, which has healing qualities. In the Middle East, you are still welcomed and promised safety by accepting salt to taste. But Jesus does not leave it as a poetic simile.
He says, (as Bonhoeffer points out), not ‘you must be like salt’, as if the disciples will be successful if they come up to the academic standard of saltiness. He does not say ‘You have the salt’, as if we owned the gifts we give, even spiritual gifts. No; he says, ‘You are the salt’, and everything in these brief words points both to the call which cannot be avoided and the command to be faithful. The same is said by the symbol of light: what is the point, Jesus asks, of snuffing out a lamp as soon as you have lit it? Don’t be like salt: be salt! Don’t be like a lamp: illuminate!
There’s the burden of the ministry under ‘holy orders’: no choice but to be salt on the church’s tail, and a guiding light for its path. But the One who calls also provides what is required. Salt and light are gifts, not inventions. The glory of being a follower of Christ lies not in our good works themselves: but in the ability of those good works to point away from us to ‘our Father in heaven’, to the Spirit who gives all that is needed.
This all makes an ordination service a very curious exercise. Let me hazard the guess that we are all here—of course, for our love of God and the Church—but because we love Avril. We admire her, we recognize her gifts, we respect her academic achievements and not least the courage of her doctoral topic; and we’re all here to give her a good send-off into a lifetime of ministry. All this is true (saving her blushes), but it is not relevant.
We are in fact about to reduce her in the ecclesiastical ranks: from the high privilege of being a baptized member of the Church of God, part of a global movement of the Spirit to tell the world of its true destiny, to the role of servant of those servants of God. She will, of course, not forget her baptism: in that the sign of the cross is upon her. But her focus now is changed towards the welfare of this strange company of disciples, the church. Whatever we have appreciated about her intellect, the gifts we discern in Avril, and for which today we especially invoke the holy Spirit of God, are different ones, not easy to define. We believe that she has the special gift of being able to keep the church faithful, in a giddying cultural context. That is not a common gift, but it is absolutely essential for the church.
When she breaks the Word of God open in her preaching – for that Word is the only source of wisdom – she will convince not only on the basis of what she has studied, but by the foolishness of God. She will tell stories of broken humanity and the weakness of God. To her pastoral work, she will bring not the cleverness of modern science, but prayer and sacred sign: water, bread and wine, oil, salt, light. Remember: the God with whom we contend strikes at the hip.
I know, Avril, you have been listening to these attempts to encapsulate the extraordinary ministry to which we are about to commit you. It is unlike anything else you could have done with your life. It binds you to people you would never have chosen to live and work with. It makes demands on you which you already know to be quite impossible of fulfilment, except for the surprising mercy of God, and that it is that mercy through Jesus Christ which is the only justification for it all. God gives you exactly the kind of ‘strength’ that God uses, no more, no less.
So: go and be a Minister of the Gospel, in the company of the others of your order. Be salt and light for the Church, by the mercy of God. And may God guard you, and prosper the work of your hands.