It took me ten years to earn the right to wear this stuff. Four and a half years later, I hung it up for good. But you already knew that. I've written about it many times, and it's never far from the surface when I'm talking about my roots.
I've taken these items out of storage twice since I left ministry in 2000. Both times were for weddings. I didn't know either of the couples well, but I spent time with them making sure their services were as personalized as I could make them. I could probably have made a nice side income out of performing weddings and funerals for the unchurched (an unattractive but PC word clergy use to describe persons with no religious affiliation), as many in my situation--ordained but without a pulpit--have done. I do know my way around liturgy, and I can come up with thoughtful, significant rites at the drop of a hat. I just don't care to.
And here's why: I'm not an essential part of those ceremonies. Don't get me wrong, unless you're doing things Quaker-style, public services honoring significant moments in people's lives work best with an officiant, someone who can confidently and competently move them through a logical progression of symbolic acts that culminate in ushering the individual, couple, or family into the next stage of their lives. And honestly, even Quakers are helped through such events by including people with enough experience at such practices to smooth over the rough spots. What's not essential, I've come to believe, is the stole.
That's the pretty band of cloth that goes around the neck of a Christian minister. They come in many sizes, colors, and designs, but they all mean the same thing: this person has been ordained by his or her denomination to be a leader in the church, and in that ordination, to have authority to perform certain functions that laypeople may not. These functions typically include weddings, funerals, baptisms, and Communion, but may also extend to hearing confession, performing last rites, laying on of hands, and other functions.
This distinction is an important one for many churches, significant enough that large numbers of people have fought for generations to be given the right to share in it. Women are still ineligible for ordination in the Roman Catholic Church, and there are many Protestant churches that share this exclusion. Even more discriminated against are gay men and lesbians. As with the right to marry, they are just beginning to make inroads in claiming this aspect of equality in the church. I hope they get there while it still matters.
Because here's the thing: it's withering away.
Ordination is not something well understood by the general populace, and it's easy to see why. Here's how United Methodism defines it, drawn from its most recent (2012) publication about ordained ministry: "In ordination, the Holy Spirit acts to maintain the priority of the gospel by setting apart men and women called to apostolic leadership."
There's a lot to unpack in that sentence, but the key words for me are "maintain[ing] the priority of the gospel" and "setting apart...[for] apostolic leadership." The idea here is that Jesus chose twelve persons to lead the early church, to be set apart from all his other followers, and that they, in turn, handed on the leadership role to the next generation of leaders, as has been done for every succeeding generation since. All the disruptions along the way--schisms, anthematizations, excommunications, corrupt bishops and popes, Protestants who decided on their own that they could ordain whomever they wanted to--are conveniently ignored by whichever church tradition is performing the ordination. This one's real because we say it's real.
My first regular paying job was to be my father's church secretary. One day as I was running off the newsletter, I came across a letter from the Bishop of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church to the lay leader of that local church. I don't know what it was doing lying around in the work room; considering its explosive contents, it should have been secreted away in a locked file cabinet. It seems this lay leader had taken it upon himself to perform a baptism, and word had gotten back to the Bishop about it. The letter made it clear that only ordained ministers had the authority to baptize, and that this was never to happen again. If the lay leader had problems with this doctrine, he should find another church.
Now here's the thing about baptism: anyone who's seen one knows what to do. You say the words "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit," and you apply water, whether it's by sprinkling, pouring, or immersing that baptizand. That's all there is to it. It does not take an advanced degree to know how to do it, and the church long ago (almost 2000 years ago, in fact) dispensed with the notion that having the wrong person perform a baptism invalidates the rite. The distinction is that, at least in United Methodism, only someone set apart by ordination is supposed to do it.
Unless, that is, there's no one like that available, in which case the bishop can pragmatically authorize someone serving as a lay speaker to go ahead and do it--which is how Methodists started ordaining in the first place. John Wesley heard that American Methodists were going without Communion for years at a time, so he unilaterally decided he had the authority to ordain missionaries, despite being only an Anglican priest (and practically defrocked, at that). Upon arriving in America, those missionaries decided to call themselves bishops. The apostolic succession in Methodism rests on individuals claiming authority for themselves, then denying it to those of their followers who might attempt to do the same thing.
Now let's go back to weddings. These are complicated events, laden with symbolism, rife with opportunities for people to say and do the wrong thing. In fact, of all the things ordained ministers do, officiating at weddings is arguably the function most in need of a trained professional. But does that officiant necessarily have to be ordained, set apart to do this thing?
Not according to Oregon law. Now, the statute does state that authority to officiate has to come either from one's judicial office or from a religious body that has an actual physical presence in the state (including a congregation), but in practice, one can purchase a certificate of ordination from a variety of online "wedding ministries." The certificate doesn't even have to be presented to the county clerk. It's up to the couple being married to choose their officiant and make sure he or she is authorized by someone, somewhere to do the deed and sign the papers afterward.
As I argued recently, this actually makes for weddings that are much more personally significant than if a professional was brought in, as couples can recruit a dear friend or family member, someone who knows them both intimately and may have played a role in bringing them together, to preside as they publicly proclaim their commitment to each other. Of course, if either partner has been active in a congregation for many years and the couple is going to be a part of that congregation for years to come, it makes perfect sense for the pastor to perform the wedding. But our world is increasingly unchurched, especially in the Pacific Northwest, and the majority of young couples have no connection at all with any religious institution. It makes far more sense for them to ask someone who is already intimately connected to them to officiate at their wedding.
What about the complexity of the ceremony, making sure that everything is done right? Quite simply, the same web-based church that issued the officiant's certificate of "ordination" most likely has tools for designing such a service; and if they're inadequate, there are plenty of other such sites that turn up in a Google search. Weddings are not rocket science. They're more complicated than baptisms, but not to the extent of making lay leadership problematic.
I did mention the word "pastor" a couple of paragraphs back, and it's important that I spell something out here: as critical as I am of the "set apart" nature of ordination, I do believe very strongly that there is still a role in American culture for the pastor. Religious communities are not about to become extinct, though at least as far as mainline Protestants are concerned, they're behind the evolutionary curve. But as long as people come together for worship and support, there will be a need for persons to shepherd them, to visit them in times of distress, to facilitate their growth as spiritual individuals, and to help them through the transitions that come to all human beings.
So yes, pastors do have a reason to exist. Whether they should be "set apart," given special authority, or in any way elevated above the common people, is, in my mind, open to debate, especially in a culture in which respect for the authority of any given office, whether it is ministerial or governmental, is fading to nonexistence. Americans have always been skeptical of such distinctions, but starting with the Baby Boom generation, this skepticism has accelerated to the point that any person who would claim authority has to earn it, regardless of office. I experienced this in my own years of ministry: families I had visited in hospitals, or helped through bereavements, treated me with far greater respect than those who had not yet experienced my presence in a time of crisis.
The church, the synagogue, the mosque, the temple: these things will go on, in one form or another, as long as human beings have minds that perceive more to the cosmos than what they can touch and see, and feel driven to share their faith with others. Ordination, on the other hand, at least as a setting apart, is not long for this world. We've outgrown it.