By Molly T. Marshall
This past Sunday evening I participated in an ordination service for three graduates of our seminary, two women and one man. None was a twenty-something; all had been serving for years in their home church, Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, a historic black congregation. One woman had carried the title of “Commissioner of Edification” for years rather than a pastoral title. Of course, she had been doing pastoral work all the while. For the first time in its venerable 119 year history, the church decided it was high time to ordain women as clergy.
I had never been in a service quite like this. It had dignity, gravity and drama far beyond the rather sterile practices I have witnessed in many such rites. Processing to a dirge-like rendering of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” the clergy and ordinands slowly entered the sanctuary as the congregation waited expectantly. We all knew that we were entering sacred space, in sacred time, with the whole gathered company of saints.
The timbre of the hymn summoned us to consider the mantle being assumed, a yoke of responsibility borne on behalf of the people of God. The mournful cadences gave voice to the reality that ordained ministry journeys in and out of grief and joy, the valley of the shadow of death and the delight of the newborn, always accompanied by Jesus. Perhaps the painful exigencies of life reveal his friendship most clearly.
Like other services of ordination, there was Scripture, proclamation, music and exhortation. Contrary to some of these ceremonies of investiture, this was not a “preach-off” where windy preachers try to outdo one another in homiletical eloquence and soaring rhetoric. Rather, the pastor spoke simply of the posture of willingness exemplified by Abraham in the searing narrative of Genesis 22, which recounts the binding of Isaac. Over and over this spiritual forebear says, “Here I am,” which demonstrates his receptivity and readiness, and the revelation of his own character in the midst of God’s test.
Then the service moved toward its climax as deacons and clergy lined up to participate in laying hands upon the candidates. We moved into a yet more holy realm as the sacramental resonance deepened. When deacons and clergy began to line up, one of the ministers of the church anointed our hands with olive oil, preparing us to lay hands of blessing on these God and the church were setting apart. It seemed appropriate to me to mark them with the sign of the cross when my turn came.
The solemnity and enormity of what was transpiring was evident to all gathered. In slow humming, lined hymns and stomps, replete with the rhythmic thumping of the elders’ canes, we entered a liminal space where the weight of glory was palpable. The powerful presence of the Spirit of God met us as we sought to stir into flame the gifts already generously bestowed.
One of the women reflected, “I was overwhelmed with the sense of obligation to this congregation and the new one to which I am called.” Her sensitivity to the covenant she was forging confirmed that she understood what it means to say, “Here I am.”
Some Baptist voices have interrogated whether ordination sets up a false hierarchy and diminishes the discipleship and vocation of the non-ordained. McClendon argues that ordination is “a recognition of distinctive vocations in the kingdom,” but it must not distort the church into “a company of privates led by ordained captains.” The church remains a “discipleship of equals” (Schüssler Fiorenza’s term) where all are equally gifted by God’s Spirit.
One of my former faculty colleagues at Southern Seminary went so far as to ask that his ordination be removed so that he could live into the ecclesial equality he felt appropriate. All Christians have received the “laying on of hands” in their baptism, he observed, and thus all have been enjoined to Christian service. In this he was correct.
While I share his egalitarian impulse, I have always felt that if the church were going to ordain anyone at all, it should ordain women. Because of their long experience of marginalization and diminishment, women need the empowerment of ordination to kindle the recognition of their spiritual authority. While many have served in the humility of untitled ministry, the sacrament of blessing entailed in being “set apart” transforms identity within the Body of Christ.
Ordination is surely a “remembering sign,” reminding the church that God continues to supply leadership to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. The church adds its yes to the “here I am” of the ordained. In God’s mysterious calculus of grace, these lead and accompany God’s church as it makes its slow journey through history toward the City of God.