I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the service for the ordination of priests in The Book of Common Prayer. In a previous post, I reflected on the bishop’s address to the ordinand in the 1662 BCP. Here I consider the Examination, i.e., the series of questions the bishop asks the ordinand, which immediately follows — or, more precisely, the bits that are not there in our present BCP.
The classic Anglican ordinals contain at least two questions not found in the 1979 rite. The first comes at the end of a two-part question about the sufficiency of the Holy Scripture as containing all things necessary for salvation:
And are you determined out of the said Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge, and to teach nothing (as required of necessity to eternal salvation) but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scriptures?
This is the first missing question. And the second is like unto it:
Will you be ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word; and to use both public and private monitions and exhortations, as well to the sick as to the whole, within your cures, as need shall require, and occasion shall be given?
Notice that the two missing questions concern the teaching office. The first delineates Holy Scripture as the final norm for Christian teaching, the second calls the ordinand to vigorously exercise this office. In effect, the first recognizes the Bible as “the rule and ultimate standard of faith,” and the second calls the priest to use it like a rule, like a rod not to be spared.
I won’t speculate on the reasons for the absence of these questions in the current Prayer Book. However, I wish to understand the Examination in the 1979 BCP in continuity with the older tradition. So I wish to read the following question from the current rite in the light of the tradition: “Will you undertake to be a faithful pastor to all whom you are called to serve, laboring together with them and with your fellow ministers to build up the family of God?” That is to say, I want to understand the missing questions as making concrete what it means “to be a faithful pastor” and what it looks like “to build up the family of God.”
Remembering the missing questions makes it clear that being “a faithful pastor” is not an exercise in sentimentality; pastoral care is not only sympathy and sensitivity. Rather, being a faithful pastor just is instructing the people committed to your charge with teaching rooted and grounded in Holy Scripture. Being a faithful pastor is teaching nothing that cannot “be concluded and proved by the Scriptures.” Good preaching and teaching, disciplined by the Word of God and resourced by the tradition of the Church, is good pastoral care.
Likewise, what it means “to build up the family of God” includes (as uncomfortable as it makes me) opposition to “all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word.” Teaching which accords with the Holy Scriptures builds up the Body of Christ, but “doctrines contrary to God’s Word” are detrimental to the health of the Body. I’m almost tempted to say that the priest is to be like a white blood cell, identifying and disposing of viruses of false teaching. Almost.
My point is simply that this missing question reminds us that false teaching is not innocuous, but the cause of real harm to the Body of Christ — and therefore combatting it belongs to the duty of those tasked with caring for Christ’s Body.
Today, I think, we are inclined to find this second missing question offensive, or at least to squirm a little when we hear words like “banish” and “drive away.” Ours is a tolerant age, unwilling to absolutize any position, alive to the provisional nature of all human utterances. Generally, I think these are goods — I’m not inclined to imitate, say, St. Martin of Tours in tearing down pagan shrines, which is the sort of thing the so-called Islamic State is so despised for doing. Yet, these goods have been bought at a high cost, namely, the diminishment of the Church’s teaching office, aggravated by the scandal of Christian division.
However, I think we will be less inclined to take offense at this call “to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines” if we recognize the way in which it is bound up with a whole form of life. Indeed, the Examination suggests that this task is one that requires great diligence, much wisdom, and deep humility. It presumes a life disciplined by prayer — bound by the humble recognition of the priest’s inability, apart from God’s gift, to even want to do what builds up the Body of Christ. It presumes a life given over to the “daily reading and weighing” of the Scriptures and the pursuit of holiness. How else will the priest learn to recognize what is contrary to Scripture? How else will the priest gain the practical wisdom necessary to recognize that a need has arisen and the occasion is right? How else to speak with moral authority?
To remember the missing questions in the Examination is to remember that an essential element of priestly ministry is to “hold firm to the sure word as taught” in order to “be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).
The featured image is a page from the Ordering of Priests in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer on the website of the Society of Archbishop Justus. It is in the public domain.