or Holy Orders
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” -- John 20:21-23
Till I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you. -- I Timothy 4:13-14
The word “vocation” means “calling.” Your vocation is what God calls you to do in life. All people have the vocation to know, love, and serve God. But different people do this in different ways. As Christians, we believe that as we grow, God reveals our individual vocations to us, often in indirect ways, more by suggestion and invitation than by command.
The process by which we come to recognize, test, and embrace our vocations is called “discernment.” The Christian spiritual tradition has developed a number of methods for discerning God’s call. Valuable as these exercises are, many people effectively pursue their vocations without even knowing that what they’re doing is discernment, much less employing formal methods and techniques.
Some Christians are called to serve God by their secular occupations – for example, as lawyers, teachers, civil servants, artists, or businesspeople. Many discern a vocation to serve in a volunteer capacity as lay people in the Church – whether on the Vestry, at the Altar, on a parish committee, or in a feeding ministry. Some lay people are called to work professionally for the Church, as musicians, administrators, and consultants. A few are even called to enter what is known as “the religious life” as monks or nuns. The possibilities are endless.
And some Christians are called to serve God and the Church by receiving ordination, also known as “Holy Orders,” as deacons or priests. The bishop ordains by prayer and the laying-on-of-hands. The path to ordination entails many sacrifices but holds unsurpassed fulfilment for those truly called to it.
Those in Holy Orders are not on that account better, more virtuous, more intelligent, or more spiritual than other Christians. They have simply received and responded to the calling to serve in this specific way.
Ordination to the priesthood confers the grace of certain powers to be exercised in Christ’s name in the Church: namely, consecrating the bread and wine in the Eucharist to be the Body and Blood of Christ, and absolving sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. With certain exceptions, the priest typically performs these actions in the context of a parish-based ministry of preaching and teaching, presiding at worship, and leading and shepherding the flock.
Ordination to the diaconate sets an individual apart for service in the Name of Christ, under the supervision of the bishop. In the Eucharist, the deacon proclaims the Gospel, prepares the Altar, and gives the Dismissal. On a non-stipendiary basis, deacons undertake ministries of service in the Church and the world, seeking especially to involve the laity in service to those most in need.
Discernment of a vocation to ordained ministry is never an individual decision. The wider community of the Church, as represented in the parish and diocese, is always involved. No matter how strong one’s subjective sense of calling, no one has a right to be ordained. The discernment process takes years. Many people participate, including the parish priest, the bishop, members of parish discernment committees, the diocesan commission on ministry, medical and psychological professionals, and, if the process continues, seminary professors and field work supervisors. The final decision to ordain always remains the bishop’s. Sometimes frustrating, sometimes painful, the ordination process can also be a rewarding journey of self-discovery and growth in one’s relationship with God, regardless of its outcome.
If you suspect that you may be called to Holy Orders, the first step is to talk with your Rector or parish priest. Don’t be in a hurry to move things along; in most cases, the initial stages of the process take time and require extended discussion and reflection. A guide to the ordination process of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island can be found here.