The Vows of the Priest

At the time of writing this, I am two days away from my ordination to the priesthood.  I’ve already been through this material on a retreat with other ordinands, and now I’m taking a moment on my own to reflect further on what’s being promised as I approach receiving the laying on of hands of my bishop and the presbyters.  This post is focusing on the eight vows taken on by the priest-to-be during The Examination in the ordination service.  Both the content of these vows and the order in which they’re presented are significant.

#1 – the call of God

Do you believe in your hear that you are truly called, according to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ, and according to the Canons of this Church, to the Order and ministry of the Priesthood? – – I so believe.

First and foremost, the question in approaching ordained ministry is the calling of God.  We do not claim the ministry ourselves; God reaches out and draws people in to their specific ministries.  But this isn’t just a subjective inward spiritual calling that only the individual can discern, it also has manifestation in the world – the Church has canons (or rules) for guiding this process of discerning God’s call.  Education, discipleship, experience, character, and so forth are to be assessed carefully, lest anyone be hasty to ordain anyone.

#2 – the sufficiency of Scripture

Do you believe that the Holy Scriptures contain all doctrine required as necessary for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ?  And are you determined, out of the Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge; and to teach nothing as necessary to eternal salvation but that which may be concluded and proved by the Scriptures? – – I believe it, and have so determined, by God’s grace.

This is a cornerstone of Reformation (as well as Patristic) theology taking a high priority in Anglican teaching: The Bible tells us everything we need for salvation.  This rules out the possibility of dogmatizing something like the perpetual virginity of Mary (as the Roman Church has officially done), the age of the earth (as Protestant Fundamentalists have done), and so forth.  The statement here is clear: the teaching of Scripture alone is necessary for salvation.  This is Anglicanism’s version of sola scriptura.  But consider the last sentence: “that which may be concluded and proved by the Scriptures” is an interesting statement.  It guards against a simplistic understanding that many Christians today have fallen into, assuming that the Bible is a “simple” book to read and understand.  No, it requires careful study leading to conclusions and proofs!  This, too, is a hallmark of Patristic (Early Church) practice: the classical doctrines of the Trinity and the two natures in the one person of Christ are prime examples of doctrine that can be concluded & proved by Scripture, even though they’re not “simply” stated in the Bible.

#3 – the realization of Tradition

Will you then give your faithful diligence always so to minister the doctrine, sacraments, and discipline of Christ, as the Lord has commanded and this Church has received them, according to the Commandments of God, so that you may teach the people committed to your charge with all diligence to keep and observe them? – – I will, by the help of the Lord.

Following on the heels of the commitment to Scripture is this commitment to the Great Tradition: the doctrine of Christ, the sacraments of Christ, and the discipline of Christ.  The doctrine of Christ is elsewhere summarized by the 39 Articles, the four to seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, and the general consensus of the Early Church Fathers and Mothers.  All great theological work ever since then has been built on the same foundations – starting with Scripture, yet in constant dialogue with these formative thinkers and writers.

The sacraments of Christ are mentioned here as well as part of the great Tradition to be upheld.  This is both a natural outflow of the commands in Scripture and the codified rule of the Church.  Anglicanism has frequently dodged the question of getting too picky about the definition and number of the Sacraments, recognizing that the two main ones are Baptism and Communion, but not shirking the importance of others like absolution, confirmation, matrimony, and so forth.

The discipline of Christ refers largely to the holy living that Jesus commanded his followers to pursue.  Christians are supposed to be warriors against sin, seeking to realize the perfection of Christ in us.  It is not a battle that we will win in this life, but it is one that we are fully expected to fight because in Christ the victory will ultimately be ours.  Personal and corporate righteousness ranging from sexual ethics, societal ethics, and also spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting are in view here: we’re expected to live in a way that is holy, as the Bible describes.

So the clergy, especially the Priests, are charged to minister (model and teach) these doctrines, sacraments, and disciplines to the people.  There is a sense in which these three things provide a real-life framework in which to receive and enact and enable the centrality of Scripture described in the previous vow.

#4 – the rebuking of Heresy

Will you be ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away from the Body of Christ all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word; and to use both public and private admonitions and exhortations, to the weak as well as to the strong within your charge, as need shall require and occasion shall be given? – – I will, the Lord being my helper.

On the flip side of the previous two vows comes this difficult but necessary corollary – just as there is truth to be taught and upheld, so is there untruth to be dispelled.  Sometimes it’s subtle and quiet, sometimes it’s dramatic and loud.  Not every situation of error necessarily requires the interposing hand of correction, there is room here for discretion and patience.  But at the end of the day, the Priest is to make sure that nothing foreign to the Gospel takes root amongst the flock.

#5 – the diligence of Discipline

Will you be diligent in prayer, and in the reading of Holy Scripture, and in such study as may further the knowledge of the same, laying aside the study of the world and the flesh? – -I will, the Lord being my helper.

In many ways, what’s described here can be summarized by the Daily Office.  Many Anglican clergy are bound by Church law to read Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer every day.  But those are not the end-all-be-all of the discipline described in this vow.  The Priest is to be a person of prayer, immersed in the words of the Bible, and studious to increase in knowledge and understanding of all that is holy and good.  Yes, every Christian is called to do this, but the clergy even more so, because we’re called to be examples, guides, and leaders amidst the flock.  You can’t have the blind leading the blind.

#6 – being a good Example

Will you be diligent to frame and fashion your own life, and that of your family, according to the doctrine of Christ; and to make both yourself and them, as much as you are able, wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ? – – I will, the Lord being my helper.

This vows spins off from the previous, again: the discipline described previously now finds an application in the exemplary life the Priest is here commanded to live.  And what makes it all the more drastic is that this extends to the Priest’s family.  For an unmarried Priest this isn’t quite as scary perhaps, but those who are married (and especially those with children) often look at this and shudder.  But it reflects the reality that people not only look up to their pastors but also to their families.  When a pastor’s daughter runs away from the faith, even the secular news notices from time to time.  Not that a parent can control the outcome of the children, but is just supposed to do his or her best, “as much as you are able.”

#7 – the fostering of Unity

Will you maintain and set forward, as much as you are able, quietness, peace, and love, among all Christian people, and especially among those who are or shall be committed to your charge? – – I will, the Lord being my helper.

One might wonder why this is so low on the list.  The answer is that this call to peaceful unity is subordinate to all that comes before: the truth of Scripture & Tradition, the rebuking of heresy, and exemplary discipline.  Peaceful unity without those things may look nice, but is not Christian unity.  In fact, with all those things in mind, Christian unity and peace is one of the top priorities of a Priest.

#8 – the commitment to Obedience

Will you reverently obey your Bishop, and other chief Ministers, who, according to the Canons of the Church, may have charge and authority over you, following with a glad mind and will their godly admonitions, and submitting yourself to their godly judgments? – – I will, the Lord being my helper.

It is argued that one of the grievous errors of the Ordinal in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was putting this vow near the top of the list, above even Scripture.  It certainly seems that this distorted priority is playing itself out in many places throughout the Episcopal Church today – where submission to the Bishop trumps submission to Scripture.  Perhaps that is largely why the Anglican Church in North America started its Prayerbook-writing project with the Ordinal.  Nevertheless, this vow does belong in the ordination liturgy, having both Reformation and ancient precedent.  Priests are not the sole shepherds of their respect flocks; they answer to their Bishop.  This is a direct continuation of the new Testament practice of local elders submitting to the authority of the Apostles.  The laity (from Greek laos, meaning people) follow the authority of their rulers, the elders/presbyters/priests, the priests follow the authority of their bishops, and the bishops submit to the authority of one another as the original Twelve were taught to do.  And so, in line with Scripture, Tradition, and current Church canon law, I, too, as a Priest, will resubmit myself to the godly admonitions and judgments of my Bishop.

The vows in italics are taken from the Ordinal of the Anglican Church in North America version 4.0 approved by the College of Bishops in June 2013.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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