The question has been posed to me twice — first, on June 9, 2002 and then again on December 14, 2002: “…will you, in accordance with the canons of the Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?”
The prescribed answer (indeed, the only answer available!) is: “I am willing and ready to do so…and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church.” This obedience to authority — the authority of the Scriptures (affirmed to contain all things necessary to salvation), the authority of the chief pastor (a.k.a., “bishop”), and the authority of the church’s rules and regulations (a.k.a., “canons”) — informs what it means to be “ordained”. This vow of obedience with its accompanying submission to things and people beyond one’s own individuality, is at the core of living “under orders”.
At the heart of being a priest is the notion of a communal and collegial ministry. As a priest I share in the ministry of the Church. I share this ministry with laypersons, deacons and bishops. In particular, I share a local (meaning diocesan!) ministry with a bishop and I am privileged to share a parochial ministry with a few hundred folks gathered as Trinity Episcopal Church in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.
Most of the time the interrelatedness and connectedness of this ministry is pure gift. Oh sure, like any group of folks, we have our ups and downs — but for the most part, I am constantly amazed at the ways the wind of the Spirit hovers over the chaos of church life and gives birth to the beauty of new creation, the wonder of new life and the mystery of rekindled love. On a day to day basis, life in the Church looks remarkably unremarkable. Nothing much happens. The usual round of liturgies, coffee hours, meetings, meals and activities mostly hum along without much of a hubbub. One year leads to the next. Before you know it, a decade has passed. And then something happens.
Last week, such a thing happened. Nearly a year after the General Convention of the Episcopal Church authorized a provisional rite for the blessing of same-sex unions, the Bishop of Milwaukee, in his role as chief pastor of our diocese, informed the clergy that he was unable to allow that rite to be used within our diocese at this time. I do appreciate the Bishop’s struggle in this matter. Nevertheless, this decision was difficult to hear — for me, for a number of my clergy colleagues and for many of the parishioners of Trinity Church.
I am under orders. I have vowed obedience. I live in community. The task before me now is to work within the Church, locally expressed as the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee, to see that we fully embrace the vows we make at every liturgy of Holy Baptism…the vows to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and “to respect the dignity of every human being.”
I have said (somewhat flippantly) in the past that “the collar comes equipped with a muzzle”. But silence is not synonymous with obedience. My vows require obedience. My convictions require both words AND deeds.