Bishop Iker's Sermon at the Chrism Mass
____________________________________________In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
During the course of about eighteen years as a parish priest in the Diocese of Southwest Florida, I attended many ordinations, perhaps as many as four to six a year. And it was the custom in that diocese at the beginning of the service for the bishop to have a priest stand up and read to the congregation assembled the Preface to the Ordination Rites found on page 510 of the Prayer Book. (Don’t go looking for it now!) It was read as a way of stating before the service began what our church understood about what we were about to do in ordaining a deacon or a priest. It begins with these words, “The Holy Scriptures and the ancient Christian writers make it clear that from the apostle’s time, there have been different ministries within the Church. In particular, since the time of the New Testament, three distinct orders of ordained ministers have been characteristic of Christ’s holy Catholic Church.” And then it goes on to briefly summarize the essence of what a bishop is, what a priest is, and what a deacon is.
Part of the awesomeness of this service today is that all three orders are present here at one time and place to renew and reaffirm the sacred vows which each of us took when we were ordained. And I want to simply begin with the reminder that the first theme of what we do today is “continuity and fidelity.” Continuity and fidelity. We promise to continue the apostolic ministry of Word and Sacrament as we have received it from the New Testament Church. We promise to be faithful to the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as this Church has received them. The Preface then goes on to state, “It is also recognized and affirmed that the three-fold ministry is not the exclusive property of this portion of Christ’s holy Catholic Church.” In other words, at each ordination we were reminded that neither the Episcopal Church, nor indeed the world-wide Anglican Communion, owns in any sense, or possesses in any sense these three-fold orders of ministry. We have received them from the apostolic Tradition of the catholic Church. They are not ours. That is to say, we cannot add to, nor can we subtract from, the giveness of the Apostolic Succession. We can’t vote in conventions to alter what we have received by the ordinance of Christ and the apostles. It belongs to Him, not to us. We can only continue in fidelity to that which we have received and assure that we hand it on intact, unchanged, undiminished, unblemished, to those who shall succeed us. It is an awesome thing and a great privilege, my brothers and sisters, to do what you and I are doing today. There is nothing “ho-hum” about it. It is an exciting and challenging time to serve as a bishop, or priest, or deacon in God’s Church today.
But let us be very clear, we remain in continuity and fidelity first to the Scriptures, then to the Tradition. We endeavor to do nothing “new” or “innovative” or “creative,” so to speak, but we endeavor simply to pledge ourselves to do and to be what bishops, priests, and deacons have always done and always been. Part of this, of course, means that in each new age those who are called to the ordained ministry must be willing to discern God’s truth and hand at work in the world and in the Church of our time and place. And this has always meant that those who are ordained must be willing to confront and to refute those who would preach or teach anything at variance with the apostolic teaching and practice of the historic, undivided Church. In the Prayer Book tradition, as expressed in the 1928 version, the ordaining bishop urges the ordinand with these words: “to banish and drive away from the Church all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word.” We do not repeat these exact same words in the 1979 Book, but nonetheless, the obligation remains that we are to preach the truth, and guard orthodoxy, and defend the faith, and banish all strange and erroneous teaching from the Church of God, still today.
If I were to ask the clergy here to name some of the Biblical sources for this threefold ministry, we would get various, different texts and passages quoted, because there are a number of passages in the New Testament that speak about these three-fold orders. There is the institution of the priesthood in John, chapter 20, when the risen Jesus comes to the disciples in the Upper Room and commissions them. He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit… Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven. Whose sins you retain, they are retained.” He gives them the keys. And then there is the Great Commission, of course, at the conclusion of St. Matthew’s Gospel where the apostles are sent by the risen Jesus to go and make disciples: go baptize, go teach, and go and bring others into the fellowship of the Body. There is the ordination of the first deacons in Acts, chapter six, and, of course, the many references in Saint Paul’s ministry and writings to ordaining presbyters, or elders, in every town and place where he himself established a local church. Before he moved on the next place he commissioned someone to take charge of the life of the Church there. And, of course, there are many other passages we could cite.
But it is in the apostolic age of the first successors to these earliest bishops, priests, and deacons of the New Testament that the three-fold ministry comes to be articulated and organized in a more formal way. The early Church Fathers expressed very much what is still today the practice of these three ministries in the contemporary Church. Foremost among these “early Christian writers” (as the Preface calls them) is St. Ignatius, who was the second bishop of Antioch in Syria, who was martyred in the year 115. Ignatius emphasized the importance, indeed the necessity, of following the teaching of only orthodox bishops, that the faithful not be deceived or led astray. For the bishop was to be the defender of the Faith, and you must expect from the bishop an exposition of the true doctrine of the Faith.
I would like to recall with you some of the wonderful writings that come down to us from the hand of St. Ignatius. He wrote, “Let no one do anything that has to do with the Church without the bishop’s approval.” (Some of the clergy present are wiggling now!) “You should follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father. Follow, too, the presbytery as you would the apostles. And respect the deacons as you would God’s Law.” And in another place: “You should regard that Eucharist as valid which is celebrated by the bishop or by someone the bishop authorizes.” And then the most famous one, of course, in the short version says, “Where the bishop is, there is the Church.” But the longer, more accurate version, of that often quoted statement is this: “Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”
In the ordination rites of our current Book of Common Prayer, there is a continuing concern that Ignatius expressed about the authority of the bishop and it’s reflected in a couple of specific questions that the bishop asks the ordinand. Early on, at the beginning of the service the bishop says, “Will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?” And then later in the Examination, “Will you respect and be guided by the pastoral direction and leadership of your bishop?” These are reminders that we are men and women under authority in Holy Orders and that godly obedience to that authority remains at the heart of our ordination vows. It is stated a little more dramatically in the 1928 Prayer Book version, for those of you who were ordained under that rite: “Will you reverently obey your bishop and other chief ministers, who according to the canons of the church may have the charge and government over you, following with a glad mind and will their godly admonitions and submitting yourselves to their godly judgments?” The reply: “I will do so, the Lord being my helper.”
Continuity and fidelity; orthodoxy and obedience. These four themes are central to our ordination vows, and they lie at the heart of the promises that you and I renew and reaffirm today. But, dear friends, you know as well as I do that we renew these sacred vows today at a time of great dissention and upheaval in the life of the Church, and especially that branch of the catholic Church where we have been called to serve and witness. Every week it grieves me that I receive unprecedented numbers of canonical notifications from other bishops informing me of priests and deacons who have resigned from the ordained ministry of the Episcopal Church, many of them known to me personally. But these resignations from the ordained ministry have been received, not because they no longer desire to serve as priests and deacons in Christ’s Church, but because as a matter of conscience they can no longer serve in the Episcopal Church. It grieves me that in recent days canonical actions have been uncanonically taken against some very orthodox, faithful bishops (four of them to date, but still counting.) And the charge that has been brought against these faithful, orthodox, godly bishops is the very curious one of having “abandoned the communion of this church.” Again, it must be said that these are not bishops who have renounced their orders. These are not bishops who have abandoned orthodoxy. These are not bishops who have denied the Faith. These are bishops who have made hard decisions about what they will and will not do in continuity and fidelity, in orthodoxy and obedience to their sacred call by God to serve as bishops in His Church. I honor them.
In conclusion, none of us can say with any degree of certainty how all this is going to turn out, or when it will be resolved. But one thing is clear, my brothers and my sisters. By God’s grace today we stand, we make our stand, and we are willing to stand together, whatever the outcome or the cost. What we do today is to reaffirm our promises to be faithful, obedient, bishops, priests, and deacons, not in a denomination, not in a national church, not in a sect, but in Christ’s one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church. May God help us and defend us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.