Reflecting on a new genre of Christian literature that began to appear in the centuries after Nicaea, Robert L. Wilken notes that saints’ lives often featured a common temptation: ordination. Strange as it sounds, one of the recurrent allurements that threatened to take the saint away from the sanctified path was the gift of holy orders. As Wilken, a renowned professor of church history at UVA describes it,
“Neither are these tales of kings and generals, and seldom to they depict clergy. Most of the heroes are laymen and laywomen. Indeed one of the stock temptations is ordination, an enticement the best always resist. The lives are stories of simple and unassuming men and women who love God more ardently and serve God more zealously than their neighbors and friends, the kinds of person who are present in every Christian community, indeed in every religious community.” (Remembering the Christian Past [Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 1995,] 132, emphasis added.)
Today, many are accustomed to talking of ordination as a kind of right, a religious license for which everyone should be able to apply based purely on personal inclination. In my own United Methodist Church, much of the conversation about ordination sounds just like this: “I feel that God wants me to be ordained, and thus the church should affirm that.”
On Wilken’s description, the lives of the saints are a useful corrective. As they reveal, the most saintly among us are usually not the ordained, and granting ordination injudiciously may be a great harm to the holiest women and men our churches have to offer. Not only is ordination not for everyone, it may be that ordination is not for the best of us. After all, the apostles, whom Jesus entrusted with his own teaching and mission after his resurrection and ascension, were drawn from common occupations, not the priestly caste. The saints knew what we have forgotten: ordination may well get in the way of God drawing us to the fullest heights of sanctity. That, to me, sounds more like a burden than a right, more a temptation to be avoided than a resume builder or professional hoop through which to jump.
This is just one more reason why ordination, like marriage in the older Anglican rite, is ” therefore is not by any to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.”