This afternoon, I will have the privilege of participating in the ordination of a friend from college who will be serving a congregation near Pittsburgh. And not only do I have the privilege of participating, but I have the privilege of actually leading the prayer of ordination at the service. My friend wanted the prayer to be extemporaneous and to conclude by calling the congregation to pray a printed prayer together. I can do extemporaneous. But I’ve learned from experience that when a prayer has a specific purpose, it can’t be entirely extemporaneous. Prayers such as those we use to consecrate the Eucharist, or prayers or ordination come out best when the person praying still follows an outline of specific points. So, I set out on a mission to figure out what these key points should be for a prayer of ordination. Here’s what I found.
1. In the Presbyterian Church, the Prayer of Ordination is done on behalf of the whole Presbytery. In other Christian traditions, it is the Bishop who performs the ordination and prays this specific prayer. In the Presbyterian tradition, the community of pastors and elders known as the Presbytery functions as a corporate bishop. So rather than one person laying hands on the person being ordained, all ordained people come forward and lay hands on. The person praying the prayer of ordination prays on behalf of all of them. This is also why I will initiate and lead the prayer, but it will conclude with a unison prayer. All that said, I will begin with an acknowledgement that we are gathered together as representatives of the whole Church.
2. In the Catholic ordination prayers which I read, the prayer of ordination begins by recalling the offices which God has established for ancient Israel and the Church throughout history. This is similar to our Eucharistic prayer which usually begins by recalling God’s faithfulness to Israel up to the time of Christ. Because the person being ordained is being set apart to function in a similar way, the ordination prayer acknowledges the models of priestly ministry which have gone before: Moses and the seventy elders, Aaron and the priests (Exodus 24). Ultimately, all those ministries pointed forward to the high-priesthood of Christ, so this portion should conclude with thanksgiving for the ministry of Jesus Christ who is both the Priest and Offering reconciling us with the Father in a way no human ministry could (Hebrews 7:26-28).
3. But we don’t thank God only for ordained ministry. The Holy Spirit gives diverse spiritual gifts throughout the Church, so many prayers of ordination acknowledge with thanksgiving the variety of spiritual gifts present in the Church, including apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers (Ephesians 4:11). “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, but the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).
4. Then the prayer gets specific: In all Christian traditions, this prayer calls upon the Father to send the Holy Spirit to fill the person being ordained, so that the person ordained will be able to faithfully exercise the ministry to which they’ve been called. And notice how the Book of Common Prayer describes that ministry:
May he exalt you, O Lord, in the midst of your people; offer spiritual sacrifices to you; and boldly proclaim the gospel of salvation; and rightly administer the sacraments of the New Covenant. Make him a faithful pastor, a patient teacher, and a wise counselor. Grant that in all things he may serve without reproach, so that your people may be strengthened and your Name glorified in all the world.
Anyone in the Church can proclaim the gospel, teach, or counsel. The one thing that is unique to ordained ministry is the administration of the sacraments. The entire reason ordained ministry evolved in the life of the Church was to ensure right administration of the sacraments. So, the prayer of ordination should draw attention to the sacraments of Baptism and The Lord’s Supper, and also ask God to fill the ordained person with whatever gifts are necessary to administer the sacraments faithfully.