After four years at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, two years of field placements at other congregations, a hospital chaplaincy session at Cambridge Memorial, a one year internship at First Unitarian Congregation, getting through 70 texts on a reading list for the UUA, and a final sermon and interview in front of a panel of eight Unitarian Universalists last September in Boston, I am finally a minister.
Although I am in preliminary fellowship with the UUA and a member of the UU Ministers of Canada, our professional association, there is one more event before I become the Reverend Fiona Heath. On Sunday May 5th at 4pm in the afternoon the Grand River Unitarian Congregation will ordain me as a minister.
The act of ordination by congregations instead at the denominational level arises out of our tradition of congregational polity. Each local congregational is self-governing and autonomous. Only the congregation has the power to call a minister to serve. Only a congregation can provide the final blessing on new ministers.
Ordination, in its early form in Western European Christianity was a public celebration of a vocation with the church. It involved commissioning a person to a particular role within the community. Ordination was reversible; when a person left a role the “ordination” was revoked, that is, they were no longer expected to perform those particular duties. There is clear evidence that women were ordained as deacons, abbesses, and even as priests who also served at the altar (see G. Macy’s book The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West). As the church institution developed in the middle ages, becoming more public, influential and powerful, canonical law began to codify the roles of deacons and priests and restrict them to men. As women were moved into convents and out the public life of the church, ordination began to be seen as a transformation. Once men were transfigured by the act of ordination, it was an irrevocable change in state, one that allowed them to consecrate the wine and bread of communion, and could not be undone.
This is not the Unitarian Universalist understanding of ordination. In nineteenth century American Unitarianism ordination was done by the church the minister would serve, usually for their entire career. It was the public sign of a covenant of relationship between minister and congregation, a setting apart of the minister to perform the diverse and particular tasks of a minister.
Today, ordination is more often done by a congregation that has helped form the minister: Carly Gaylor is being ordained by First Toronto, her childhood congregation, Linda Thomson, our CUC staff rep, is being ordained by her home congregation in Hamilton. And Grand River Unitarian, my congregation since 2001, will ordain me. This community – on behalf of the larger denomination – is celebrating my vocation by naming me Reverend and conferring on me a stole – the symbol of ministry. It is a ritual intended to highlight the meaning of ministry.
This service of celebration will include the spoken act of ordination, led by the President of the congregation. My minister mentors will hold up key aspects of ministry – to be a witness to life, to be a facilitator of community, a messenger of wonder, and a catalyst for change – and present me with symbols of each. We will hear a charge to the community – a reminder of what it means to be in relationship with a minister. An offering will be collected in support of the Theological Education Fund which supports ministerial students. There will be excellent music by Tom Nagy and the Gospel Refugees. A reception with finger food will follow.