A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
Is God Still Calling?
The Ancient Church
in the Post-Modern World
By Lydia Evans
Sherman was a master of the universe . . . Six hundred million in his hands. Six million off the top for Pierce & Pierce. One point seven million for Sherman. All in a day’s work. He was there. At the top – impervious, untouchable, insulated by wealth and power.
Peter Fallow describing Wall Street bond trader Sherman McCoy in Tom Wolfe’s 1987 bestseller
The Bonfire of the Vanities
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.
John Donne, 17th century priest and poet
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
Jesus, 1st century resident of Nazareth, Messiah, and Son of the Living God
There’s no question that the world of Tom Wolfe’s Sherman McCoy is far removed from that of John Donne’s London, and farther still from the ancient world of the 1st century Mediterranean. Twenty-first century North America is a highly competitive culture characterized by unilateral decision-making and an emphasis on individual achievement. Sherman McCoy’s contemporaries really believed they could have it all. In seeking to “look out for number one,” they experienced greater detachment and isolation from extended family than earlier generations. What was once consider altruistic may now be nothing more than a well-concealed attempt to further one’s position within society. The culture of the biblical world, in sharp contrast, was a collectivist community marked by group decision-making, sharing of material resources, and mutual interdependence.
As I considered these two radically different cultures, I began to wonder how the Church has managed to survive the evolution of this post-Modern world from collectivist to individualist society. How are individuals today, living in a self-reliant and self-determining culture, drawn to a collective like the Christian Church with its roots in the ancient world? How do they become aware of a call to the ordained ministry of the Episcopal Church, a liturgically-rich denomination in a world searching for “have it your way” worship? And what happens to these individuals once they are ordained to the priesthood? Do they, as members of the “in” group, then begin to shape their behavior according to the established group?
In attempting to answer these questions, I surveyed sixteen individuals in various stages of ministry in the dioceses of South Carolina and Newark. These men and women, ranging in age from 29 to 70, are the product of seven different Anglican seminaries. Two of the respondents are entering their final year of seminary, four are relatively recent graduates, and the rest finished prior to 1990. I asked them to share the stories of their call to the priesthood and the way in which they approach their ministry. In addition, they were asked a variety of questions related to individual and group identification.
Despite the acknowledged theological differences between the two dioceses, I found remarkable similarities among their clergy, in both their journey thus far and in what drives their ministry. Nearly all of those surveyed first became aware of their call through an encounter with God, ranging from a still, small inner voice to both vision and voice from God. Rarely was it the suggestion of a third party and, indeed, a number of those surveyed acknowledged that this was something they had known since childhood. Initial responses to this awareness were varied, but many shrugged it off, hoping it would go away, while others approached their rector or spiritual director for guidance.
When they did enter the discernment process, nearly everyone surveyed did so from a position of surrender and trust. They couldn’t imagine doing anything else with their lives. They wanted to be obedient to this call, believing that if this was God, He would prepare the way. The majority were ultimately drawn to the ordained ministry out of a deep desire to tend the flock of Christ -- to walk, if you will, alongside their fellow traveler in times of profound sorrow and great joy. They spoke of the value of individual relationships with parishioners, and of their desire to bear the light of Christ to a suffering world. The majority acknowledged that, once they had reached this point, they were powerless to do anything else.
The call to ministry is, by its very nature, directed to the individual. Each person surveyed knew that they were being asked to serve the wider church, and that only they could say “yes.” Wrestling individually with this call, they sought affirmation in community. A few acknowledged that, at first, they ran, heading to graduate school or remaining in their established career, until they could no longer deny it. Ultimately, each of them did say “yes,” some shortly after college, many later in life, with a few putting down fairly lucrative “nets” in order to attend seminary. To their friends and family, the priesthood may have seemed an unlikely path for the fourth-generation lawyer, the rock-and-roll disc jockey, or the health care professional. But in the end, they chose the road less traveled, exchanging the culture of Sherman McCoy for a life of servant hood.
I was encouraged that so many of the respondents became aware of their call through some sort of supernatural means – a voice, a vision, or a gentle urging from within. Indeed, many of those surveyed said that this is a path they would never have chosen for themselves – that it was the persistence of that still, small voice which led to their decision. And I believe that it is precisely this encounter with God which drives the individual to leave cultural expectations behind and take this radical step toward servant hood.
Given that the Episcopal Church is an ecclesiastical hierarchy, a network of more than one hundred dioceses under the authority of bishops and governed by a bicameral triennial convention, one might expect the newly-ordained priest to adopt a somewhat corporate worldview in regard to the Church. After all, they have just been made presbyters in the one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church by one who is himself part of the apostolic succession. For this reason, I found it interesting that an overwhelming majority of those I spoke with favor the primacy of the Holy Scriptures and the guarding of the faith over unity, the received Tradition of the church, and the authority of their bishop. Without exception, they believe that, in a difficult situation, speaking the truth in love is the truly compassionate response to a parishioner, while acknowledging that feelings may be hurt. All of this, I believe, points to their compassion and concern for the individual over the institution. In the words of one priest, “I believe our job is to catch fish and to tend sheep.” With few exceptions, those I spoke with communicated a desire to transform the lives of others, one person at a time. They are called to serve the wider church and yet they focus primarily on the individual.
I spoke with several priests in the Diocese of Newark who I know do not share my views on issues currently facing the Episcopal Church. The intersection of ministry and polity has always been a sticky-wicket, and we have cast opposing votes at church conventions. But this past week, I had a few amazing conversations with my brothers and sisters in the Diocese of Newark, and one in particular stands out. This parish priest spoke of the tremendous privilege she has in participating in the life of another human being. She told me of her desire to be there to weep with them over the broken bits of their life and to rejoice with them over great joys and blessings. And although we do not agree in matters of church polity, I have no doubt that she is called to bear Christ’s light to a suffering world.
Even in our post-modern North American culture, characterized by self-realization and corporate conquest, there are those who are asked to put aside the corner office and the promise of a comfortable retirement. Called by God and confirmed in community, they devote years of their lives to spiritual formation, corporate prayer, and pastoral preparation, and at their ordination, they promise to conform to the “doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church.” But in the end, they model their lives on Jesus, breaking bread with saints and sinners alike. They tend the sick, bless the dying, pity the afflicted and soothe the suffering. They baptize babies, bless marriages, and bury the dead. And set apart as a living sacrifice by the One who calls their name, they never forget their primary roles of servant, pastor, teacher and evangelist. As I’ve often heard one bishop, who spent many years in the two-thirds world, say, “You know, I’m really just a missionary!”
Clergy Survey Conclusions for
Diocese of South Carolina (SC) and Diocese of Newark (N)
How did you first become aware of a call to ordained ministry?
Initial Awareness (SC): Out of 8 respondents, there were 5 who heard a voice from God, and 2 who were given visions from God regarding their call to ordained ministry. 5 of those surveyed had felt what ranged from a gentle urging to an irresistible call on their life. 2 stated that, in addition to voice/vision/urging, they received a comment from a layperson who sensed the call on their lives. One very honestly told me that they just stood up at a Presbyterian youth conference (without even thinking about it) following the observation that there were some youth at the conference who would go into the ministry.
Initial Awareness (N) Out of 8 respondents, there were 7 who had felt a gentle urging from within regarding a call to ordained ministry. Of those 7, 2 said that this inner voice had been accompanied by a voice from God. Another 3 believed that it had always been there. Finally, one person said that it was probably a voice from God.
How did you respond initially?
Their Initial Response (SC): Following the initial awareness (voice, vision, inner urging, etc.), 4 out of 8 disregarded it by either shrugging it off, hoping it would just go away, or running in the opposite direction. 3 out of 8 surveyed felt both unworthy and afraid. One felt very unworthy, but nevertheless said Yes immediately, believing that if it was God, He would prepare the way.
Their Initial Response (N) Following the initial awareness (voice, inner urging, etc.), 4 out of 8 said that they approached a member of the clergy, with 2 of those acknowledging that they had really felt this way for a very long time and had buried it for years. One of the respondents said they decided to look into it, one said that they ran from it, and one acknowledged “overwhelming terror.” One of those surveyed said that the priesthood was the last thing they would have chosen for themselves, and so they delayed discernment. For two others, discernment was put off as they met with their spiritual director for a year, actually having to continue to defend the call before these persons, but one acknowledged that, in retrospect, this was a time of real growth – one of the best years of his/her life. Another was told at the time that they were too young, almost finished with college, and that they needed more real life experience. Still another said that there were other reasons not to enter discernment immediately, and they did not elaborate.
When you did say “Yes,” why did you enter the discernment process?
Why Did I Say Yes? (SC) 4 out of 8 of the respondents stated that when they finally said “Yes,” it was out of obedience to God. ½ of those surveyed believed that if it was God, He would prepare the way for them to be ordained, and 2 out of 8 also said that they couldn’t imagine doing anything else with their lives.
Why Did I Say Yes? (N) 4 out of 8 of the respondents stated that when they finally said “Yes,” it was because they couldn’t imagine doing anything else with their lives. Two stated that they wanted to be obedient to God, and 4 said that they believed if this was really God, the way would be prepared.
What finally drew you to the ordained ministry?
What Finally Drew Me to the Ordained Ministry? (SC) When asked what finally drew them to the ordained ministry -- in other words, what really turned them on -- 4 out of 8 stated that they were really powerless to do anything else with their lives. 2 noted that they really love the liturgy, with one reflecting on God’s faithfulness in their life and their desire to do His will. The other one saw the liturgy as a means of continuity with the early Church and the communion of saints. 2 out of 8 believed that it boiled down to their love of God’s people and their desire to be pastors and tend His sheep. 2 out of the 8 respondents noted that an additional interest for them was the opportunity for further study.
What Finally Drew Me to the Ordained Ministry? (N) When asked what finally drew them to the ordained ministry -- in other words, what really turned them on – the answers were extremely varied. One noted that it was the Real Presence of Christ in the sacrament, another acknowledged a passion for evangelism and a love of the liturgy. One noted a love of storytelling and pastoral care, acknowledging that ultimately there was really nothing else they would want to do. One confessed an absolute desire to serve God in whatever way He asked, and another cited pastoral care, social justice, and a love of the Church. One particularly passionate respondent said that they loved being a part of people’s lives, being the representative of Christ’s love to them, and being there for them no matter what (to celebrate the great joys and to weep over the brokenness in their lives). Finally, one of those surveyed said that it was a passion for service.
Please choose the one from each pair which you believe is most important:
It’s All Important, But If I Had To Choose, What’s Most Important? (SC) The primacy of the Holy Scriptures and their authority in matters of doctrine, along with guarding the faith, and solidarity with the Anglican Communion won out easily over 2,000 years of Church Tradition, unity, the Episcopal Church over and above the global communion, and submission to their diocesan bishop if he did not share these core values. Everyone surveyed believes that, in a difficult situation, speaking the truth in love is the truly compassionate response to a parishioner, while acknowledging that feelings will be hurt. Most believed that, as much as the Church needs to listen to the ongoing revelation of the Holy Spirit, this is secondary to the changelessness of God. They were somewhat divided on the following issues: justice & mercy vs. unity of the communion, liberation vs. tradition, word vs. sacrament, the 1979 vs. the 1928 prayer book, and liturgy vs. evangelism.
It’s All Important, But If I Had To Choose, What’s Most Important? (N) All of the clergy surveyed in the Diocese of Newark favor the 1979 Book of Common Prayer over the 1928 Prayer Book. (In fact, no one chose the 1928 BCP over the 1979) Likewise, they all believe that speaking the truth in love and liberation from oppression are, in the end, more important than the feelings of their parishioner and tradition. 2/3 of the respondents favor guarding the faith and the authority and primacy of the Holy Scriptures over unity, 2,000 years of Church Tradition, and their diocesan bishop (not to suggest that they wouldn’t submit to their bishop – only that, given a choice between the Holy Scriptures and their bishop, they would choose scripture). 2/3 of those surveyed also chose the Episcopal Church over the global Anglican Communion. They were evenly split over the changelessness of God versus the ongoing revelation of the Holy Spirit, were nearly split between liturgy and evangelism, and favored justice and mercy for the individual 6 to 2 over the unity of the Anglican Communion. Sacrament came out on top over word, 6 to 1.
I Believe . . . (SC) All respondents stated that they believe that Jesus is the only Way to the Father, and that there are no other paths. 6 of 8 those surveyed believe that change within the Church must happen slowly, and one said that progress is impossible without dramatic change.
I Believe . . . (N) 4 out of 8 respondents believe that Jesus is the only Way to the Father, and that there are no other paths. Five stated that Jesus is one Way and there may be other paths. (This may seem strange that 4 gave one answer and 5 gave another, but this is because one person answered that both statements are true – Jesus is the only Way & Jesus is one Way) Also, one priest noted that, although they answered true to Jesus is one Way and false to Jesus is the only Way, the latter – Jesus is the only Way -- is actually true for them personally, but not necessarily for others. Only 2 surveyed believe that change within the Church must happen slowly, and 4 believe that progress is impossible without dramatic change.
Is there anything that could cause you to renounce your ordination vows?
Could I Renounce My Ordination Vows? (SC) When asked this question, 4 said they would not renounce their vows under any circumstances. One of those 4 stated that their spiritual health at some point might cause them to resign from the priesthood. What is the difference? Also, 4 out of 8 believed that there were circumstances under which they might leave the Episcopal priesthood. 3 said that if the Episcopal Church were to deny the divinity of Christ, they would renounce their vows, and one said that they would follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and their bishop.
Could I Renounce My Ordination Vows? (N) When asked this question, 5 out of 8 respondents said they would not renounce their vows under any circumstances. 3 acknowledged that there could be circumstances under which they might leave the priesthood. One said that if the Episcopal Church were to deny the divinity of Christ, they would renounce their vows, and 2 said that they would leave if they had brought scandal on the Church or were asked to leave.
Who do I consider myself and who might others say that I am:
Who Am I and Who Do You Think I Am? (SC) I was interested in how those surveyed identify themselves, in contrast to how they believed others would label them. No one identified themselves as either liberal or fundamentalist. 4 out of 8 believe that others would identify them as fundamentalist, and only 2 out of 8 believe that others would see them exactly the way they see themselves. (In SC, respondents tended to add a label – i.e., others might consider me fundamentalist -- whereas with the Newark clergy, a label would be removed – i.e., those who self-identified as orthodox would say that others might not consider them to be orthodox).
Who Am I and Who Do You Think I Am? (N) I was interested in how they identified themselves, in contrast to how they believed others would label them. No one identified themselves as fundamentalist. Many self-identified as evangelical, anglo-catholic, liberal and orthodox, although many did not believe that others would consider them orthodox or evangelical. Only one person surveyed believed that others would identify them in exactly the same way they saw themselves. (In SC, respondents tended to add a label – i.e., others might consider me fundamentalist -- whereas with the Newark clergy, a label would be removed – i.e., those who self-identified as orthodox would say that others might not consider them to be orthodox).
Demographics (8 Respondents from each diocese)
I went through the discernment process in the Diocese of . . . (SC)
South Carolina (8)
I went through the discernment process in the Diocese of . . . (Newark)
a diocese in Province I
a diocese in Province IV (2)
a diocese outside ECUSA
My seminary: (SC)
University of the South – Sewanee (2)
Wycliffe Hall - Oxford (1)
Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry (2)
Virginia Theological School (2)
General & Virginia Theological School (1)
My seminary: (Newark)
General Theological Seminary, NYC (2)
An evangelical seminary abroad, then Anglican Studies program
Union Theological Seminary
Episcopal Divinity School-Cambridge
Virginia Theological School
Church Divinity School of the Pacific
Drew (Methodist) School of Theology in NJ, then General
Age & year of graduation (SC) Age now
I graduated in 1960 when I was in my mid 20s late 60s-early 70s
I graduated in 1984 when I was in my mid 30s mid 50s
I graduated in 1985 when I was in my mid 20s 40s
I graduated in 1988 when I was in my late 30s mid 50s
I graduated in 2005 when I was in my mid 30s mid 30s
I graduated in 2005 when I was in my early 40s early 40s
I will graduate in 2006 when I will be nearly 30 late 20s
I will graduate in 2006 when I will be late 40s 40s
2 seminarians, 2 recent graduates
3 who have been ordained for roughly 20 years
1 who has been ordained for 45 years
6 male, 2 female
Age information: (Newark) Age now:
I graduated in 1976 when I was in my 20s mid 50s
I graduated in 1980 when I was in my 20s early 50s
I graduated in 1986 when I was in my mid 30s mid 50s
I graduated in 1987 when I was in my late 20s 40s
I graduated in 1990 when I was in my mid 20s early 40s
I graduated in 1995 when I was in my mid 30s mid 40s
I graduated in 2001 when I was in my mid 20s early 30s
I graduated in 2004 when I was in my mid 40s late 40s
2 ordained under 5 years
1 ordained 10 years, 1 ordained 15 years
2 ordained nearly 20 years, 1 ordained 25 years, 1 ordained nearly 30 years
4 male, 4 female
I consider myself: (SC) Others might say that I am:
evangelical, orthodox evangelical, orthodox, fundamentalist
evangelical, orthodox evangelical, orthodox
evangelical, anglo-catholic, charismatic evangelical, fundamentalist
evangelical, anglo-catholic, orthodox evangelical, anglo-catholic, orthodox
anglo-catholic moderate (write-in)
evangelical, charismatic, orthodox evangelical, charismatic, orthodox, fundamentalist
evangel, anglo-cath, charismatic, orthodox evangel, anglo-cath, orthodox, fundamentalist
I consider myself: (Newark) Others might say that I am:
evangelical, anglo-catholic, orthodox evangelical, fundamentalist, anglo-catholic,
evangelical, anglo-catholic, orthodox evangelical, anglo-catholic
evang, anglo-cath, orthodox, liberal anglo-catholic, liberal
evang, anglo-cath, orthodox, liberal liberal
evangelical, liberal evangelical
anglo-catholic, liberal anglo-catholic, liberal
evangelical, anglo-catholic anglo-catholic, liberal
anglo-catholic, liberal, orthodox liberal, orthodox
A few notes about this information and the survey process:
You may be wondering how the clergy I surveyed were chosen. I decided to talk to eight in my own diocese and, because my professor is a non-Episcopalian living within the Diocese of Newark, I thought it would be interesting to interview eight priests in that diocese. Because I had less than ten days in which to accomplish this project, I tried to choose a random sampling of clergy in my diocese who were not on vacation at the time. I contacted Dr. Louie Crew for assistance in contacting the Newark clergy, and he kindly forwarded me a list of 107 priests in his diocese, along with their current ages. I selected 13 of these (2 were chosen specifically because I have other opportunities to work with them, and I wanted to get to know them better – I picked the other 11 clergy based on gender and age). I sent this list to Dr. Crew as he had offered to e-mail each one to introduce the project and the fact that I might be calling them. He e-mailed those 13 and then I chose 8 to actually interview. He does not know who I spoke with, and the respondents are not aware of one another’s identities.
In sharing the demographic information, I have rounded off the ages in an attempt to preserve anonymity. I have tried to do the same with the geographical location of discernment processes.
In looking at these conclusions (especially when it comes to the section of “matched pairs”), it is important to remember that the aim of this project has been to consider the juxtaposition of collectivist culture in an individualistic society. During this course, I studied the interpretation of scripture written in the first century Mediterranean world and the way that it is applied in contemporary North America. And as you may see in the final paper, this course raised a number of questions in my mind about the nature of priests, called individually by God into the collective we know as the Church.
Although some of the questions I asked may have seemed peculiar at the time, I was considering the answers in terms of collective versus individual. Each one of the “matched pairs” had either collective or individual associated with it. For example, when I asked the respondent to choose between the phrases “Holy Scriptures” and “my bishop”, I saw bishop as choosing the collective over the individual choice of scripture. In the example of “speaking the truth in love” versus “the feelings of the parishioner”, I saw the parishioner’s feelings as collective in that they are part of the in-group. A desire to acquiesce to the collective might mean a reluctance to speak the truth. That was also the thinking behind the question on the prayer book. The 1979 BCP offers more variation – therefore, geared more to the individual – whereas the 1928 BCP is always the same. (I was surprised, however, that a few of those folks who I was sure would choose the 1928, said in fact that the 1979 was really the more catholic of the two.) This was also my thinking with regard to any questions about unity, ECUSA, or the Anglican Communion – ECUSA being the individual when paired with the larger collective of the Anglican Communion, and unity always being seen as collective.
As a rule, it seemed to me that the individual choices were always more of a risk than the safe answer in favor of the collective. Choosing to modify your sermon at the last minute based on a whisper from the Holy Spirit is much riskier than going with exactly what you have prepared from the lectionary. Only a few of you have actually done that, and you told me that it was worth the risk. (Please remember that I am not a social scientist, only a student. I drew up the survey, and the conclusions are really just my view of your answers.)
Finally, it was a great privilege for me to hear the stories of the clergy I interviewed. Most shared very personally, and a few said that they had not thought about much of what I asked in many years. Thank you.
 Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990).
 Rivers Scott, ed., No Man is an Island: A Selection from the Prose of John Donne (London: Folio Society, 1997).
 Mark 1:16-18
 The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).
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