The Covenant of Ordained Ministry

One of my favorite books is Out of the Flames by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone.  Subtitled “The Remarkable Story of a Fearless Scholar, a Fatal Heresy and One of the Rarest Books in the World”, it’s primarily focused on the life and death of Michael Servetus (1511–1553), proto-Unitarian martyr and heretical hero to many of today’s Unitarian Universalists.  Out of the Flames begins and ends, however, by talking about books, from Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type printing press to the three surviving copies of Servetus’ last book, Christianismi Restitutio.

Now Out of the Flames is no textbook.  Servetus’ story is already a pretty exciting tale: he was rivals with John Calvin in college; he took to subterfuge to publish his books attacking orthodox Christianity; and he escaped from the Inquisition in France only to be captured by the Calvinists in Geneva.  More than that, though, the Goldstones have a knack for bringing history alive and they do a great job of setting the scene in Medieval Europe and explaining the continent-wide impact of Gutenberg’s decision to make the Bible the first book he printed.  (Not that he was particularly pious: he simply thought it would be the easiest book to sell!)  Suddenly anyone who could read could read the Bible and, what’s more, they could have their thoughts turned into print for others to read, too.

Until that time, Christianity relied on two sources of authority: the Bible and the priesthood.  While the Bible was authoritative, it was not completely authoritative since a priest was required to interpret it.  The priest was granted this authority, of course, by the church hierarchy, from the local bishop all the way up to the Pope; the Bishop of Rome was in turn authorized as part of an unbroken line going back to Apostles who had — according to the Bible and the priesthood — been authorized by Jesus.  It was perhaps inevitable, then, that the commercial availability of the Bible combined with widespread dissatisfaction at the corruption of the Roman Church, would lead to a questioning of the authority of the priesthood, and the stage was set for the Protestant Reformation.

Our Unitarian and Universalist forebears were part of that reformation, only they took it further than most!  They not only rejected the hierarchical priesthood but, a few centuries later, the authority of the Bible as well, resulting in today’s Unitarian Universalism that is most well known for aiming to be open to all people and to all sources of wisdom.  It’s also important, though, that we have ministers rather than priests, and it’s particularly important that Unitarian Universalist ministers are not ordained by one another or by some version of a bishop or by any denominational authority, but by the congregations served by those ministers.

Now in Servetus’ time ordination meant the conveying of priestly authority down through the church hierarchy, but what does it mean for today’s non-hierarchical Unitarian Universalists?

Just as no one of us is alone when it comes to figuring out what it is that we believe, neither is any one of us doing ministry alone.  Unitarian Universalism is dedicated to the process of individual being in community, the covenant we make with one another inside our faith community to engage in “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and the covenant we make with the wider world to be a church of “the open mind, the loving heart and the helping hand.”  Similarly, Unitarian Universalist congregations reserve the right to ordain their own ministers because, having rejected the circular logic of both authoritative scripture and authorized priesthood, our authority emerges through that same process of the individual being in community.  When a minister is ordained by a congregation, then, another covenant is enacted, a covenant that dedicates that minister to the service of Unitarian Universalism at the same time that it re-dedicates that congregation to the cause of liberal religion.  Just as a congregation is founded once and only once, so is a minister ordained only once.

A year ago the members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula, decided to ordain me to the Unitarian Universalist ministry and install me as their minister.  The last year has confirmed to me that this congregation has a bright and beautiful future, and I am honored that they chose to be responsible for this truly once-in-a-lifetime event!


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