By Martin L. Smith
On July 4th I celebrated the 40th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. I have a slight claim to regard this as special, because I was ordained under the minimum age laid down in canon law. The Archbishop of Canterbury issued special licenses as I was still 22 when I became a deacon and still in my 23rd year-just-when I was ordained priest. So while I can’t be certain that I wasn’t beaten to the record somewhere by a few days, there is probably no Anglican of my age ordained longer. I was theologically precocious, and though I did have five intense years of theological education behind me, I certainly looked younger than many members of my parish youth club. On my house visits for funeral and baptism planning, I would have to work to get past the initial reaction of utter incredulity which my appearance often excited. I’m still pondering the significance of being ordained so young.
Back then, we were taught that priests were primarily trained by lay people in parishes-seminary was just groundwork. And we made ourselves living proof of that philosophy. We were ordained as pastoral apprentices, not experts or professionals, and ordained ministry was geared to maximize personal pastoral encounters from which we would learn and grow in the field.
On a ferry crossing from England to Holland I had one of those rare prayer experiences when we hear a distinct voice, a clear word from God. I heard these words clearly and simply: “priesthood is people.” This was completely consistent with our culture of spiritual apprenticeship. This culture required maturity and responsibility from lay people to trust the young newly ordained and put them through their pastoral paces. In exchange, people benefited from the vigor, energy and imagination of young pastors. I look back with amazement at the gusto and inventiveness with which my friends and I threw ourselves into parish life in our early and mid 20s.
It’s hardly any wonder that I came to feel so many misgivings about very different attitudes that took over in the Episcopal Church in the decades that followed, which caused the average age of the newly ordained to climb well into middle age. There was a phase when men and women in their 20s seemed to be discounted as proper candidates for ordination. Whether people seriously believed the blanket theories about the ‘need for life experience,’ or whether it was just a cover for ushering into the process a majority of middle aged people, I am not sure. I am certain that these attitudes thwarted the Spirit of God in hundreds of stillborn vocations.
Now, I have been in the business of nurturing and mentoring candidates for ministry for decades, and I know perfectly well that “the Spirit blows where it wants.” I have rejoiced in the work of discernment and preparation with dozens and dozens of people in the second half of life. But I didn’t rejoice at all in the policies that resulted in a cumulative graying of the clergy. And I believe I have earned my right to be skeptical about the design of most of those bureaucratic contraptions called “our ordination process,” whose successive models seem to need constant tinkering, only to replaced altogether as yet another ecclesiastical lemon. In many cases they have proved to be grim deterrents to young people exploring a call to the priesthood.
Forty years on, and I am convinced that the church needs to be much less passive about exciting young women and men with the possibility that God wants to recruit the energy and gifts they have precisely as young people, to re-invigorate the ordained ministry from within. We have superb potential leaders among our college age men and women-and younger! I was actively cultivated in my teens as a potential priest, and my discernment was taken really seriously. Are we singling out young people of every cultural and class background as potential priests? Are we willing to forge very flexible instruments of discernment and preparation that can train them in time to devote energetic and creative years to reshaping the life of our parishes? How will we create the “apprenticeship” situations for the young newly ordained that will stretch and deepen them and give opportunity for their creativity? With financial constraints thinning out assistants’ positions, how will we make it a priority to incorporate young women and men into the pastoral life in ways which are healthy and inviting for them and their families?
Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiri- tual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.