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Permission to Wound

‘Ordination gives the church a permanent permission to wound.’

I’ve been contemplating these provocative words since they were given to me recently and they remain deeply challenging. They arose in a conversation about the capacity to be hurt, disappointed, attacked and wounded by the institutional Church and about the relationship between the Church and the ordained person.

I had the unbelievable privilege last summer of preaching at an ordination service. Given that I still remember Brian Beck's sermon from my own ordination service nearly twenty years ago, I knew it had to be special. In the end, it wasn’t my sermon that really struck me in that service: it was that the vows taken by the ordinands were, in many ways, a declaration of vulnerability. In those promises, each individual was opening themselves up to the Church in a new and permanent way, and that openness including the possibility of wounding.

Don't misunderstand me - in talking about permission to wound, I am not condoning the, often, unrealisable expectations that persist around ministry, especially that of presbyters, that lead to deep disappointment and hurt. Nor the wounding that comes from prejudice or pettiness - that is not of God. But for many in ministry, we mistake the Church for the family we never had, giving us the affirmation we always lacked from inadequate parents. Or we expect it to be a therapeutic community for us, where we can find a constant and consistent regard.

The expectations the Church has of its ministers can also be deeply wounding. The idea that ordination somehow makes us more than human, in terms of stamina or the thickness of our skins, or our willing to work all hours or put up with unjustified criticisms. Or that, at the same time, we are also expected to be less than human, in terms of our need for affirmation or a place to call home.

These expectations quickly become a burden and cause unnecessary heartache. They are not the vulnerabilities essential for ministry, in fact, they actively hinder effective pastoral care. They turn ministry into a quest for perfection or a consumerist dependency culture. They expose those in ministry to the whims of populism or a personality competition. They allow institutional racism, sexism and homophobia to persist by creating an ideal designed to exclude.

The essential vulnerabilities are seen clearly through the lens of stationing. This week, my partner, Mark, and I will wait by the phone to hear our future from the Stationing Matching Group. We have had the conversations and filled in the forms, but the decisions about our future will be taken in a room to which neither of us have access. We will never know what conversations were had about us in coming to the decision about where we will live and work for the next five or more years. Our current mechanism is well past its sell-by date for a number of reasons, but whatever replaces it must not shy away from reaffirming:

  • that ministry is not simply about using our individual gifts or doing the things we feel comfortable doing, but also allowing our work to be shaped by the needs of others - to go where most needed;

  • that itinerancy is a willingness to be placed among strangers, some of whom will never ‘get us’, in order to represent something bigger and wider and deeper than the local;

  • that vocation is always costly, especially since it demands nothing less than our full, authentic selves;

  • that discernment must be a corporate exercise, in order to allow selfish motives to be named and challenged.

Of course, the call to authentic vulnerability is not just for the ordained:

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