Thursday, April 23, 2009

Beyond the Chancel

You are to assist the bishop and priests in public worship and in the ministration of God's Word and Sacraments . . .

On different occasions, two people on the Commission on Ministry (COM) asked me the same question in an attempt to help me discern whether I might be called to the priesthood or the diaconate:

"When you are serving at the altar, do you have the urge to shove the priest out of the way and take over?"

Strange as it may seem, this is the most helpful question I've been asked during my discernment. It seems a small thing, really--almost an aside. Do you have the impulse to consecrate the bread and wine? It takes a whopping ten minutes per service--hardly dominating the priest's schedule. And yet, it's one of the main things. This question cuts through the confusion around orders of ministry--the muddiness generated by our tendency to define the orders by task and role, not what I call "heart stance." What the question really asks is: on the sacramental level, are you a priest?

Some folks have suggested my answer should be "Yes." I tend to be a take-charge kinda girl. I'm comfortable leading worship, preaching, praying, and doing all the other stuff that wraps around the Eucharist. I'm a passable thurifer (incense swinger). Once, in a pinch, I even chanted the psalm--by myself, in front of everybody--and I didn't die and the congregation didn't run screaming from the pews. But when I'm at that table, I don't want to be the one to invoke God's blessing. I can't tell you why.

I want to be the quiet servant--the one who is always in the right place at the right time, who moves along with the priest anticipating her needs, always ready to hold a book, turn a page, lift a chalice. I want to be the one who smooths the liturgy so that it seems effortless, the one who mutes distractions so that the focus is on God.

I prepare the way for the priest, setting the table, pouring wine. And, a proper servant, I clean up afterwards, restoring chalice and paten to their places, covering the consecrated host. And in between, there's the moment where I enact the deacon's call. Receiving the chalice from the priest, I carry it beyond the chancel to the people, each step a sign of the breach I'm called to cross each day.


  1. Exquisite. I want to serve the way you do. The heart stance, yes. Peering into the gifts God has fashioned you with, I see why the greatest in the kingdom of God is a servant.

  2. You are doing it. Your heart beating with God's.