(see bottom for appendix)
There are many challenges that this season has given us, and one of them is what do we do about ordinations in a time that we cannot be physically present, particularly with the laying on of hands? Can we do ordinations when we cannot perform that significant rite? And if we can, then how do we do that?
Why do we lay hands on ordinands?
The practice of laying on of hands has deep and significant roots. While the Old Testament often poured oil to mark significant moments, such as when Samuel anointed Saul to be king (1 Sam 10), we also see Moses laying hands on Joshua to pass on the mantle of leadership of the people of Israel.
It is in the New Testament that we see the most significant examples of laying on of hands. They occur in a couple of main contexts: the reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-19) and the passing on the mantle of leadership in the community (Acts 6:6; Acts 13:3; 1 Tim 4:14).*
Throughout the centuries, the practice of laying on of hands has been used in different contexts, but particularly for us, here, ordination. Some use it for profession of faith, though it is certainly not required. However, the liturgical rubric for ordination of elders and deacons reads, “Those who are to be ordained shall kneel individually before the presiding minister for prayer with the laying on of hands.” The “shall” is obligatory rather than permissive. Furthermore, when considering those ordained in other traditions, the church order reads,
A consistory shall recognize as valid only such ordination to the office of elder or deacon in another denomination as is able to meet the following conditions: intended to be within and to the ministry of the catholic or universal church; performed by a duly organized body of Christian churches, and by the authority within such body charged with the exercise of this specific power, accompanied by prayer and the laying on of hands.BCO 1.I.2.17
And further, regarding ministers,
The classis shall appoint a time for the ordination service of the candidate. An interval of at least ten days following the candidate’s examination is required before the service of ordination. That service shall be conducted by the classis in regular or special session with proper solemnity. A sermon suitable to the occasion shall be preached, and the promises, directions, explanations of duty, and prayer with the laying on of hands shall be according to the office for ordination in the Liturgy.BCO 1.II.13.5
A classis shall recognize as valid only such ordination in another denomination as is able to meet the following conditions: intended to be within and to the ministry of the catholic or universal church; performed by a duly organized body of Christian churches, and by the authority within such body charged with the exercise of this power, accompanied by prayer and the laying on of hands.BCO 1.II.14.1
So this may seem to be the end of the story, an ordination requires the laying on of hands. However, this also invites us to think deeper about ordination and what actually happens.
Is the laying on of hands required?
There are two questions before us here, I think: what is good and right and what is required. The answers are often similar, but in some instances they may be different. There is no doubt that laying on of hands for ordination is good and right and ought to happen.
In our own tradition, at least as early as Emden of 1571, prayer and laying on of hands were both spoken of as a unit for ordinations, though there is a parenthetical note following that it is to be done without superstition (Art. 16). This, then, implies that the laying on of hands does not do anything magical itself. And so even here we have an affirmation that this is how things should be done, but also balancing it with avoiding of superstition. I am careful, however, in addressing Emden’s use of the term “superstition.”†
This, I think, is also an important consideration ecumenically. The Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches published a significant paper in 1982, called Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (BEM). In the definitions section, we read this,
The term ordained ministry refers to persons who have received a charism and whom the church appoints for service by ordination through the invocation of the Spirit and the laying on of hands.BEM, Ministry, para 7c (p. 17).
And this, then, indicates that laying on of hands is an ecumenical marker of ordination. Indeed, the regulations from the Book of Church Order quoted above seek to emphasize the catholic nature of the ministry of the offices, and require prayer and laying on of hands as part of the ordination service as part of that. This is part of the catholic tradition.
However, while BEM does see laying on of hands as normative, it is not as though this, itself, is the essence of the act of ordination. The description of ordination here is significant, so I will quote it at length.
Ordination is an invocation to God that the new minister be given the power of the Holy Spirit in the new relation which is established between this minister and the local Christian community and, by intention, the Church universal. The otherness of God’s initiative, of which the ordained ministry is a sign, is here acknowledged in the act of ordination itself. “The Spirit blows where it wills” (John 3:3): the invocation of the Spirit implies the absolute dependence on God for the outcome of the Church’s prayer. This means that the Spirit may set new forces in motion and open new possibilities “far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20).BEM, Ministry, para 42-44, p. 28.
Ordination is a sign of the granting of this prayer by the Lord who gives the gift of the ordained ministry. Although the outcome of the Church’s epiklesis depends on the freedom of God, the Church ordains in confidence that God, being faithful to his promise in Christ, enters sacramentally into contingent, historical forms of human relationship and uses them for his purpose. Ordination is a sign performed in faith that the spiritual relationship signified is pre-sent in, with and through the words spoken, the gestures made and the forms employed.
Ordination is an acknowledgment by the Church of the gifts of the Spirit in the one ordained, and a commitment by both the Church and the ordinand to the new relationship. By receiving the new minister in the act of ordination, the congregation acknowledges the minister’s gifts and commits itself to be open towards these gifts. Likewise those ordained offer their gifts to the Church and commit themselves to the burden and opportunity of new authority and responsibility. At the same time, they enter into a collegial relationship with other ordained ministers.
And so it is important, here, as well to make a distinction between the sign and the thing signified.
In the Reformed confessions, the Belgic Confession does not speak of ordination. However, if we look broader to the Second Helvetic Confession (which, while not one of our particular standards of doctrine, is still significant in the broader Reformed tradition), we do see a section on ordination.
And those who are elected are to be ordained by the elders with public prayer and laying on of hands. Here we condemn all those who go off on their own accord, being neither chosen send, nor ordained.Article XVIII (from the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Confessions, sec. 5.151)
It seems that “prayer and laying on of hands” is part of the rite where the church publicly affirms one’s calling and sends one to into the service of Word and sacrament. This is to, among other things, protect against those who, on their own volition, claim the mantle of ministry. This is invalid.
To this end, we read in the Belgic Confession,
So all must be careful not to push themselves forward improperly, but must wait for God’s call, so that they may be assured of their calling and be certain that they are chosen by the Lord.Art 31.
The context of this in the Belgic Confession, of course, is regarding election to office, which also helps protect against those who claim the mantle of ministry on their own. The general principle, I think, holds true, that ordination by the church helps to ensure that the ministry of Word and sacrament is something that belongs to the church and not to individuals.
It is clear that the laying on of hands, even if not the thing which grants validity to an ordination, cannot be readily and easily disposed of during an ordination to any of the offices. Laying on of hands is not just normal, it is normative. This being said, however, what do we do in times when we cannot physically gather?
Elders and deacons
A situation like the one that we are in is certainly something other than what was intended for in this. So for those who have elder or deacon terms that are coming to an end with newly elected elders and deacons, what is to be done with people who need to be ordained to their offices?
When there is a vacancy on the consistory (e.g. if a consistory member resigns or transfers their membership elsewhere), the congregation can elect and install someone else for that unexpired term, or,
the consistory may appoint and install a member of the great consistory to the same office of his or her previous service until the next congregational meeting for the election of elders and deacons.BCO 1.I.2.14f
A member of the great consistory holding the same office would not need to be ordained, only installed, which has no requirement of laying on of hands. This is clearly intended to be a stop-gap measure until the congregation is able to hold a meeting to elect someone (lest anyone think that this can be used in the normal course of things). So one option would be to allow the terms to conclude, and for those who have not yet been ordained to the office to which they were elected, a member of the great consistory could temporarily be appointed until such time as an ordination with the laying on of hands can happen.
There is a second possibility, as well.
The elders and deacons shall be elected for a term not to exceed fiveBCO 1.I.2.14e
years, the length of the term being at the discretion of the consistory.
A classis may, under extenuating circumstances and at the request of
a consistory, grant permission for an extension of the term of office of
elders and deacons, subject to classis review at least once every five
These may be the extenuating circumstances under which a consistory could ask the classis’s permission to extend the terms and install the new elders and deacons when a proper service of ordination and installation is able to happen.
There is a third possibility similar to the one discussed below.
Much of the practical discussion above has been about elders and deacons, but what about ministers, we might ask? And this situation is a bit more challenging, not only practically because there are candidates who have calls to churches and cannot for very real reasons, wait until an unspecified time to begin. But it is not only practical concerns, but deeper concerns as well. For churches who call a licensed candidate, this potentially has a significant impact on the care of the congregation. Indeed, times of vacancy are often difficult, but instances in which a consistory has extended a call which has classical approval and acceptance by the candidate, only prolongs the difficulty for the church and prevents the minister from being able to serve.
Practically speaking, this doesn’t entirely impact one’s ability to preach, as a licensed candidate is able to preach. This may, however, impact the sacraments if the church is celebrating the Holy Supper remotely.
And this, then, asks the question is preventing ordination from taking place more harmful to the church? Harmful does not mean it is something other than is preferred, but does it do harm to the church? This also asks the question of the greater and lesser harm. That is, is the greater harm to prevent a pastoral relationship from beginning because of reasons that are neither the cause of the church or the individual? Or is the greater harm the possibility of an ordination that may be less than regular? This answer is not something that can be decided as a one-size-fits-all sort of answer, but must be carefully discerned between the local church and the classis.
This also invites us to think about ordination, itself. For the Reformed, ordination is not a sacrament, though it is a rite. And so this puts it in a different category from the Holy Supper or Baptism, and the dangers of anomalies are lessened. We do not believe that the act of laying on of hands itself is required for the Spirit to work. This doesn’t make the rite optional, however, but it does, I think, speak to the concerns of superstition in the 1571 Articles of Emden. There is a point at which we so conflate the sign and the thing signified, to imply that God is restricted to working through the signs, particularly so in nonsacramental rites. And such an understanding is problematic, as we are not the ones who can control the Divine work. We simply bear witness to it. Laying on of hands does, however, carry a powerful symbolism of, among other things, public authorization for the ministry of Word and sacrament. It is the entrance into a new place in the church. Not a higher place or a more important or more special place, just a different place to serve the people of God. Therefore, the symbolism and acts of the rites cannot be simply done away with or ignored. However, if we hang the validity of ordination solely on the actions of the rite, I do think that we lose some of what is actually happening, focusing too much on the actions, and then we tread dangerously close to superstition.
However, I think, a case could be made for ecclesiastical accommodation for performing ordinations on a simultaneous two-way video conference platform. An ordination in absentia or via a streaming video would not work. Indeed, ordination requires the making of promises and the answering of questions. The questions need to be asked, the answers need to be given, and the promises need to be made all before the gathered community. Therefore, I do think that there are accommodations that can be made, but the accommodations are not without strict limits. There are ways to ensure that the intent of laying on of hands can be accomplished even if the physical act cannot. This option is not to be preferred and must be recognized as anomalous and not an ordinary way for ordinations to happen in any other situation.
APPENDIX I: I continue to stand by my work, here, though I want to add a couple of other thoughts. Can we ignore the laying on of hands? No. Nothing that I am suggesting implies that we ignore it. I’m suggesting that we wrestle with it. Is there a way to retain the essence of all that is happening even if we cannot fully perform the acts as we normally would? I think that is the case. My friend and colleague Daniel Meeter has written about how the elders might deputize someone to help perform the acts, even as the minister and elders continue to be responsible for what is happening (https://blog.reformedjournal.com/2020/05/12/untouchable-sacraments/ and https://youtu.be/xTt_56IEb8U?t=3121). It would be entirely possible, and certainly preferable to nothing, for the classis (or the consistory, whoever would be appropriate) to deputized family members to lay hands on the ordinand. What do we do in the instance of someone who lives alone? Particularly, what do we do in the instance of a person who is at a particular at-risk category who lives alone? Some have suggested that they lay hands on themselves. This could fulfill the letter, in that, there were at least two hands put on someone. But I do have questions about whether this fulfills the function of the laying on of hands, or if it further confuses things and gives the appearance of someone doing the work themselves, as when Sonny (Robert Duvall) waded into the water and baptized himself and anointed himself an apostle in the 1997 film, The Apostle. In this instance, would a self-laying on of hands convey the appropriate meaning of being called, sent, and authorized by the church? Done rightly, perhaps. On the other hand, I could even imagine, when we can gather again, doing a confirmation, of sorts, where the outward acts are done in a more regular way.
There are two particular things above that I want to reemphasize. First, is that this is not a good and right way to do things. Something which may be permissible with strict limits does not mean that it is good and right. Second the importance of the intent. How do we carry forth the intent of what the sign signifies? This is not license to just do away with this, but rather, how might we be creative in instances where creativity might be necessary (and as I tell my three-year-old, needs and wants are different).
If we can find a way around this strange video conference ordination thing, that is preferable. In most instances, there are perfectly fine ways to avoid it. That should be the case. But is it possible that there may be instances when it cannot be avoided? In doing so, we must be careful about what is happening and why, and find ways to fulfill the intent of what is happening, even if the outward acts are anomalous.
*The biblical citations in this post are intended to be illustrative rather than exhaustive.
† This was, of course, a short hand for describing everything that they saw as wrong with Roman Catholicism. I am not addressing that, nor am I trying to imply that any other church did or did not believe or practice in ways that may be described as superstitious.