Four years ago today, I became a priest.
It was a big step in a long journey. It wasn’t the first step, for years of prayer and hard work had led me to that moment. It wasn’t the last step either, for things didn’t turn out exactly as I’d planned.
I served the denomination that ordained me for a grand total of three and a half years: first as a lay chaplain, then as a deacon, and eventually as a priest. I wish I could say that I was still serving there. That church’s commitment to servant ministry among marginalized people is amazing. It’s what first drew me to pursue my calling with them.
Unfortunately, there were problems as well. In a group that small with a hierarchical structure, there was no accountability for people at the top of the chain of command. Church policy was determined by the bishop’s bad temper. My bishop was particularly prone to manipulative and abusive behavior. When that behavior was eventually directed at my wife, I decided that I’d had enough. I left my position in that denomination on the ides of September 2010.
My bishop made the process as difficult as possible. In spite of the fact that their church constitution recognized the indelible mark of ordination (i.e. “once a priest, always a priest”) and the validity of holy orders without apostolic succession (a rare belief among sacramental churches), my bishop insisted that I wouldn’t be given my walking papers unless I officially renounced my holy orders. In other words, I could only leave once I had declared that I was no longer a priest.
This was not strictly necessary, as the Presbyterian Church had already stated their willingness to receive me as one of their own. Asking me to do this was my bishop’s way of twisting the knife into my back one last time. In terms of my career, this was not a tremendous setback. The Presbyterians told me, “Just give [the bishop] what [the bishop] wants. We’ll ordain you again, if we have to.” And that’s exactly what happened. I started serving one of their congregations immediately and was eventually ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament on Pentecost 2011.
I’m glad to have found a home in my new denomination, but I have missed being a priest. Liturgical and sacramental worship feeds my soul in ways that few things do. Being disconnected from it feels like spiritual suffocation. I continue to be a voice for high church renewal in the reformed tradition, but many Presbyterians still resist liturgical worship and weekly Eucharist on the grounds that such practices are “too catholic” or “too much work”. Ugh. It’s just not the same.
When I last met with my spiritual director, I mentioned that I have now been an “ex-priest” for as long as I was a priest. My director (a progressive Roman Catholic) gave me a confused look and reminded me of the “once a priest, always a priest” theology. My bishop had no right to ask that of me. In ordering me to un-ordain myself, my bishop was asking the impossible. I might as well have written a letter stating that I would no longer submit to the law of gravity. A priest can resign (or be removed) from actively functioning in an official capacity within the organization, but one cannot be un-0rdained anymore than one can be un-baptized.
It is as my bishop said to me at my ordination: “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”
Something funny happened at church on the very Sunday after I met with my spiritual director. During the Prayers of the People, there is a spot where the layperson leading the litany offers prayer for “Barrett our pastor”. But on this particular Sunday, the liturgist misspoke and accidentally prayed for “Barrett our priest”. John Calvin must have rolled over in his grave.
It was an accident, but I think it was a holy one. I take it as God’s way of reminding me about who I really am and what I am called to be:
A priest forever.