There was a time, perhaps twenty or so years ago, that I thought of going up for holy orders in the Episcopal Church. Filled with zeal for the altar, for celebrating the Eucharist, for all that being a priest entails appealed to me back then. But I was not encouraged to do so because of the anti-gay climate provided by the bishop at that time. Had I wanted to move forward, I would have had to relocate to Los Angeles or New Jersey where those bishops were more forward-thinking and far less homophobic. Moving was not an option for me, and I let my idea of becoming a priest slip into obscurity.
I found other things to do in the Episcopal Church. I became active in the local chapter of Integrity, eventually serving on its national board for some time. I also began helping schedule acolytes and lectors (this was in the day before we had a canon verger), helped get lectors used to the sound system in the church, and volunteered for altar service.
My years in Florence, Italy, saw me doing much the same thing there (no Integrity chapter, however), as well as serving on a search committee for a new rector, and chairing the committee to shop for and buy a new organ for the church. Again, I was on the altar frequently as a chalice bearer, an opportunity that I perform here at St. Paul’s these days.
Now back home here permanently, I find myself as the general fill-in guy for anything that needs to be done, sometimes at the last minute. I’m more than happy to be such a person, to be on hand to help out when needed. I’ve also been on two discernment committees, and I officiate at Evensong about once a month. This last is the jewel in the crown for me, an office I particularly love to perform.
All of this said, I haven’t particularly missed being ordained as priest. As a matter of fact, the Prayer Book allows a wide range of service to lay people without the cost and bother of seminary, as well as jumping through the hoops just to get there in the first place. If, for instance, you want to lead a service, just check in with Brooks Mason and get yourself on the Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer officiant list. You don’t have to be a priest to do either office, and there is something very fulfilling in leading others in prayer.
I don’t want to denigrate anything about the priesthood. Where would we be without our wonderful priests here? But what I to underscore are two pieces of wisdom, one from John Milton’s last line of his poem “On His Blindness”:
“They also serve who only stand and wait.”
The next time you look at the altar on Sunday morning and see all those worker bees in white albs, think of that. They are also serving without being ordained, and they are serving God’s kingdom well.
The second piece of advice comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance”:
“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great people have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being.”
Accepting the place divine providence has found for you doesn’t mean acquiescence; it means valuing yourself and your service where and when you find it. Perhaps you are destined for the priesthood, and perhaps that is the place that divine providence has in mind for you, but know that you are valuable and loved just as you are, doing the task that God has put before you. If you are bored with it and think that God has something higher in mind for you, look around and see if what you’re doing can be done better, if what you’re doing is to the greater benefit and glory of God’s people, if what you’re doing doesn’t indeed bring you the satisfaction that you are serving and serving well.
Time has eaten up the possibility for my ever becoming a priest, and I have no regrets about that. Had God meant for me to be a priest, I’d be one, but instead God found a vast array of other jobs for me, much more suited to my talents and skills, and for that I am grateful and more than satisfied as one who stands at the altar instead of celebrates at it, a child of God who also serves “who only stands and waits.”