Conducting ordinations is one of the greatest privileges of being a bishop, and it is something that in our church order only a bishop can do. But ordaining in 2020 has been a huge challenge. All of our usual June (Petertide) ordinations had to be cancelled, and we rescheduled them for September (Michaelmas). But in September, international travel remained hugely problematic. The most pressing challenge was trying to bring all the candidates and the bishops together in venues that were Covid-19 accessible. We had originally intended four ordinations – Bergen, Berlin, Brussels, Luxembourg. In the event, we ended up with two different venues: Bishop David conducted ordinations in Rome, and I conducted ordinations in Ghent. Flexing the arrangements in this way needed great patience, goodwill and understanding from our administrative staff, host churches and candidates – for which I am immensely grateful.
The Elisabethkerk in Ghent is a huge and impressive building, founded in the 13th century as part of a beguinage to house lay religious women. It became a Roman Catholic parish church in the 19th century and has been the home of St. John’s Anglican Church since 2016. I believe that Queen Victoria once visited this building for an evening service on one of her visits to Belgium, which would give the building an historic Anglican connection. Our service was very likely the first ordination ever to take place in this historic building. It was certainly the first ordination of women that the building had seen. And I like to think that the beguines from of old would have been delighted to think that women would one day be ordained in their building!
Prior to the ordination I conducted a retreat for our candidates. At the conclusion of our retreat we shared in a Lebanese meal in the gorgeous Flemish parish hall across from the church. Catering is another challenge in these times. We were able to enjoy a precious few hours of fellowship and conversation over good food in a safe but relaxed environment.
The Chaplain, Canon Stephen Murray, and his wife Dr. Pleuntje Murray, went to considerable trouble to set up our evening with all necessary hygiene and physical distancing and individually boxed food. They embodied for us a truly wonderful gift of hospitality.
As always, the ordinations were preceded by the ‘Declaration of Assent’ and the swearing of oaths of allegiance to the Sovereign and of canonical obedience to the Bishop. This was an intimate occasion conducted by the Bishop and witnessed by the Archdeacon of North West Europe. The ceremony reminds us all of the legal framework of rights and responsibilities in which clergy operate. It is also the point at which candidates pledge their loyalty to the historic faith of the Church and their willingness to proclaim the gospel afresh to their generation.
The heart of the ordination service is the Ordination Prayer. Candidates kneel before the Bishop, who prays to God the Father to send down his Holy Spirit on the candidate for the office and work of a deacon or a priest. The Bishop prays that deacons will be faithful in service and constant in advancing the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world. He prays that priests will have grace and power to proclaim the gospel and to minister the sacraments of the new covenant. The ordination texts are some of the most beautiful and rich in the Church’s liturgy and they contain imagery to which all of us who are ordained do well to return to regularly to find fresh inspiration in our ministries.
Of course, it was of especial concern to us that the ordination should be conducted safely, given that the whole of Belgium is now in a ‘red zone’ for Covid-19. I’m guessing that the Elisabethkerk would seat 500 very comfortably, and 1000 at a pinch, so our gathering of 60-70 people had plenty of physical distance between the ‘family bubbles’. The church doors were left open for ventilation – despite the torrential rain outside. Hygiene and hand washing rules were observed scrupulously and the ‘home team’ looked after the whole event impeccably. And at the end, I was pleased that one of the visiting clergy, whose wife is a consultant virologist (one never knows who might be in the congregation!), gave us his seal of approval!
Here are the newly ordained, three deacons and one priest – from left to right:
- Annie Bolger (to serve as Assistant Curate at the Pro-Cathedral of Brussels)
- Evelyn Sweerts (serving as Assistant Curate at the Anglican Church Luxembourg)
- Matt Thijs (to serve as Assistant Curate St James Voorschoten, Netherlands)
- Dorienke de Vries (to serve as assistant Curate in Arnhem-Nijmegen).
Each of them is very precious to us. They will have to minister the gospel in difficult times. North West Europe is deeply secular. Our church communities cannot meet in the ways they did before Covid-19. Ministry needs to be more imaginative, more tech-savvy, connecting with wider circles of people. At the same time, many in our church communities are anxious, fearful and at risk of becoming isolated. How are we to enable worship in a Covid-19 era that touches peoples’ hearts and allows the Holy Spirit to connect people with God the Father through the Son? How are we to build diverse communities that are united in Christ, all find care and compassion and where ‘no-one is left behind?’.
In our ordination service, the Bishop says to the congregation: “Brothers and sisters, you have heard how great is the charge these ordinands are ready to undertake”. And he asks the congregation: “Will you continually pray for them? Will you uphold and encourage them in their ministry.” I hope that Annie, Evelyn, Matt and Dorienke will always feel supported and encouraged in their ministries, so that in their turn they can be sources of great encouragement to those whom they serve.