The sound of saying ‘yes’

It is traditional for priests to be ordained around the time of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29th. This is because St Peter was the first person designated by Christ to be a leader and Christian religious leaders have long traced a connection back to him. The Sunday closest to 29th June (and the period around it) is known as ‘Petertide’, and this is when most cathedrals will hold ordination services for priests. Thus it was that this past Sunday I found myself at the Service for Ordination of Priests in Bristol Cathedral.

The service contains a series of affirmations, or saying yes, and I was struck by the different ways in which those affirmations were offered. First of all, before the service of ordination even begins, the ordinands (those about to be ordained) take oaths, and make a Declaration of Assent. There are two oaths: one of allegiance to the monarch, and one of obedience to the Bishop. The Declaration of Assent is the confirmation by the priest-to-be that he or she believes the faith of the Church of England, and that he or she will only use the properly authorised forms of wording for public services. This declaration tells us how important it is to the Church that the words used in worship are the correct words: words are powerful, and the speaking of those words must be done correctly. The taking of oaths and declaring assent is an important part of the whole process, and therefore the texts of the oaths, and of the assent, were printed in the service booklet distributed to the congregation. Even though the members of the congregation had not heard the oaths pronounced, or the assent given, it was important that we knew that these texts had been spoken, and what they had said. Close to the start of the service the ordinands are presented to the Bishop, and the Bishop asks several questions. He asks those who know the ordinands whether they have been duly called to serve God in the ministry; he asks the ordinands themselves whether they believe that God is calling them to the ministry; and he asks whether they have taken the oaths and made the declaration of assent. The answer to all these questions has to be in every case a positive affirmation – ‘They have’; ‘They do’; ‘I do so believe’, effectively ‘yes’, ‘yes’, and ‘yes’ –  and it is important that the questions and these positive answers are heard by the congregation.

Later in the service, after the readings, the sermon, and the Creed (the collective statement of the beliefs of the church), a longer series of nine questions is given to the ordinands, about their acceptance of the Holy Scriptures, their diligence in prayer and reading scripture, leading Christ’s people, ministering doctrine and sacraments, and other such queries. The answer to each must be ‘By the help of God, I will’. The ordinands must say ‘yes’, over and over, and they must do it in front of the congregation, for then the congregation is asked its own questions. Two of these are about praying for the ordinands, and supporting them, and again, the answer is expected ‘We will’. But the first, and most striking, question, before the pleas for prayers and support, is different. They congregation is first asked whether, having heard the declarations of the ordinands, it is its will – the congregation’s will – that these people should be ordained. The answer that must be given is another ‘yes’: the congregation must give affirmation as well. Though the sacrament of ordination is something that is conferred upon the ordinands by the bishop, this is an action of the church for the church.

At this point, after the congregation’s assents, the most arresting sounds of the whole service come into play: the ordinands and the Bishop together kneel, and there is a period of silence. Then, the Bishop sings, unaccompanied, the first line of the ancient hymn ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’, in its English translation (‘Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire’). The congregation joins in thereafter to sing the rest of the hymn, unaccompanied throughout, to a medieval chant melody. This kind of chant, sung by the people, is not a common sound any longer. To hear the sustained singing of such chant by the congregation seemed to me an especially powerful demonstration – through silence, and then sound – of what was happening at this particular moment in the service. Just before the ordinands had knelt, the Bishop had instructed them to ‘Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit’. There was then a period of silence, and after that, by their singing ‘Come Holy Ghost’, the entire congregation – not just the clergy – invoked the Holy Spirit, asking that the Holy Spirit come into that space, where the ordinands kneel. The presence of the Holy Spirit, brought into that space by the whole community’s singing, is needed for this sacrament to take place.

This link will take you to a video of the ‘Come Holy Ghost’ hymn being sung by the choir of St Paul’s Cathedral. This is beautiful, and expert, and perfectly timed, but somehow, for me on this occasion, the congregation’s non-professional but sincere invocation of the Holy Spirit, through song, seemed to create the perfect effect.

Finally, after the Dean introduces words of welcome, words which are then spoken to the newly ordained priests by the congregation, there was more unusual sound (at least unusual for the middle of a church service): a loud organ fanfare, and enthusiastic applause. This was a great, impressive, and joyful moment of noise-making and affirmation and congratulation. But it was the sound of the silence surrounding the kneeling ordinands, and then the congregation’s calling in of the Holy Spirit by its collective, ancient, unaccompanied song, that made it clear that something special was happening, in that place, at that moment, through those sounds.

BW

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