As with so much during this time of pandemic, we’ve come to anticipate a new normal. With ordinations it’s no different.
This past spring five of our seminarians, in the process of becoming priests, were ordained transitional deacons in somewhat unorthodox settings. One, Chip Bateson’s, was a drive-in ordination, with parishioners staying in their cars. Zach Miller’s was held outside his family’s home on Johns Island. Bill Clarkson’s, took place among the cotton fields next to his church. Circumstances resulting from COVID led Tom Hample to be ordained in Pittsburgh and Jeff Jacobs’ was held in his home church with strict limits on the number allowed to attend. At all of the services, participants and worshippers wore masks and adhered to social distancing guidelines.
Such is life during a pandemic. Bishop Mark Lawrence presided at all of the ordinations in South Carolina with the ordination in Pittsburgh done on his behalf by Bishop Jim Hobby of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh.
“Actually, there is much to celebrate and highlight in this remarkable stretch of ordinations,” said Bishop Lawrence. “Each was uniquely trimmed to the candidate, the circumstances, and the location. I was proud of how each candidate and his family and congregation rose to the challenge of the moment.”
For everyone, including Lawrence, there was a learning curve. Zach Miller’s service was the first outdoor ordination of Lawrence’s 12-year tenure. “Because it was outside, we had a lot of details to think through,” said Miller. “We had to figure out the altar, the cross, vestments. We were all learning as we went.”
About 30 attended the service on his parents’ waterside property. Family members contributed to the poignancy of the day. The highlight of the service, for Miller, was the actual moment of ordination when Bishop Lawrence laid his hands on him as he knelt on a prayer desk made by his cousin. His older brother Drew Miller, who is a priest serving in Georgia, presented him with a stole.
“It was very joyful, very celebratory,” said Miller. “We were expecting it to be a rainy day, but it was bright and sunny, with birds chirping and a woodpecker.”
Jeff Jacobs described his service as both sad and wonderful. He was limited to 50 people at the service at St. Paul’s, Summerville, with 38 of them being assigned a role to play, but there was a bright side. More than 770 people watched it on Facebook. “That’s more than we could or would have had in the service,” he said.
“This was the first time many of us had been in a church building since March,” said Jacobs. “It was very moving. It was the first time I’d been in a church service since I’d passed my canonicals (three months earlier). We were all so glad to see each other.”
Bill Clarkson’s ordination was held during a Sunday morning service among the cotton fields outside his home church, Saint Matthew’s, Fort Motte. “It was very meaningful for me,” he said. “There were a lot of people I would have loved to have come, but because mine was done on a Sunday morning other clergy couldn’t be there.” That said, Clarkson felt well-supported by his own congregation. “This is something not only I’ve been working for, but the whole congregation has been working for. I’m just so grateful for everybody who participated and who prayed for me during the process.”
Chip Bateson’s ordination, probably the most unique of the services, was a drive-in celebration held at the Church of the Resurrection, Surfside. “Everybody stayed in their cars except for people in the service,” said Bateson. When the congregation was to respond with a “We will,” or an “Amen,” they beeped their horns. “It was neat. It was fun,” he said. “Being outdoors was odd. Not having people sitting around was odd. Not being able to lay down (clergy prostrate themselves during an ordination) was odd, but we made the best of it. For the most part it was a beautiful service. I felt it was honoring of God, honoring of my work and ministry and of my family. The best part was being in front of my people.”
Tom Hample’s ordination was the only service held outside of South Carolina. Because of circumstances related to the pandemic, he was ordained by Bishop Hobby of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh at Saint Stephens Church in Sewickley.
“It was bittersweet that I didn’t get to be in South Carolina,” said Hample. “But the Dean of Trinity was one of my presenters and his wife read. They don’t often get to be at an ordination because the students all leave after graduation. Several students and professors came. That was one of the silver linings, an unexpected treat.”
“You couldn’t forget that COVID was there. But at the same time the gospel was preached, we celebrated the Eucharist. It was awesome.”
Lawrence adds, “These ordinations were yet another example of the church bearing gospel witness to the grace of God in the power of the Spirit all in the midst of an otherwise muffling environment. Personally, the incarnational dimension (you can’t do an ordination virtually) brought me great joy when so much of the church’s common life at the time was only virtual.”
Through each of these ordinations, God has shown us that he meets us where we are, in our individual challenges and circumstances, and that he always provides a way for us to carry on in the faith. As Hample observed, “none of this stuff interrupts Christ’s Church and his work. It doesn’t change our calling or the gospel. God is still God. We’re still called to preach the gospel. It’s beautiful.”