Drive far from your church, O God, every vain spirit of clerical ambition, that, like your servant Ammonius, we may refuse to conflate ordination and leadership, and may never confuse rank with holiness; in the name of your son Jesus Christ our Lord, who alone is our great High Priest. Amen.
I had never heard of Ammonius until I discovered that today is his feast day. Ammonius was the founder of a fourth century monastic community of hermits in Egypt and had a clear call to live not only as a hermit, but as a spiritual director and guide. Others viewed him as a natural leader and tried to convince him to be ordained, but he declined. In fact, he so fervently opposed it that he chopped off his own ear, citing the passage in Leviticus 21 which required priests of God to be whole. His protestation did not deter the crowd, so he threatened to cut his tongue out, as well.
Ordination is tricky in the Christian world. Each denomination has developed its own theology regarding ordination and discernment. In the Episcopal Church, many people believe that the ordained person experiences an ontological change that continues regardless of whether the ordinand is serving in a faith community, or not. In other denominations, people treat the ordained person as being more special or holy than others, which of course is not true. (I know many lay people who are holy and several priests that are not!) Seeking ordination is about discerning God’s call on one’s life, as Ammonius exemplifies.
The call of all baptized Christians, as our Episcopal Catechism asserts, “is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread for the kingdom of God” (BCP 856). The ministries of bishop, priest/presbyter, and deacons suggest distinct gifts particular to those roles and which support the foundational call of being a Christian.
Discernment can lead to many paths, and ordination should not be seen as a better or higher path to serving God. In some cases, ordination restricts a person to a role that limits what God might be calling the person to – perhaps to something more expansive than the parameters of serving the church. I sense that Ammonius imagined that this would happen to him, if ordained, and wanted the freedom to serve God in the way God had called him.
Discernment is important—both individual and communal—and should be focused on God’s call. Discernment is lifelong and its outcome may change depending on one’s season of life.
I am grateful for Ammonius’ example and his passion in following what God called him to do instead of what the people thought he should do.
You can read more about Ammonius here.
The Rev. Danae M. Ashley, MDiv, MA, LMFT is an Episcopal priest and marriage and family therapist who has ministered with parishes in North Carolina, New York, Minnesota, and is serving part-time as the Associate Rector at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Seattle and a therapist at Soul Spa Seattle, LLC. She has written for a number of publications, produced a play, and has been featured on several podcasts regarding fertility struggle and faith. Danae’s favorite past times include reading, traveling with her husband, dancing with wild abandon to Celtic music, and serious karaoke.