I’ve been thinking a lot lately about promises. We find them in all kinds of situations and relationships: marriages, employment, politics, just to name the first three that come to mind. We make many promises in life, and many of us are very aware of making promises that we could not keep. That’s a very human thing.
A promise is an interesting thing. It’s a statement that we will do something in the future. Some are conditional, as in “I’ll do such-and-such if you do thus-and-so.” Others are unconditional, as in “I’ll do such-and-such, come what may.” Conditional promises are the ordinary day-to-day stuff of business. Contracts are essentially bilateral promises: “We will let you have this car for the next 2 years, as long as you keep up your lease payments.” Letting down our side of the promise empowers the other party to invoke whatever penalty or escape clauses there are in the contract. Miss too many car payments, lose your car. It’s pretty simple. Most of us understand conditional promises quite well.
Unconditional promises are another thing entirely. In the rites of the Anglican Church of Canada, marriage and ordination vows are both unconditional. The ordinand or spouse makes certain promises about future behaviour, without any conditions or implied penalty clauses. The sad fact is, however, that many people approach these unconditional promises as if they were conditional. I’ve seen that in a number of weddings at which I have officiated. Maybe not at the weddings, but certainly in the later history of the couples. There’s no need to cite particular cases, because I am sure that most of us know people who have approached their marriage vows this way.
As for ordinations, in our church candidates make a whole slew of promises. [You can read them on pages 646-7 (for priests) or 655-6 (for deacons) in the Book of Alternative Services for the actual promises.] The content of the promises is one thing. The nature of the promises is another. When I was ordained priest, the preacher explicitly used the imagery of marriage to talk about our new relationship with the Church. The promises are unconditional, except as implied in the final exhortation from the Bishop:
“May the Lord who has given you the will to do these things give you the grace and power to perform them.“
To which the ordinand replies, “Amen.”
What happens when marriage or ordination vows are broken? In the first case, all kinds of personal and relational damage: broken homes, damaged children, financial ruin, injury, and even death. In the second case, the results are sometimes less clear. When a priest or deacon strays from the ordination vows, the resulting hurts may be less immediate, but they can be deep and long-lasting in a community which has relied on his or her pastoral guidance.
Clergy are only human, and the church is a human institution, but both are supposed to be dedicated to the goal of building God’s Kingdom. As a friend describes it, that’s the way things are supposed to be, while we live in the world of the way things are.
Clergy failings happen, but they create all sorts of difficulties among God’s people, hindering rather than building up the Kingdom.
But let’s not forget that clergy are one party to an implied promise, between congregation and cleric. When clergy receive a call from a new parish, the parish is implicitly making a promise about what the relationship entails. This is spelled out in the rites for Celebration of a New Ministry in the Canadian “Book of Occasional Celebrations.” There is an implied contract between congregation and minister, which is actually made specific in the Canons of the General Synod (see especially Canons XVII, XVIII & XIX), and the various Diocesan Canons and policies which apply.
Parishes and clergy make reciprocal promises, but at times the promises are treated as conditional, as in, “We’ll have you as our priest/pastor/minister (choose your preferred language!), as long as you behave yourself, treat us right, and we’re able to pay you according to scale.” Other promises can be made in the course of clergy search processes, sometimes implying that the parish is something other than what it is. That’s deception, whether or not it is intentional!
Let’s go back to marriage. Deception about the true state of things is grounds for declaring a marriage null and void, resulting in an “annulment” in the language of the civil courts. Our church’s Canon on Marriage gives extensive grounds for such a declaration. (See section III of Canon XXI in the Canons of the General Synod.) Some years ago, I had occasion to process such an application for a woman who was sure that what she had entered into was no marriage. I was gratified to learn that the courts of the church agreed with her. Her supposed spouse had deceived her about his nature and his intentions in entering into the covenant of marriage. It was a hugely painful process to work through it with her, but there was much healing in the result.
Broken promises made conditionally are relatively easy to deal with. Broken promises made unconditionally are much harder problems. Marriages, ordinations, and appointment of clergy are the examples that I have had cause to think about recently. They are all modeled on promises God made to the people of God, the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, which lead us to the New Covenant made with Jesus.
Jesus promised “I am with you always.” We strive to be always with those we love, whether spouses, the Church, or congregations. We fail at times. May we find loving ways of dealing with our failures, and the failures of those we love.
The last, and perhaps most important, question is what to do about broken promises. I have no great solution at hand. Broken promises break all sorts of things, estrange people, make enemies, cause hurts, damage lives. Sometimes reconciliation is in view, sometimes not. What I do know is that reconciliation is the ministry that Christ left to his people.
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (2 Cor 5:18-19)