Saturday, November 28, 2009
ORDAINED IN HELENA, MONTANA
Being ordained is a little like getting married. I like to joke that I was ordained on the set of “Death of a Saleman,” which is true. The Grand Street Theatre in Helena was staging that sturdy old tragedy and the set required that there be no front drop curtain. The ordination was there because the building was originally the First Unitarian Church of Helena and we borrowed it back. The Tiffany glass window is there as a memorial to the original minister’s wife, who started the first kindergarten classes in Helena besides running a friendly little theological discussion group in the couple’s quarters. They were said to include the rabbi, since Helena had a synagogue in those days. Kind, ecumenical, dynamic and devoted, she died young of cancer.
The church was paid for when her husband, discovering that several of his parishioners were copper moguls being prosecuted for this and that, made it his business as their respected religious leader to go sit by them during the trial as a sort of testimony to their church-going. Then, of course, they were obligated to write checks to help pay off the building, which -- like several Helena landmarks -- arrived in town via railroad as pre-cut stone to be assembled like Leggos.
The laypeople worried that they didn’t know “how” to do an ordination but I told them all they had to do was to show up with their fellowship banners and as many column candles as they could find, so they did that. We hung the banners down the sides and put the candles where footlights would go. The rest was fairly predetermined and predictable except that no one had been ordained for a circuit-riding ministry of four fellowships until then. Nevertheless, the “old bulls” gathered: Russ Lockwood who was the district exec and the person who had invented the whole project and raided a little cache of hidden Universalist money to pay for it; Peter Raible who must have been the president of the Pacific Northwest Ministers’ organization and who was in any case the organizer of the Leadership School that got me all fired up in the first place; and Alan Deale, my home minister.
At that time Alan was the head of the Fellowship Committee, which decides who gets into fellowship with the UU ministry and who does not. At least that’s the way everyone thought of it. In fact, our denomination has congregational polity and a congregation is welcome to look foolish by installing someone uncertified. People who knew he was my home minister were very cautious around me, even Meadville profs. There were a few close squeaks where I probably would have been jettisoned if it hadn’t been for “belonging” to him. I was not above taking advantage of that.
So imagine me walking around Helena with these three scarred and wise old guys (not so old, looking back), all history buffs and all doing their favorite thing anyway: being ministers among ministers instead of ministers among parishioners. We walked up the hill to the cathedral and the irrepressible Alan spotted the holy water inside the huge doors. “Come over here, Mary. I’ve always wanted to do this!” And he dipped into the water to invent a ceremony, halfway between Baptism and Ordination, sounding a lot like the beginning to “Ulysses” by James Joyce. (He started out to get a lit degree.) The light was streaming in the stained glass windows and I felt quite transformed and exalted. Alan has yearned after Catholic charisma ever since a priest friend got him out of a Boston traffic ticket by loaning him a reverse collar outfit. “Oh, father!” exclaimed the civil servant at the fine-paying wicket, “There must have been some mistake!”
But then in Helena a priest, not from Boston (more likely Butte), affronted, came bursting out of the confessional to see what on earth was going on and we burst back out through the heavy doors and scattered down the stairs like kids. I don’t think the cathedral had to be reconsecrated, but it was lucky that priest hadn’t been invited to the Ordination -- which meant something quite different to him anyway. When a Catholic priest is ordained, he becomes an Instrument of God and is acted through by Him. The four of we Unitarians barely believed in God, if at all, and were certainly well aware that we had no magic powers.
The Grand Street Theatre is quite nervous about letting Unitarians use the building. The First Unitarian Church of Helena crashed in the Thirties Depression. It is leased to the City of Helena for some symbolic amount with the proviso that if it is used improperly, it can be taken back. Don Marble had to invoke that clause when the City was being pressed to sell it to a restaurant chain.
We ministers may sound as though we were being frivolous, since God for us had been reduced to being an onlooker, but in fact we were deadly serious. It was our solidarity in defending the ideals of the institution that were at stake. The ideals. NOT the institution itself, which is necessarily transient as are all things earthly. In 1982 ministerial fellowship was all for one and one for all in a way that has itself probably passed now. This will sound crude, but guys are dogs and gals are cats. The UU ministry is now more than half female. You can get dogs to run in a pack, but not cats. I don’t know what proportion of the ministers are second-career people, but quite a few. That also dilutes commitment -- it is no longer a lifelong dedication but a backup choice.
I believe in vows and struggle to keep them, but in this case I did not swear fealty to the UUA. A ministry vow, unlike a wedding vow, does not mean exclusive allegiance to one partner, and so I was and am free to minister to whomever may need it, quite apart from their label, only according to their needs. Sometimes I use the “Reverend” tag but more often not.