Bishop Tom Ray: In His Own Words

by Edward L. Lee, Jr.

Tom Ray, bishop of the Diocese of Northern Michigan from 1982 to 1999 died in early February this year. He was 83. In his episcopacy he pioneered and implemented what he called Mutual Baptismal Ministry whereby congregations of any size and location could be fully and canonically empowered by the raising up from within all the ministers and ministries needed to be an asset-based community that was, in his words, “baptized into mission through ministry.”(Total Ministry is its short-hand title. Read more here in the article “Revolution Brews in the Baptismal Font”.)

This especially included the identifying, training, and ordaining of parishioners to provide all the sacramental needs of the parish without depending on a retired or bi-vocational or Sunday supply priest who, in Tom’s words, “confects the sacraments for the parish instead of them being sanctified by the baptized community itself.”

In some Anglican/Episcopal circles this model of doing mission and ministry could and does rattle the ecclesiastical sensibilities of what it means to be the church. It challenged, and challenges, the traditional institutional order grounded and steeped in what Tom identified as “debilitating patriarchy, hierarchy and clericalism.”

In his own words: “Baptism is the transformational event. That’s what changes you. But we have taken all the solemnity of baptism and squeezed and squeezed and squeezed everything out of it and put it into ordination so that now ordination means everything and baptism means very little.” Tom once observed, “I have often thought that if baptismal formation took three years, and preparation for ordination took only three skimpy sessions, then we would indeed be experiencing and participating in a revolution.”

Stated more bluntly by Tom Ray, “Mutual baptismal ministry pushes back against the hierarchical infantilizing of adult Christians who are considered second class citizens if they are not ordained.”

But what characterizes this model and form of total ministry rooted in baptism? Again, in his own words: “My experience of renewal and transformation within the church comes in congregations that take responsibility for their own life and mission and ministry whereby collaboration replaces delegation by a designated usually ordained authority; where decisions are made by consensus, not rules of order; and where leadership is mutual and circular, not hierarchical.”

However, a baptismally alert and alive community that functions through collaboration, consensus, and circular leadership is not an end in and of itself. It’s not just a different institutional construct for its own sake. It exists for the full realization of what it means to do ministry in daily life.

In Tom Ray’s own words: “Christians imbued with the call to ministry as a result of their baptism, not their education or ordination, can bring all that to help and energize our lives so that we can live thoughtfully, sacramentally, diaconally, priestly, and apostolically—at home and at work and in  the neighborhood—then all of a sudden our Christianity is not something we do on Sunday, but it touches us everywhere at all times and in all places.”

The Right Rev. Edward L. Lee, Jr. is the former Bishop of Western Michigan (1989-2002) and recently retired from being Assisting Bishop in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, his diocese of baptismal and ordination origin. His ordained ministries include campus ministry, peace movement and social justice endeavors, and parishes abroad (Italy) and domestic (Philadelphia and Washington, DC). Reprinted from Living God’s Mission. Image: Episcopal Church Foundation.

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