Sunday, January 27, 2013

What is a "Canon to the Ordinary" anyway?

1.    An ecclesiastical rule or law adopted by General Convention or by Diocesan Convention.
2.    A member of the clergy, or less often a lay person, on the staff of a cathedral or of a bishop

Canon to the Ordinary
A canon who is specific to the Bishop's office; a staff officer who performs tasks as assigned by the Ordinary, or Diocesan Bishop. 

"Our "Canons to the Ordinary" will work as a team with me and Steve Abdow and each will have particular areas of responsibility. Their duties will include congregational development, campus ministry, pastoral care of the clergy, on-going education, urban ministry, collaboration among churches and social agencies, working with Ed Farrell on deployment, social justice and prophetic leadership, ecumenical relationships, oversight of our Missioners, support for our missionaries, visions of a new church, strategic planning, development of lay ministry, use of new forms of communication to convey the Gospel and a commitment to prayer. This is the short list. Our dynamic God will constantly reveal new possibilities." (Bishop Douglas Fisher, "Staff Transitions," January 18, 2013)

As readers of this blog know, I have accepted a position to serve on the executive staff of the Rt. Rev. Douglas Fisher. I'll be leaving St. Francis at the end of May to become one of two Canons to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. People keep asking me: so what exactly is a "Canon to the Ordinary?" So, then, from top to bottom...

Episcopalians do like having our own vocabulary! Among ourselves we sometimes argue over whether it is "cute" or "off-putting." Even other mainline Christians sometimes wonder what on earth we are talking about when we tell them that something is "in the narthex" (my spellchecker alerts me even as I write that word that it is not a word!) or that the verger will show them where to go. And of course this is also true for a Canon to the Ordinary, as the cartoon humorously notes. Even so, and even in an ever-changing Church, these names do mean something.

A canon (at least as far as my new job is concerned) is related to the second definition given above. (That is, I am not becoming an ecclesiastical rule or law!) Rather I am a member of the clergy...who will be joining the bishop's staff. I hope not to be a "mediocre" canon, so not just your ordinary canon. Rather, I'll be working for "the Ordinary."

Say what? Think of similar words that ordinary shares its root meaning with: words like ordinal and ordination, for example. The Latin word ordinarius means an overseer: someone who keeps (or tries to keep) order. The Ordinary is the Diocesan Bishop! Therefore, a Canon to the Ordinary is a person who directly answers to the Bishop. Simple, eh? (In the military, which has its own quirky language, you might say this is similar to the job of an Executive Officer, or XO.)

So now that that is cleared up: what will I (and my colleague, the Rev. Pamela Mott) be doing? Simply put: what the Bishop asks us to do! But in his announcement, Bishop Fisher gave some ideas of the kinds of things that he expects Pam and I to spend our time doing with our time. All of that as I understand it is about working with God and God's people to further God's mission. Even as I read that announcement myself from the Bishop I was going along fine with all we had talked about until I read his words: this is the short list! Yikes!

But of course the line that follows is right and ultimately crucial: we do have a dynamic God and it is true that God is always revealing new possibilities. Our main job will be to keep trying to pay attention to what God is doing in the world and in the Church, and then work at that and adapt to that. We hope to model collaboration, because we believe that ministry requires that we work together. If we are to ask congregations and clergy and laity to collaborate, then we will need to be modeling that ourselves. So we have the same title and we hope to be able to do many things together, although we'll also each end up with some specific responsibilities as well.

I am excited and truly looking forward to it. One comment I've gotten from a number of people in my parish is that they thought I might be drawn to academia because I do so love teaching. I also love preaching, and this takes me out of a community where I can be in an extended "conversation" with people from the pulpit.

My sense, however, is that there is teaching (or at least "coaching") involved in this work: or better still that it is an extension of the work of doing Christian formation, which has gone to the heart of my passion for ministry in all of the jobs I have held in the Church to date. And I do hope that I will be able to keep preaching. It's the primary way I reflect theologically, and I'm hoping opportunities will emerge to keep at it, even though I know that it will take a different shape as more of a "guest" than as pastor in those places where I am invited to speak God's Word.


  1. Interesting article by the Bishop and his wife in the Worcester T&G this morning. Found the commnent that they would probably still be practicing catholics if it has not been for the celibracy rule revealing.
    Sounds like you will have a full plate. Remember that collaberation is a give and take process; one not easy. It's like raising kids, only fight the big ones. Treat it with the same respect you would give a marriage or close friendship and you will take more away from it then you will ever realize.

  2. Thanks! I had no idea what this was and yours was the only definition on the whole of U.S. Google search. :)

  3. As an Anglican a former Episcopalian since my freshman year in College more years ago than I like to admit I have wondered exactly what a Canon to the Ordinary really was. I am a retired Air Force Officer and now it is clear to me somewhat anyway that a Canon to the Ordinary is essentially an Aide de Camp in clerical robes a generals aid if you will or the General's dog robber.