Tony Gelston on Ember Days
The Book of Common Prayer
The Book of Common Prayer lists among the days of Fasting and Abstinence to be observed the Ember-days at the Four Seasons, being the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the First Sunday in Lent, the Feast of Pentecost, September 14, and December 13. Their primary purpose is to serve as part of the preparation for the quarterly ordination seasons. The prayers provided are to be said every day during the Ember Weeks, but only the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday are to be observed as fasts.
In the Common Worship volume, The Christian Year: Calendar, Lectionary and Collects, after the note on Days of Discipline and Self Denial there is a separate note on Ember Days, which makes no mention of fasting, but presents them as days of prayer for those to be made deacon or priest during the week before an ordination in a diocese. It is also suggested that, even when there is no ordination
in a particular diocese, they may also be kept as more general days of prayer for the ministries of the
Church in the widest sense and for vocations. The ‘traditional’ dates have been modified from those in the Prayer Book, largely for practical reasons, to fall in the weeks most likely to lead up to an ordination.
It is clearly right and very desirable that prayer should be offered for the candidates in the week leading up to their ordination. It is also desirable that more general prayer should be made for the ministry, and that this should include all who serve as ministers, whether ordained or lay. It is also good that, in accordance with the dominical injunction in Matthew 9.37–38 and Luke 10.2, prayer should be offered that God would ‘send labourers into his harvest’, in other words that all whom God is calling to any kind of ministry will hear and respond to that call.
A Time of change
The Church of England is at present living through a period of considerable change in the way that its ministry operates. The decline in the numbers of those serving in full-time parochial ministry is only one aspect of this. The traditional pattern of at least one priest to each parish no longer obtains in these days when pluralities are common. In many places too clergy work together as teams under the leadership of a Team Rector, serving between them a number of churches. There are more specialist roles than there used to be for sector ministries, which now extend far beyond the traditional non-parochial roles of chaplains in hospitals, schools and colleges, prisons, and the forces. There is a welcome recognition of the pastoral gifts of many lay people and a growing development of spheres of ministry in which these may be exercised. There are other changes afoot, for instance in growing ecumenical co-operation and in the tensions involved in holding together within one church those who accept and value the ministry of women in holy orders and those who cannot conscientiously do so. Yet another change is that training for both part-time and full-time ordained ministry is more often provided on a part-time and non-residential basis than used to be the case. Most of these changes have come about during the writer’s own ministry, and there is nothing to suggest that we are yet approaching a new period of stability.
Importance of Ember Prayer
In view of all these changes it is greatly to be desired that the Ember Days will be used much more widely than they often are in practice. The prayers of church people should not be limited to an expected new curate in their own parish, or to someone they know personally who is about to be ordained. The whole diocese should feel an obligation to pray for those about to embark on ordained
ministry. But perhaps even more important are the wider aspects suggested in the Common Worship
note. The whole ministry of the Church, lay and ordained, is in need of much guidance and help from God as new patterns of ministry are forged with resources different from those familiar from the past. Those who serve as part-time lay ministers, for instance, in addition to secular occupations, which are often demanding, surely need the support of the prayers of the Church just as much as those about to embark on full-time ordained ministry. Nobody can be in doubt of the need of more people able and willing to exercise various ministries in the Church if it is to continue to function effectively with much reduced full-time ordained ministry. The whole Church needs to engage in prayer that all whom God is calling to any kind of ministry will hear and respond to that call, be properly prepared and trained to carry it out, and given wisdom and strength in the exercise of it. Twelve days a year of serious prayer for the ministry of the Church in the widest sense do not seem to be too much to ask at such a time as this.
Dr Tony Gelston is Emeritus Reader in Theology in the University of Durham