On Ontological Change

At least one discussion was sparked by the mention I (Ian) made in Episode 002: East-facing Altars (pod orientem) of the idea of "ontological change," a somewhat complicated term describing one way of viewing what occurs at ordination. Because it's something of a loaded term, and spending a whole podcast unpacking it doesn't seem like a lot of fun for most listeners, I thought it might be helpful if I clarified what I meant when I said that we've tried to reclaim a more historical understanding of the priest as raised up for this particular ministry, rather than strongly set apart from the congregation.

First, I'd like to clarify that I didn't mean to say or imply that the idea of ontological change has been rejected completely, or become thoroughly passé. What I probably ought to have said is that it is no longer the singular lens or image through which we understand what comes to pass at the sacrament of ordination.

By way of background, the term itself is borrowed from Thomas Aquinas, himself channeling Aristotle, meaning that it is meant to answer a question of metaphysics. It's coming from the same place as Aquinas's idea of transubstantiation, which itself is a term saying that an ontological change takes place in the substance (the essence, or ontology) of the bread and wine at the consecration, while leaving the accident (appearance, or any other non-essential property) intact. Thus, transubstantiation holds, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood while still looking very much like bread and wine. (It's worth noting that while this may sound very much like the Anglican idea of the real or corporeal Presence in the Eucharistic, it represents a more specific metaphysical interpretation of the mechanism by which that Presence is made real.)

The term "ontological change" is often used as a catch-all term to describe a similar view of ordination. In this framework, while a deacon, priest, or bishop still looks very much like any other layperson, there is something fundamentally, or ontologically, different about them post-ordination. Their very substance, or essence, has been converted to an entirely different type. Even this firm definition of ontological change is, I would argue, still accepted in the Episcopal Church. In the same way, while transubstantiation doesn't seem to be the majority view, I believe there are a number of Episcopalians who hold to the doctrine.

A looser definition of ontological change, however — one that states simply that some change is conferred at ordination — is undoubtedly true, if only by virtue of the fact that ordination is an unrepeatable sacrament. If ordination were no more than an empowering or commissioning service, one would think that it would instead be repeatable. The fact that it is not tells us that it has more in common with the change that takes place at Baptism or Confirmation than it does the change that takes place upon consuming the Eucharist. In other words, there is something different about those who are ordained, even if parsing out what exactly may be no easy task.

All this is to say that there's one definition of "ontological change" which has simply faded somewhat in popularity in the wake of Vatican II, the Liturgical Movement, and the 1979 Prayer Book. The changes in the ordination rites from the 1928 BCP make it a little more intentionally clear that those who are ordained are done so by the will of the people, and they clearly have a different understanding of what it means to be ordained. The priesthood of all believers is clearly central to the theology and ecclesiology of the 1979 BCP. In seeking to reclaim this, and the early Christian understanding of ordained ministers as ordinary laypeople who have been raised up by their community for a particular role in sacramental ministry, I think it intentionally lowers the view on priesthood a bit, and by extension on the degree of the change taking place at ordination. I do think, however, that the rites still recognize that there is a change which takes place during the process, though the Catechism describes this simply as the giving of authority and the grace of the Holy Spirit.


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