The beginning ...
Throughout 1982 a group of priests, seminarians, and laity, most of whom had worked in urban parish ministry in Philadelphia, had a series of conversations about the shape of a dispersed Christian community with a vocation for the revitalization of urban parishes. The discussions brought us together late that year in a day of prayer and planning which concluded with dinner at the old McFeeley's Bar at 11th Avenue and 23rd Street in New York City. A decision was made to establish the Order of the Ascension.
A booklet "Stay in the City" played a role in the early thinking of the Order.
On January 8, 1983 eleven people ended their retreat before the Altar at St. Helena's convent by making a commitment to participate in the formation of the Order.
From 1983 to 1988 a common life and ministry took shape. Each year members spend three weeks together in retreat, education, vacation and chapter. Two corporate ministries were established: Ascension Press which produced books related to our mission, and the Parish Development Institute (later called Church Development Institute), which we co-sponsored with the General Theological Seminary to provide a core comprehensive training program for parish leaders.
The characteristics of the churches we served broadened beyond the initial urban emphasis. A Rule and Constitution was developed in a process of communal discernment that included drafts, the prayers and advice of a Council of Advisors, and reflection on our own experience of living with the Rule.
Retreat before Taking the Promise
The community gathered with the Rev. Kenneth Leech for the week prior to taking the promise on January 30, 1988.
Ken focused on "silence and ministry". Here's what the Order's newsletter reported later that Spring.
He reflected on the role of silence in our prayer life and Thomas Merton's ideas of confronting our false selves. He used the images of watching/vision; darkness/helplessness; and preaching born in silence. The importance of recognizing the helplessness in the condition of people. There is an incarnational basis of ministry; sharing in the passion; and a need for contemplative attention. This ministry should develop awareness rooted in listening. Silence is often misunderstood, as is noise. There is a need to hear the voice of God.
"Any authentic priesthood must derive from an inner core of silence, a life hid with Christ in God ...Only those who are at home with silence and darkness will be able to survive in, and minister to, the perplexity and confusion of the modern world. Let us seek that dark silence out of which an authentic ministry and a renewed theology can grow and flourish".
On January 30,1988 eleven professed members and companions stood before Bishop Roger White, in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at General Theological Seminary and made the three year promise of the Order: "My promise is to seek the presence of Jesus Christ in the people, things and circumstances of my life through stability, obedience and conversion of life," Emmett Jarrett, a friend of the community, preached. He called on us to be a sign of contradiction, hope and love to the world, and to the Church. He called us to friendship with God and with each other. "We are created to be God's friends. God made us for that. Christ lived and died as one of us, and went into heaven to take our humanity into the very life of God, and that we might become God's friends. Christian community in general and your form of it in particular is made for friendship and by friendship. We are to foster friendship with God by being friends ourselves."
Since 1988 there has been continued development. Professed membership was opened to all laity, bishops, priests, deacons and baptized people of any Christian communion. Our shared commitments came to be focused around parish revitalization and the struggle for justice in the church and in our society. The common life gatherings have been reduced to one week each year for spiritual retreat, learning, social life and business. We are presently working with a design that gives emphasis to an integrated experience of corporate spiritual guidance and reflection on our life and leadership in parish development in relation to the Rule.
In 1995 Dean Anderson asked that the General Theological Seminary be permitted to accepted full responsibility for the Church Development Institute in a plan for both improving the program and broadening the seminary's portfolio of offerings to the church. The enhanced partnership with Craig Anderson included having CDI become a more diocesan-based program. Those goals were achieved by 1997.
In 1999 CDI Trainers took on responsibility for most CDIs, including one in New York City (the School of Theology in Sewanee also conducted a CDI). We ended our relationship of 15 years with GTS after the summer program in 2000. Since then there have been ten dioceses sponsoring a CDI and a national program. In 2011 “Diocesan CDI” involving four dioceses was created and several CDI-like spin-off programs were established in a few other dioceses. OA members Michelle Heyne and Robert Gallagher developed “Shaping the Parish” to create a support and learning process that: has short term beneficial results for the parish while also, beginning the parish on a long-term pathway for transformation, and that along-the-way increases the competency of parish leaders for emotional and spiritual life and in change theory and methods.
When Elisabeth Koenig preached at the renewal of vows in 1992 she said, "The mystery of Jesus' Ascension makes noble the entire human race. And that is why we should honor one another and seek to see the Holy Spirit in one another's face. God is moving us upwards toward the fulfillment of our humanity. .."
Professed Members 2011