Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Lord of the Rings; Or "Don't let your right hand know what your left hand is doing..."

In the web journal “Busted Halo”, Dr Christine B. Whelan reflects on an Anglican wedding which she attended. The bride and the groom were both preparing for ordination to the Anglican priesthood. She refers to the ceremony of the rings:

“When Andrea reaffirmed her vows of Christianity as she started her journey toward the Anglican priesthood, she put a gold band on her ring finger to symbolize her commitment to her faith. Now it's on her right hand, and her wedding band is on her left. These two gold bands signify both vows, both life callings.”

What a graphic illustration of the difficulty of the calling of a married priest! Of all the eight fingers and two thumbs upon which we wear our rings, our culture has determined that the second to last finger on the right hand should be the “ring finger”.

Historians of ritual know that the ring is a potent symbol of authority. The authority has a two-fold character (reflected in the story of the centurion who says to Jesus “I am a man under authority, with [authority over the] soldiers under me” Matt 8:9): The giver of the ring exercises authority over the ring bearer, and the ring bearer exercises that authority over others. Of course, the ring also symbolises commitment and faithfulness, but it is of the servant who is faithful to the master.

Now consider the ring of pastoral authority/religious commitment (traditionally worn by the Bishop, but also by religious and by priests in some traditions) and the ring of marriage. Traditionally, both are worn on the “ring finger” of the right hand. Both represent the total giving of one’s life to a specific calling. And here is the rub: there is only room for one ring such ring on the ring finger. Any other ring must be relegated to second place—eg. The ring finger of the left hand.

On which hand will the married priest wear his wedding ring? Which calling will have the first place in his life? The dilemma is very practical as well as theological. Jesus himself said “No man can serve two masters” (Matt 6:24). St Paul said “the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided” (1 Cor 7: 33,34).

I have never come across any symbol of this tension more graphic than that with which Dr Whelan provides us in this story about the bride who moved the ring of her religious vocation to her left hand in order to make way for the ring of her marriage vocation.

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