I have been a full-time Anglican minister since 2005 when my wife and I moved to the Middle East as cross-cultural workers (i.e., missionaries). However, I was not ordained to the diaconate until 2017, and to the priesthood in 2018.
From 2005–2017, I was involved in ministries of evangelism, discipleship and teaching, first in the Middle East and then in the USA. I regularly taught or preached at churches, defended the Christian faith against Muslim objections, and helped found a seminary in Nazareth (Israel) where I served as dean and professor.
During this time, several godly men asked me, “Why aren’t you a priest?” or, “Why don’t you get ordained?” Sometimes they would comment that I was already doing the work of a priest, so why not be recognized as a priest?
During our years in the Middle East, the answer was simple: the local bishop doesn’t ordain foreigners. Simple enough. But, once we were back in the USA, I approached my bishop there asking about ordination. By that time, I had reflected a great deal on the main question of this article: what is the Anglican priesthood?
Let’s begin with the three Holy Orders.
Historically, there have been many orders in the church, and not all required ordination. For example, a lector who had the authorization to read Scripture during the liturgy, or an exorcist who had authorization to cast out demons—those were orders.
But, going back to the very earliest days of the Church catholic, there were three Holy Orders:
- Elders/Presbyters (Priests)
These Orders did require the imposition of hands of which we read in I Timothy 5:22: “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands…”
Now, it is not clear whether the New Testament clearly differentiates between the office of the overseer/bishop and the elder/presbyter. What is most likely is that different local churches had different practices. But by the middle of the 2nd century the catholic recognition of three Holy Orders—deacon, presbyter, bishop—was universal. It is hard to imagine this happening so rapidly and universally if the practice had not been strongly endorsed by the Apostles themselves.
The office of the deacon (a Greek word for “servant”) in the ancient church was immensely important, as they were in charge of distributing the alms of the church among the virgins, widows and poor and, in some places, being entrusted with the collection scrolls and/or codices that were the only collection of the Holy Scriptures of the local church.
The presbyter was a carryover from the synagogue, and simply means ‘elder’. Our modern English word ‘priest’ is a corruption of the Greek word: Presbyter —> Prester —> Priest. In the ancient church the presbyter was the Christian leader in whose home local worship was conducted, and as such he would likely have presided over the celebration of the main Christian act of worship—Holy Communion.
And then there is a specific type of priest, one who has a special vocation and calling to exercise oversight over his fellow priests: the bishop. The Greek word is ‘episcopos’ and our English word bishop is—surprise—a corruption of that word: episcopos —> biscop —> bishop. In 1 Timothy we find that the main difference between the bishop and the deacon is that the former has the authority to teach. That doesn’t just mean to stand in front of people and talk—it means to outline, summarize, and expound on the heart of the doctrine handed from Jesus to his Apostles and then to our generation.
The bishop is a type of priest. The deacon is not. However, each of the three Orders has their own integrity.
What is Ordination?
So, what is the difference between a minister of the lay order and a minister of one of the Holy Orders?
Anglican catechisms have different—and not entirely clear—things to say about it. The catechism of the Spanish Episcopal Church (Anglican Communion), of which I am a presbyter, proposes:
Ordination is the service whereby, through the prayer and imposition hands, our Lord Jesus Christ bestows the grace of the Holy Spirit and authority to those who are made bishops, presbyters and deacons.
That tells is something about how ordinations are carried out—prayer and the imposition of hands—and that whatever actually happens, it is through the Spirit.
We find a few more details in a newer catechism, that of the Anglican Church in North America:
122. What is ordination?
Through prayer and the laying on of the bishop’s hands, ordination consecrates, authorizes, and empowers persons called to serve Christ and his Church in the ministry of Word and Sacrament. (1 Timothy 1:5; 5:22; Acts 6:6)
123. What grace does God give in ordination?
In ordination, God confirms the gifts and calling of the candidates, conveys the gift of the Holy Spirit for the office and work of bishop, priest or deacon, and sets them apart to act on behalf of the Church and in the name of Christ.
Here we have two more things to note about Holy Orders: first, they are set apart. I understand this to mean that these people are set apart to live of exemplary rectitude and holiness.
Second, there is a question of authority. The ordained minister has an authority to ‘act on behalf of the Church’ and represent it.
Roman Catholics would go so far as to say the priest (but not the deacon) is acting in the place of Christ, as a representation of Christ. Many (though not all) Anglicans would be uncomfortable with such language. We have a theology of the priesthood—but whatever Anglican Holy Orders are, they are not Roman Catholic Holy Orders.
(FYI, when Anglican priests become Roman Catholic priests they must be re-ordained, since the Catholic Church does not recognize the validity of our Orders, but they do often recognize the validity of our priestly vocations, so married Anglican clergy are regularly ordained for Catholic ministry. Anglicans, on the other hand, recognize the validity of both Catholic and Orthodox Orders, and do not require the re-ordination of such clerics.)
But let us explore the question of authority…
Authority: as simple as A, B, C
What is authority? Without going too deep, it means that when someone with authority does something, people won’t question it. Deacons, priests, and bishops have different levels/realms of authority.
A deacon assists the presbyter or bishop in their work. The deacon has the honor of reading the gospel during the service and assisting whoever is presiding over Holy Communion. The deacon will set the Lord’s table and clear it. While any baptized Christian can baptize another Christian, it is not uncommon for deacons to baptize new Christians.
A priest has authority for A, B and C:
A is for absolution.
The priest can absolve people of their sins. Anglicans have different opinions on this one. Some say the priest is simply assuring the people of what God has done in Christ. Others take texts like John 20:23 very seriously and understand the priest to have the authority to, acting as a delegate of Christ, retain or relate people from their sins.
B is for benediction.
In the Anglican liturgy, a deacon or lay person can pronounce the blessings saying something like, “May the Lord bless us and keep us,” but the priest has authority to bless the people of God directly: “May the Lord bless you and keep you.”
C is for consecration (at Communion).
Lay ministers and/or deacons can, when authorized, distribute the bread and wine at Holy Communion. However, the Anglican understanding of Holy Orders—in all its permutations—is clear that lay ministers or deacons do not have the authority to consecrate the bread and wine at Holy Communion. Only priests can do so.
Also, the presbyter has the privilege and responsibility of teaching. This word has a special sense of meaning, though. It does not mean leading a discussion group. It does not mean sharing one’s testimony. It does not even mean preaching a sermon. Teaching here means authoritative delineation of the timeless doctrine of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. (Maybe that’s a topic for another article.)
A bishop is priest among priests. He is a priest with a particular vocation to be a pastor of pastors. God knows that bishops in all the churches over the centuries have often failed in this office. But what we aspire to is something unreachable more often than not, but in the aspiration itself there is grace and failure and mercy and sin—all at once.
The bishop is first and foremost a priest, and only then a bishop. The bishop has authority for confirmation, ordination, and discipline.
Confirmation is another type of laying on of hands, so that the baptized Christian may make a profession of faith that is personal and voluntary. In Confirmation the bishop prayers the disciple would be filled with the Holy Spirit.
The bishop acts as the representative of the local church (diocese) to the other local churches and to the global churches.
Back to the topic of this article!
Only the bishop can ordain other ministers. Speaking personally, I would say Holy Orders are a continuation of apostolic ministry. All Christians carry forth the ministry of Christ, but the ordained ministers carry it forth in an apostolic mode.
This, I think, is what people meant when they said I was already doing the work of a priest. They were saying, “You are engaging in apostolic ministry here! You are evangelizing and discipling and equipping people for ministry.”
Ordination is that sacramental rite whereby certain people are recognized by their bishop through prayer and the imposition hands as having been called by God to continue the Apostolic ministry.
That’s the best I’ve got.
So, what about Pastors?
In the evangelical world, the main title is pastor. What does that mean to Anglicans?
Usually, we don’t use the word in a formal sense. A pastor—or shepherd, in the biblical language—is one who leads the sheep. The title is usually reserved for the ordained ministers, but there are exceptions. A lay chaplain at a hospital or prison could be addressed as pastor and no one would object. A lay minister who leads the people in morning prayer at a small rural parish that has no funds for a priest might be addressed as a pastor.
Ultimately, pastor is functional: the pastor leads sheep. The theological import of the title ‘pastor’—a profoundly biblical one—is related to the work of that pastor in leading, feeding, and protecting the sheep. That overlaps significantly with the ministries of those in Holy Orders, but not entirely.
Does it Work?
I don’t know. Anglican Christianity goes back to the 2nd Century, an independent Church of England is only 500 years old, and the Anglican Communion is only 150 years old. The Communion is really, then, a rather novel project.
We’ve spread around the world. We’re present in nearly every country on the map. But we’re riven by doctrinal disagreements on Scripture, human sexuality, marriage and the sacramental rite of holy matrimony. There are many Anglican communities who carry forth the historic doctrine without being officially recognized by the Communion. There are several provinces of the Communion that have to some degree strayed from biblical, traditional Anglicanism. It’s a work in progress…
I’m being brutally honest here. I know some of you are thinking about receiving Anglican Orders. But don’t focus on the present mess. The present Church always has some mess or another.
Consider the Orders. Consider the biblical and apostolic foundation. Consider the vision of one body. Consider the understanding of authority.
If you read this, if you love it, if you are attracted to it, then talk to a local bishop (or two or three) and explore the possibility of a new journey.
Do you have any follow up questions on this topic? Feel free to leave a comment below or use our contact form.
Duane Miller presently serves as priest at the Anglican Cathedral of the Redeemer, associate professor at the Protestant Faculty of Theology at Madrid, and founding co-pastor at Kanisa, an Arabic-language Christian fellowship. For his books, go to his Amazon author page. For articles and publications, check out his Academia.edu page. For some of his video lectures, check out his YouTube channel.