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Formulary Friday: Priests or Presbyters?

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Posted by The Rev'd Robert Evans, 24 Jun 2016

Robert Evans is preparing for his ordination - but is he going to be ordained priest, or presbyter?

On Saturday 2nd July, with the Bishop’s permission and with God willing, I will be ordained a priest in the Church of England.

Sort of.

To quote the Common Worship ordination service, I will be ordained priest ‘also called presbyter’. The Common Worship service actually flits between the two. One moment the Litany prays for ‘bishops, presbyters, and deacons’, the next for those ‘called to be priests’. The Ordinal of 1662, meanwhile, never mentions presbyters but – like the Prayer Book generally – refers only to priests.

What on earth is going on? What exactly am I being ordained to?

The ambiguity of priest/presbyter might seem like linguistic pedantry. The poor English word ‘priest’ has to do overtime, since it translates two separate New Testament words, hiereus (ἱερεύς, Latin: sacerdos, Hebrew: kohen) and presbyteros (πρεσβύτερος, Latin: presbyter or senior). Now, invoking not one but three dead languages may strike you as unnecessarily geeky for a Friday morning.

These linguistic quirks, however, reflect deeper theological truths.

New Testament writers use hiereus to describe members of the Old Testament priesthood; for example, old Zacharias, father of John the Baptist (Lk. 1.5). These men offered sacrifices in the Temple and mediated between God and His people. New Testament writers, however, never use this word hiereus to describe ministers in Christian churches. For that, they use presbyteros, which literally means, ‘first of two’ but more commonly, ‘elder’ (e.g. Acts 15.2, 1 Tim. 5.17). The emphasis here seems, from the Pastoral Epistles in particular, to have been preaching and teaching.

Normally, we use ‘priest’ to describe the Old Testament sacrificial ministers or comparative pagan ministers: for a ministry of sacrifice and mediation with the divine. Why then, do the Prayer Book and Ordinal make repeated reference to Christian ministers as ‘priests’?

Well, the word ‘priest’ actually comes from the Latin presbyter rather than hiereus/sacerdos. You can see that if you drop the ‘b’, ‘y’, and ‘er’ from presbyter you have something that looks a lot like ‘priest’. Although English originally had another word for hiereus/sacerdos, it dropped out of use in the Middle Ages. By the Reformation, the English ‘priest’ had become detached from its original meaning as presbyter and attached to hiereus/sacerdos. This reflected the medieval understanding of the clergy and their role as akin to the Old Testament priesthood in offering the sacrifice of the Mass. For example, the final blessing of the Sarum ordination service went as follows: the ‘blessing of God Almighty…descend upon you; that you may be blessed in the priestly order, and offer propitiatory sacrifices for the sins and offences of the people to Almighty God’. As far as priests at the time of the Reformation were concerned, they were very much like Old Testament sacerdotes, offering sacrifices and mediating between humanity and God.

This understanding was roundly rejected by the reformers: ‘Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in the which it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits’ (Article 31). This was reflected in the way the Bible was translated: William Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament (finalised in 1536) used ‘elder’ rather than ‘priest’; the Authorised Version (1611) followed suit. William Fulke (d.1589), an Elizabethan theologian, defended this translation against the Roman Catholics: ‘Priest’, he argued, ‘is commonly taken for a Sacrificer, the same that Sacerdos in Latin. But the Holy Ghost never calleth the Ministers of the word and Sacraments of the New Testament Sacerdotes’.

Yet the use of ‘priest’ – properly understood – was defended by Fulke and others. John Whitgift, archbishop of Canterbury (1583-1604) argued that since ‘the very word itself as it is used in our English tongue, soundeth the word presbyter. As heretofore use hath made it to be taken for a sacrifice, so will use now alter that signification, and make it to be taken for a minister of the Gospel’. It is in that sense – and that sense alone – that the Ordinal’s use of priest can be used.

Fundamentally, this rests on the two ways that the New Testament talks about priestly mediation and sacrifice.

1. Christ our High Priest – Hebrews very clearly describes Christ not only as a high priest (9.11, 10.12) but as a sacrifice infinitely more efficacious than those offered by the Old Testament priesthood (9.12-14, 10.11-14). Thus ‘everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man’ (Article 7, c.f. 1 Tim. 2.5). The mediation offered in the Old Testament priesthood is now offered through Christ.

2. The Priesthood of All Believers – by union with Christ, the one mediator through God and humanity, we are made into a priesthood. Peter takes up the language of Ex. 19.6 of a ‘royal priesthood’ and applies it to the Church exiled through the provinces of the Roman Empire (1 Pet. 2.5, 9). Revelation describes Christians as made by Christ into ‘priests to his God and Father’ (1.6) and ‘a kingdom and priests to our God’ (5.10), into eternity when ‘they will be priests of God and of Christ’ (20.6). As a result, we offer sacrifices of our own, no longer blood but worship and self-sacrifice (Rom. 12.1, Heb. 13.16). The priesthood of the Old Testament has moved to the entirety of the New Testament Church, the priesthood of all believers.

Surely this means that Christian ministers are priests? The Common Worship ordination service, for example, begins with reference to the royal priesthood of 1 Peter. Later on the Bishop prays those ordained ‘to share as priests in the ministry of the gospel of Christ, the Apostle and High Priest of our faith’.

We should, however, be very careful with such language.

In Rom. 15.16, Paul describes himself as ‘a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit’. Paul is using here the language of priesthood and sacrifice. However, the leader of so many churches seems to deliberately deny himself any priestly function as an individual. He calls himself a ‘minister’ (Greek leitourgon), not a hiereus.

Although the Ordinal uses the word ‘priest’, it is in an entirely different sense from medieval ordination services. In the medieval formula the Bishop said to the ordinand ‘receive thou power to offer sacrifices to God, and to celebrate Masses for the living and the dead’. The 1662 ordinal, by contrast, has the bishop say ‘receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God’. In the mid-fifteenth century, new priests were given objects integral to their calling: a Bible, a chalice, and vestments. From 1552, however, the Ordinal very pointedly only gave the newly ordained a Bible, just so that it was clear what was actually their primary calling.

That calling remains the same. The priests of the Church of England are teachers of God’s Word in continuity with the elders of the New Testament, members of the priesthood of all believers through union with Christ, our only high priest, mediator, and atonement.

So yes, God willing, I will be ordained a priest (presbyter). I just won’t be ordained a priest (hiereus).

Hope that’s clear!


Robert Evans will return…with another installment about ordination, in a fortnight’s time

The Rev'd Robert Evans is Curate at Christ's Church, Cambridge, and a PhD student at Cambridge University

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