Priest and Presbyter

Excerpted from a lecture on "The Future of Ministry" given at St George's Cathedral, Perth, on May 12 2009.

The English word “priest” is derived from the Greek presbyteros, an elder or presbyter, which clearly connotes a role of leadership and deliberative counsel. However “priest” is also used in Christian as in other contexts to translate a different Greek word, hiereus or the Latin equivalent sacerdos. These refer not to community leadership but to responsibility for sacrifice and temple ritual, and are used in Greek and Latin versions of the Hebrew scriptures to translate the Hebrew cohen, which designates the Aaronide priesthood of the Tabernacle in the wilderness and the Jerusalem Temple. Israelite priests were responsible neither for community leadership nor interpersonal empathy, but for knocking the heads off animals and throwing their blood at altars.

Protestant Anglicans have long insisted on understanding the “priests” of the BCP purely in terms of their "presbyteral" origins, but others of more Catholic mind have been content or insistent that the sacrificial and cultic connection could stand. My own concern is not to deny the priestly character of the ordained, but to critique the exclusive way in which catholic Anglican thinking has reserved theological reflection about the priestly character of ministry to this order of presbyters, on the basis of what amounts to a linguistic accident. I am concerned not about the fact that presbyters are called priests, but that they alone are called priests.

Christian identity, that of the whole Church, has involved a priestly character since the earliest times. The fundamental priesthood of the New Testament is that of Christ himself, but closely related to it is the collective priestly identity of the Church (1 Peter 2:9, Rev 1:6, 5:1). The early-second century First Letter of Clement is often cited as applying the idea of priesthood to Christian leaders, but does so only by constructing an analogy between the Israelite priesthood and Christian bishops and deacons regarding order and structure, not priesthood as such. Paul Bradshaw states quite rightly that “no Christian text [prior to the third century] uses the title ‘priest’ directly to designate a particular individual or group of ministers within the Church”.

When the language of the sacrificing priest was applied to specific Christian ministers in the third century, it was not initially presbyters but bishops who were called “priests”. This is at least partly because of the role of the bishop in liturgy, including at the Eucharist, which was itself being seen in more directly sacrificial terms at this time. The presbyters only slowly came to be spoken of as priestly, from the fifth century onward, and at first in connection with, or delegation from, the bishop’s role.

There is something arbitrary, not so much about calling presbyters “priests”, but about totally conflating the sacrificial notion of priesthood with the roles of Christian presbyters. Bishops are more priests than priests, in a sense; but more importantly the Church itself is a “kingdom of priests” which offers sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, sharing the fundamental priesthood of Christ.

Insofar as the ordained - deacons and bishops as well as presbyters - are called to enable and reflect the character of the Church to itself, they are priests too. What we can say about the ministry of presbyters as "priestly" should be applicable to deacons and bishops as well, but only in relation to the priestly identity of all Christians. All three orders of ministry are charged with representing and enabling for the Church as a whole aspects of ministry that pertain to the Church as a whole, but in many and varied ways.

There arises then a need for further and more specific reflection on what each of bishop and priest and deacon is and does. And it is the Order of Priests which, ironically, has the greatest need for this reflection despite the amount of writing about priesthood, since so much that has been written has tended to lose or confuse the charisms of the presbyter under the weight of the generic notions of ordination and priesthood generated by clericalism.

The elephant in the Cathedral is, I think, leadership. While the Church of Christendom has been content with the presbyter who conflated various ministerial gifts in one person, that generalist who carefully maintained the spiritual welfare of the wider community at prayer, the Church now and to come needs to recover a distinctly presbyteral calling to teach, equip, galvanize and lead communities, programs and other forms of mission and ministry which will take us over the crumbing embankment of Christendom into the uncharted territory of mission.


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