In the Old
In the Old Testament priests were
persons "attached to the service of God in a sanctuary, God's house. The
original concept of the priest as server or minister of God in the sanctuary
was analogous to that of a king's minister in the palace. As ministers in a
palace set food on the table of an earthly king, early Israelite priests set
holy bread on a table before God."1 In
addition to their ritual responsibilities, ancient Hebrew priests were called
upon to interpret God's Will and to communicate God's blessing to the people.
Eventually the Jewish priesthood became hereditary, but after biblical times,
evolved into the responsibilities of the specially educated and ordained rabbi.
In the New
Testament and Apostolic Age
In the New Testament
presbyter-bishops, assisted by deacons, were ordained (set apart) to continue
the ministry of Old Testament priests, but as a new priesthood of the
Resurrected Christ's New Covenant. By the second century three distinct orders
of ordained ministers emerged: bishops, presbyters, and deacons. "Presbyter"
(from the Greek, meaning "elder") was eventually modified as "priest."
In the Episcopal Church
Priests serving in the Episcopal
Church have 3,000 year old roots in the ancient Israelite priesthood. More
significantly, they are faithful to the apostolic ministry of the New Testament
and early Church. Not ordained just as clergy of the Episcopal Church, women
and men in the Anglican Communion are ordained in the historic succession as
bishops, priests, and deacons of the whole Church of God. (This practice
conforms to Baptisms and Confirmation, wherein people are not baptized or
confirmed as Episcopalians, but as Christians.) However, persons ordained by
bishops serving in The Episcopal Church vow to conform to the doctrine,
discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church.
After the Prayer Book "Catechism"
notes that "the ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and
deacons"2, we are further informed that "The
ministry of a priest is to represent Christ and his Church, particularly as
pastor to the people; to share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church;
to proclaim the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and declare
pardon in the name of God."3
Among the most cherished functions of
priests is the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. The apostolic and catholic
Order of Priests continues the sacred, symbolic banquet in which Christ is
spiritually present to the faithful. Although the fullness of ordained ministry
is in the Order of Bishops, priests are set apart and authorized by bishops to
preside at Eucharists as well as to declare God's absolution to penitent
Priests as Representatives of Their Bishops
In the Episcopal Church priests are
not independent agents. As indicated in "The Presentation," priests vow to "be
loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has
received them" and "in accordance with the canons (church laws) of this Church,
obey (their) bishop and other ministers who may have authority over (them) and
(their) work." It is fair to state that priests represent their respective
bishops in designated ways.
The canons governing the selection,
preparation, ordination, and responsibilities of priests, as well as of bishops
and deacons, are provided in detail within the published Constitution and
Canons For the Government of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United
States of America Otherwise Known as The Episcopal Church Adopted in General
Convention and, with additional canons of various dioceses.
1. From "Priests and High
Priest" (pp. 608ff.) and "Rabbi" (p. 641) in The Oxford Companion to
2. The Book of Common
Prayer, p. 855.
3. Ibid., p. 856.