Holy Orders
Advent - now fast approaching! - is traditionally associated with the sacrament of ordination. One of the four annual Ember-tides, when we pray especially for vocations to Holy Orders, falls in the middle of Advent, as the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after St Lucy’s Day, the 13th of December. The collect for the third Sunday in Advent asks that the “ministers and stewards of thy mysteries” may prepare the way for Christ’s second coming, as John the Baptist did for his first coming.

The familiar three Holy Orders, of Bishop, Priest and Deacon, were well-established in the Catholic Church as early as the beginning of the second century, as is clear from the Epistles of St Ignatius of Antioch. However, although the general principle of Holy Orders - i.e. of certain men solemnly appointed to perform the sacred ministries of the Church - must go back to Apostolic times, the New Testament evidence for a distinct threefold hierarchy is not very solid.

Our three English words, “bishop”, “priest”, and “deacon” are all corruptions of Greek words which appear in the New Testament…

“Bishop” is from the Greek episkopos, which is literally someone who “watches” (skopos) “over” (epi): “overseer” perhaps has too strong a connotation of the slavedriver (we don’t know any bishops like that!), so “guardian” or “protector” might capture the meaning better. The word episkopos is used in I Timothy for the chief minister of the local church, and also in I Peter for Christ himself, as the “shepherd and bishop of our souls”.

“Priest” is from the Greek presbyteros, which means “elder”. It is this word which poses the biggest problem. Sometimes it appears to be synonymous with episkopos, as in Paul’s address to the Ephesian Elders (Acts 20); the word occurs in the Pastoral Epistles, but without clear indication that the presbyteros is an order distinct from the episkopos. The usual Greek word for “priest”, hiereus, is used in the New Testament for priests of the Jewish Temple, for priests of pagan religions, and for Christ himself as our great High Priest - but never for any Christian minister. Translation of the word was thus hotly disputed in Reformation times - catholics arguing for “priest”, puritans for “elder”…

“Deacon” is from the Greek diakonos, a servant or minister. The institution of the order of deacons is often traced to the story of the appointment of the Seven in Acts 6, although the word is not actually used there. The Pastoral Epistles however clearly recognise the deacons as a distinct order. The translation of the word has been a sore point in recent years, in connection with the the mysterious Phoebe who is described as a diakonos of the Church at Cenchreae (Romans 16: 1) - is she a “servant of the church”, a “deaconess of the church”, or a “deacon of the church”?

Attitudes toward Holy Orders have sharply divided catholics and protestants over the centuries. Protestants have tended to see Holy Orders as of human institution - a practical administrative system devised for the good order of the Church. For those who take such a view, there is no reason why the Holy Orders should not be modified in response to changing circumstances - for example, opening Holy Orders to women in a society where woman hold equal status with men. Catholics have tended to see Holy Orders as of divine institution, appointed by God not just as an administrative convenience, but as part of the mystery of the Gospel. For those who take this view, Holy Orders can only remain changeless, as an essential component of the means of grace.

- Fr Richard Bowyer, October 2009