The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view


Orders of Christian ministry

A stole of Christian ordained responsibility: Bishops, deacons & priests
Art by Sarah Harkins and daughter Analee

All Christians are ordained to ministry as members of the Body of Christ, the church. In Anglican tradition, by virtue of baptism and confirmation, all are called to fulfill specific vocations in the ministries of the church – worship, prayer, spiritual growth and evangelism, which is reaching out to the world in love by precept and example and in innumerable ways becoming instruments of the peace in the world.

Some Christians are ordained to fulfill vocations in ways that are specific to the Body of Christ as a whole. These ministries are functionally necessary to the church’s acting in sacramental ways. These vocations are called “holy orders,” not because they are “holier” than other orders but because these orders of ministry are “set apart” for the specific, limited purposes of sacramental ministry. By name, the holy orders of the church are bishop, deacon and presbyter; and their sacramental functions include celebrating Eucharist, absolving penitents, anointing the sick, pronouncing the church’s blessing in a variety of contexts, including marriage and reconciliation, and ordaining deacons, presbyters and bishops. Not all of these sacramental ministries are performed by all orders of ministry. Deacons, for example, do not celebrate at Eucharist and presbyters do not ordain.

These “orders of ministry” evolved from the community experience of the first-century community of faith. In Acts of the Apostles, for example, we find the selection and ordination of the first seven deacons. (Acts 6.1-6) Later in Acts, Paul and Barnabas are said to have appointed elders (presbyters) in each church they had founded in Asia minor. (Acts 14.21-23) These ministries were not clearly defined in first-century Christian scripture, but they became more and more refined as the church developed, for better or worse, into an institution and then, by the fourth century, a state religion.

Bishops, literally, are the church’s “overseers,” from the Greek episkopos. They are the chief pastors of a diocese, which is composed of many congregations, most of which are under the pastoral care of a presbyter, or elder. In the early church and for some centuries thereafter, deacons played a significant role in assisting bishops in the administration of their dioceses. Gradually, however, the deaconate became little more than a stepping-stone to the presbyterate. Efforts in recent decades to “restore the deaconate” have had limited success.

Sally Elliott Foot Washing 1980

John 13.1-10: The essence of ordained ministry
“Foot Washing,” by Sally Elliott (1980)

Even though it doesn’t require a great deal of knowledge to do sacramental ministry, the ordained ministries of the church have evolved to require substantial education. Candidates for holy orders in the Episcopal Church are required to hold undergraduate degree and then complete a seminary degree, which usually takes almost three years. Most seminaries also require at least 10 weeks of chaplaincy for clinical-pastoral education (CPE), and some require a semester or more of internship in pastoral care. Generally speaking, it’s pastoral care, teaching and preaching that require so much education and training, not sacramental ministry itself. Presumably, almost anyone in any congregation could function in sacramental ministry, given a modest amount of practical training. Being “in charge” of a congregation, however, is another story.

Anglicans consider holy orders to be essential and indispensible to the sacramental ministry of the church; indeed, some Anglicans would argue that churches without these orders of ministry are in essence “disconnected” from authentic Christianity that has been passed down through “apostolic succession” from the first generation of Christians. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church regards Anglican churches in precisely this way because of the English Reformation. It’s all a matter of perspective: The Orthodox tradition has regarded Roman Catholicism as a breakaway tradition for almost1,000 years! Nevertheless, it’s important to Anglican spiritual identity that we see ourselves as part of unbroken Christian tradition from the time of the first generation of Christian believers, even though our understanding and appreciation of that tradition has been modified and “re-understood” in countless ways over the past 2,000 years. That sense of continuity is reaffirmed every time a bishop lays hands upon someone’s head for confirmation or ordination, because it’s as though one were being touched by generations of bishops all the way back to the Twelve who laid hands on those first seven deacons in Jerusalem.


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