The idea of seeing Holy Orders as sacramental can seem to be a bit distant from most people who might ask whether this is just something that it is about clergy. However, to understand holy orders as sacramental means to ask what the different orders of ministry in the church represent and to remember that the charisms of each of those orders are for every Christian to exercise.
The Scottish Episcopal, in common with the ancient church recognises three sacramental orders of ministry – the diaconate (deacons), the presbyterate (priests) and the episcopate (bishops).
The foundational order of the ordained life is the diaconate. When someone is ordained as a deacon they are set aside to live a life of service both to the church and to the world. In our tradition, people are ordained to the other orders only after serving some time as a deacon and remain in deacons orders when becoming a priest or for some eventually a bishop. To become a deacon is to hear the call of God to service, to respond positively to that call and have that call affirmed by the church. When someone becomes a deacon they are regarded as a member of the clergy and bear the title “The Rev” before their name. Sometimes people mistakenly think that being a deacon is merely a stepping stone to priesthood and to be regarded as an apprenticeship. You sometimes hear people speaking of deacons as being ordained people who can’t celebrate the Eucharist or bless people yet. However, that is to misunderstand the diaconate. The point about being a deacon is to celebrate the joy of serving others. It isn’t about being prevented from doing something – rather it is about being set free in order to do something.
The Ordinal is the liturgical book which contains the ordination services. It describes deacons like this:
Deacons share with the bishop and presbyters in the ministry of word and sacrament and in works of love.
In a distinctive way deacons are a sign of that humility which marks all service offered in the name of Christ. They bear witness to the Lord who laid aside all claims of dignity, assumed the nature of a slave and accepted death on a cross.
In the name of the Church, deacons care for those in need, serving God and the world after the pattern of Christ.
Most members of the clergy are priests. Those in this ministry have a calling to bring God to people and to bring people to God. They are set apart to live a life in which prayer is central and are entrusted with the care of the people of God. Ordination services of priests are always joyful occasions and involve a number of ceremonial elements which speak of the deeper truth of the life that a priest will live out. A chalice and paten (the cup and plate of the communion service) are placed into the hands of the new priest in recognition that it is priests who celebrate communion services as part of their life of drawing people deeper into relationship with God. Another distinctive feature of a priesting service is the laying on of hands – all the priests present will lay hands on the new priest as the Holy Spirit is invoked. This reminds everyone that priesthood is a corporate ministry which stretches back to the time of the apostles. A part of that ministry is to proclaim God’s forgiveness in the world and priests have a particular role in hearing people’s confessions and proclaiming that they are forgiven.
The ordinal describes priesthood like this:
The ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of all believers are related. Each in its proper way partakes of the one priesthood of Christ.
Presbyters (ie priests) share in the priestly ministry of their bishop. With their fellow presbyters they serve and sustain the community of the faithful that we may grow into the fullness of Christ and be a living sacrifice acceptable to God.
Presbyters pray and care for those committed to their charge, enabling them to respond freely to God’s call.
They proclaim the coming of the Kingdom, calling sinners to repentance and absolving them in God’s name.
They preside at the Eucharist and draw together in worship those who come to the Lord’s Table, so that fed by the Body and Blood of Christ they may go out to serve God in the unity of the Spirit.
In all organisations, someone needs to lead and the order of ministry which specifically recognises the sacramental gift of leadership is the episcopate. When someone becomes a bishop they become the spiritual leader for a diocese. A cathedral has a special role in being the seat of the bishop. Indeed, the seat of the bishop which is called a cathedra is what gives a cathedral its name. One of the features of a service where a bishop is consecrated is that they are seated in their own cathedra. Bishops have other symbols attached to their ministry. They wear a prominent cross, wear a ring on the fourth finger of their right hand and carry a pastoral staff in their left hand. This staff is called a crozier and in the western church looks exactly like a shepherd’s crook. This is indicative of a pastoral ministry. Bishops in the Scottish Episcopal Church have considerable authority but that is not the same thing as having absolute power. In recent years bishops have seen themselves as being leaders in mission in their diocese.
The ordinal again offers a clear description of what bishops do:
Bishops follow in the succession of the apostles whom Christ sent to proclaim the Gospel to the world and to bear authority in the community of faith. With their fellow bishops they oversee and care for the universal Church. As people under authority they must be attentive to the Holy Spirit who leads us into all the truth; called into the fellowship of Christ’s disciples, they must seek God’s will.
Within the diocese the bishop ordains and sends out new ministers, guides and serves the priests and deacons who share in the bishop’s responsibility to nurture the community of the baptised.
There is one Lord, by whose authority bishops teach and enable others to bear witness, so that God’s Word may enlighten the people of God and heal the nations.
There is one Shepherd, at whose call bishops seek to know his flock and be known by them.
There is one great High Priest of the new covenant, in whose name bishops preside over the church’s offering and call all to be of one mind and purpose, that in unity they may present to God a single, holy, living sacrifice.
The ministries of deacon, priest and bishop are symbolic of the ministry of the whole people of God and every Christian has a stake in what the orders do. Those who are ordained have a public responsibility to live out, and be seen to live out, the gifts of the order(s) to which they have been called by the people of God. However, every member of the people of God has a responsibility to commit acts of loving service, to reconcile people to the God who loves them and to take responsibility for exercising loving judgement and decision making wherever they go. In this way, the sacrament of holy orders belongs to every member of the church not merely to those who have been set aside in this way.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are priests the equivalent of “ministers of word and sacrament” in other traditions.
Priests do many of the things that those called ministers do but not all traditions will see ministry as being sacramental. All three orders of ministry in the Scottish Episcopal Church are seen as being orders of word and sacrament.
Can bishops move other clergy around as they chose?
No – this is a myth. Bishops cannot simply move people as they choose. In almost all cases in the Scottish Episcopal Church the representatives of a local congregation have a paramount role in deciding who their priest will be.