Priesthood

The priestly ministry of Christ is perpetuated in the Church by the ministerial priesthood, existing in the three essential ministries of bishop, priest and deacon. These are set apart by the grace of ordination to serve the Church; to preach, teach and shepherd the people of God; to celebrate the sacred mysteries; to preserve correct doctrine; and to keep the body united in the love of Christ. The ministerial priesthood belongs to the very essence and structure of the Church, having been established by the Lord Himself. The gifts and functions once given to the Apostles are transmitted to the ordained ministers through the mystery of the priesthood in the rites of ordination.

The Bishops are the successors to the Apostles, the chief shepherds and administrators of the Church and the guardians and teachers of the true faith. They are the celebrants and ministers of the mystery of the priesthood. While the right to choose the ministers of the Church belongs to all the clergy and the people, the bishop alone has the authority to ordain and appoint priests and to consecrate churches. As a sign of the collegiality of the episcopacy, three bishops (or at least two with the consent of a third) ordain a bishop. In all other ordinations, one bishop will suffice. Since the sixth century bishops have been selected from the celibate clergy. Presbyters (priests) and deacons, however, are permitted to marry but only before ordination. Hence, married men may be ordained, but priests and deacons may not marry. A widower can be elected and ordained a bishop, but not practiced in the Indian Orthodox Church.

Priests share in the functions of the episcopacy. They shepherd and administer local parishes, they teach and celebrate the holy mysteries for the edification of the people of God, and take counsel with the bishop concerning the affairs of the diocese. Most parish priests are married, but it is not unusual for celibate clergy and monks to serve local churches.

Deacons assist the bishops and priests in the execution of their pastoral liturgical and teaching duties. In earlier times, women were also ordained as deaconesses. The order, however, fell into disuse by the twelfth century.

The Rite of Ordination

The ordination of the major orders is held during the course of the Divine Liturgy. In theory Bishops are supposed to be ordained before the scripture readings and Anaphora. This is to indicate that a bishop is the primary expounder of the faith and celebrant of the mysteries. A priest is ordained right before the Anaphora, because he too is a celebrant of the mysteries. A deacon is ordained after the consecration of the Gifts and before Holy Communions, because he assists at the liturgical services and administers Holy Communion. Nowadays all the ordinations in our Church are done right after the elevation of the mysteries, during the intercessions songs - after the second quqliyon – Zadeeqo akh deqlo nafra / The righteous shall flourish like palm trees… The primary signs of all ordination rites are the prayers and the laying on of the hands upon the heads of the candidate by the bishop. There is a distinction between the rites of ordination for the major and minor orders.

The stretching out of hands and laying on of hands together designates the rites of ordination for the major orders, while just placing on of hands is the practice for an ordination to the minor orders.

Those called and ordained to serve the Church are referred to as “clergy” (kleros), because they are chosen and set apart. The character of ordination is indelible. Therefore, ordination is never repeated, even in the case of clergy who have apostatized or have been defrocked, and are received again into the Church. The male character of the ordained priesthood is a basic tenet of Orthodoxy.

Written by Tenny Thomas


[1] Paul Bradshaw & Frank Hawkin, “Ordination,” in Cheslyn Jones, ed., The Study of Liturgy, rev. ed (New York, 1992), pp. 339-398.
[2] Raymond Brown, “Episkope and Episkopos: The New Testament Evidence,” Theological Studies 41 (1980).
[3] Paul Bradshaw, “The Participation of Other Bishops in the Ordination of a Bishop in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus,” Studia Patristica 18 (1989), pp. 335-338.
[4] Raymond Brown, Priest and Bishop: Biblical Reflections (New York, 1971).
[5] Nathan Mitchell, Mission and Ministry: History and Theology in the Sacrament of Order (Wilmington, 1982).
[6] Karidoyanes FitzGerald, Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church, (Brookline, 1998).
[7] Paul Bradshaw, Ordination Rites of the Ancient Churches of East and West (New York, 1990).
Everett Ferguson, ed., Church, Ministry, and Organization in the Early Church, Studies in Early Christianity 13 (New York, 1993).
[8] E. Jay, “From Presbyter-Bishops to Bishops and Presbyters: Christian Ministry in the Second Century,” Second Century 1, (1981), pp. 125-162.