Holy Orders

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Holy Orders in the modern Roman Catholic Church and in the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, Assyrian, Old Catholic, and Independent Catholic Churches, includes three degrees: bishop, priest, and deacon. While Anglicans are divided on the question, the other Churches mentioned regard ordination as a sacrament. Other Protestant denominations have varied conceptions of the church offices, but none of them considers ordination a sacrament, and some would not consider their ministries in terms of holy orders at all.

The World Council of Churches undertook a major consultation amongst its members and with the Roman Catholic Church on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM) published in 1982. It attempted to express the convergences that had been found over the years and six volumes of responses compiled. As a result some churches have changed their liturgical practices, and some have entered into discussions which in turn led to further agreements and steps towards unity. There is also a major study on the church (ecclesiology) being on the question 'What it means to be a church, or the Church?' It focuses on ecclesiology and ethics looking at the churches/Church's 'prophetic witness and its service to those in need'. [1].

Roman Catholic dogma counts Holy Orders among three sacraments that make an indelible mark called a sacramental character on the recipient's soul (the other two are baptism and confirmation). Some non-Catholics, perhaps especially Anglicans, also use the term episcopal character to refer to the status of a bishop.

The Eastern Orthodox Church has two minor orders, those of reader and subdeacon. Candidates for ordination receive the clerical tonsure prior to being ordained by the laying on of hands to these minor orders. There is a distinction between the laying on of hands for minor orders (chirothesis) and that for major orders (chirotony). Those in these lesser orders are not considered clergy in the same sense as those in major orders.

In former times, the Roman Catholic church also had four minor orders along with the major order of subdeacon, which were conferred on seminarians pro forma before they became deacons. The minor orders and the subdiaconate were not considered sacraments, and for simplicity were suppressed under Pope Paul VI after the Second Vatican Council.

Such titles as Cardinal, Monsignor, Archbishop, etc., are not sacramental orders. These are simply offices; to receive one of those titles is not an instance of the sacrament of Holy Orders.



The word "holy" simply means "set apart for some purpose." The word ordo (order, in Latin) designated an established civil body or corporation with a hierarchy, and ordinatio meant legal incorporation into an ordo. In context, therefore, a Holy Order is simply a group with a hierarchy that is set apart for ministry in the Church.

Episcopal concept of ordination

The episcopal (from the Greek episkopos, meaning "overseer" and from which we get the word "bishop") form of church government is followed by the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches, and the Anglican Churches and centers around the hierarchy of bishops.

Meaning of priesthood

The word "priest" either derives ultimately from the Greek presbuteros meaning "elder" or the Latin praepositus meaning "superintendent." The Catholic church sees the priesthood as both a reflection of the ancient temple priesthood of the Jews and the person of Jesus. The liturgy of ordination recalls the Old Testament priesthood and the priesthood of Christ. In the words of Thomas Aquinas, "Christ is the source of all priesthood: the priest of the old law was a prefiguration of Christ, and the priest of the new law acts in the person of Christ" Summa Theologiae III, 22, 4c. See Presbyterorum Ordinis for the Second Vatican Council decree on the nature of the Catholic priesthood.

Process and sequence

The arrangement given above, "bishops, priests, and deacons" is in the reverse order of ordination. For Roman Catholics, it is typically in the last year of seminary training that a man will be ordained to the diaconate, called by Roman Catholics in recent times the "transitional diaconate" to distinguish men bound for priesthood from those who have entered the "permanent diaconate" and do not intend to seek further ordination. Deacons, whether transitional or permanent, are licensed to preach sermons, to perform baptisms, and to witness marriages, but to perform no other sacraments. They may assist at the Eucharist or the Mass, but are not the ministers of the Eucharist. Orthodox seminarians are typically tonsured as readers before entering seminary, and may later be made subdeacons or deacons; customs vary between seminaries and between Orthodox jurisdictions.

After six months or more as a transitional deacon a man will be ordained to the priesthood. Priests are able to preach, perform baptisms, witness marriages, hear confessions and give absolutions, anoint the sick, and celebrate the Eucharist or the Mass.

For Anglicans, a person is ordained a deacon once they have completed their training at a theological college. They then typically serve as a curate and are ordained as priest a year later. Deacons must be at least 23 years old, and priests 24. Anglican deacons can preach sermons, perform baptisms and conduct funerals, but, unlike priests, cannot conduct marriages or celebrate the Eucharist. In most branches of the Anglican church, women can be ordained as priests, and in some, can be ordained a bishop. Anglican priests have to be at least 30 before they can be chosen to become a bishop.

Bishops are chosen from among the priests in churches that adhere to Roman Catholic usage. Among Eastern Rite Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, which permit married priests, bishops must either be unmarried or agree to abstain from contact with their wives. It is a common misconception that all such bishops come from religious orders; while this is generally true, it is not a rule. In the case of both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, they are usually leaders of territorial units called dioceses. Only bishops can validly administer the sacrament of holy orders. In Latin-rite Catholic churches and Anglican churches, only bishops (and priests with authorisation by the bishop) may lawfully administer the sacrament of confirmation, but if an ordinary priest administers that sacrament illegally, it is nonetheless considered valid, so that the person confirmed cannot be confirmed again, by a bishop or otherwise. In Eastern-rite Catholic churches, confirmation is done by parish priests via the rite of chrismation, and is usually administered to both neonates and adults immediately after their baptism.

Recognition of other churches' orders

Roman Catholics recognize the validity of holy orders administered in the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Old Catholic, Independent Catholic, and the Assyrian Churches because they believe those churches have maintained the apostolic succession of bishops, i.e., their bishops claim to be in a line of succession dating back to the Apostles, just as Catholic bishops do. Consequently, if a priest of one of those eastern churches converts to Catholicism, he is automatically a Catholic priest. Eastern Orthodox bishops can, and frequently do, grant recognition to the holy orders of converts who were earlier ordained in the Roman Catholic church (though there is much debate in the Orthodox Church about this); that is part of the policy called church economy.

Anglican churches, unlike most Protestant churches, maintain the succession, their bishops being successors of English bishops who converted to Protestantism in the 16th century. A controversy in the Catholic church over the question of whether Anglican holy orders are valid was dogmatically settled by Pope Leo XIII in 1896, who wrote that Anglican orders lack validity because the rite by which priests are ordained is not correctly performed. Eastern Orthodox bishops have, on occasion, granted "economy" when Anglican priests convert to Orthodoxy. Catholics do not recognize ordination of ministers in Protestant churches that do not maintain the apostolic succession.

Anglicans accept the ordination of most mainline denominations, however, only those denominations in full communion with the Anglican Communion such as some Lutheran denominations, may preside at services requiring a cleric.

Marriage and holy orders

The rules discussed in this section are not considered to be among the infallible dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church, but are mutable rules of discipline. See clerical celibacy for a more detailed discussion.

Married men may be ordained to the diaconate as Permanent Deacons, but in the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church may not be ordained to the priesthood. In the Eastern Rites of the Roman Catholic Church and in the Eastern Orthodox Church married deacons may be ordained priests, but may not become bishops. Bishops in the Eastern Rites and the Eastern Orthodox churches are drawn only from among monks, who have taken a vow of celibacy. They may be widowers, though; it is not required of them to never have been married.

There are cases of permanent deacons who, left widowed by the death of a wife, have been ordained to the priesthood. There have been some situations in which men previously married and ordained to the priesthood in an Anglican church have been ordained to the Catholic priesthood and allowed to function much as an Eastern Rite priest but in a Latin Rite setting; however, this may only happen with the approval of the priest's Bishop and the Pope.

Anglican clergy may be married and may marry after ordination.

Chastity and celibacy

There is a difference between chastity and celibacy. Celibacy is the state of not being married, so a vow of celibacy is a promise not to enter into marriage but instead to consecrate one's life to service (in other words, "married to God"). Chastity, a virtue expected of all Christians, is the state of sexual purity; for a vowed celibate, or for the single person, chastity means the avoidance of sex. For the married person, chastity means the practice of sex only with the spouse, and can carry the expectation of intercourse with the spouse that is open to reproduction.

Other concepts of ordination

Ordination ritual and procedures vary by denomination. Different churches and denominations specify more or less rigorous requirements for entering into office, and while the process of ordination is likewise given more or less ceremonial pomp depending on the group. Many Protestants still communicate authority and ordain to office by having the existing overseers physically lay hands on the candidates for office and pray over them.

Methodist churches

The Methodist model is loosely based upon the Anglican model and was first devised under the leadership of Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury in the late 18th century. In this scheme, an elder is ordained to word (preaching and teaching), sacrament (administering baptism and the Lord's Supper), and order (ordaining others), and a deacon is someone who is ordained to word and service.

In the United Methodist Church, for instance, seminary graduates are interviewed and approved by the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry and then the Clergy Session, at which time they are accepted as "probationary members of the conference" and then commissioned by the resident Bishop to full time ministry. (At one time, the graduate was ordained as a deacon at this point, a provisional role which has since been done away with; the Diaconal order is now a separate and distinct lay office in the United Methodist Church.) After serving the probationary period consisting of a minimum of three years, the probationer is then interviewed again and either continued on probation, discontinued altogether, or approved. Upon final approval by the Clergy Session of the Conference, the probationer becomes a full member of the Conference and is then ordained as an elder or deacon by the resident Bishop.

Presbyterian churches

Presbyterian churches, following their Scottish forebears, reject the traditions surrounding overseers and instead identify the offices of bishop (episkopos in Greek) and elder (presbuteros in Greek, from which the term "presbyterian" comes) because the two terms seem to be used interchangeably in the Bible (compare Titus 1.5-9 and I Tim. 3.2-7). While there is an increasing authority with each level of gathering of elders ('Kirk Session' over a congregation, then presbytery, then possibly a synod, then the General Assembly), there is no hierarchy of elders, and each elder has an equal vote at the court on which they sit.

Elders are usually chosen at their local level, either elected by the congregation and approved by the Kirk Session, or appointed directly by the Kirk Session. Some churches place limits on the term that the elders serve, while others ordain elders for life.

Presbyterians also ordain (by laying on of hands) ministers of Word and Sacrament (sometimes known as 'teaching elders'). These ministers are regared simply as Presbyters ordained to a different function, but in practice provide the leadership for local Kirk Session.

Some presbyterians identify those appointed (by the laying on of hands) to serve in practical ways (Acts 6.1-7) as deacons (diakonos in Greek, meaning "servant"). In many congregations, a group of men or women is thus set aside to deal with matters such as congregational fabric and finance, releasing elders for more 'spiritual' work. These persons may be known as 'deacons', 'board members' or 'managers', depending on the local tradition. Unlike elders and minister, they are not usually 'ordained', and are often elected by the congregation for a set period of time.

Other presbyterians have used an 'order of deacons' as full-time servants of the wider Church - but who, unlke ministers, do not administer sacraments or routinely preach. The Church of Scotland has recently begun ordaining deacons to this role.

Unlike the episcopalian schemes, but similar to the United Methodist scheme described above, the two presbyterian offices are different in kind rather than in degree since one need not be a deacon before becoming an elder. Since there is no hierarchy, the two offices do not make up an "order" in the technical sense, but the terminology of Holy Orders is sometimes still used.

Congregationalist churches

Congregationalist churches implement different schemes, but the officers usually have less authority than in the presbyterian or episcopalian forms. Some ordain only ministers and rotate members on an advisory board (sometimes called a board of elders or a board of deacons). Because the positions are by comparison less powerful, there is usually less rigor or fanfare in how officers are ordained.

Non-traditional organizations

The non-authoritarian religious denominations such as Spiritual Humanism, and the Universal Life Church prefer to empower their clergy by minimizing the impediments to those that feel the calling to make a spiritual connection to the cosmos. Reducing the barriers to performing religious ceremonies these denominations encourage those who within the general population to realize spiritual experience. By enabling friends or relatives to perform ceremonies like marriages, organizations that offer online ordination demystify and integrate religious understanding into lives of the otherwise nonreligious public.

Ordination of women

Main article: Ordination of women

Many, but not all, denominations in Christendom allow the ordination of women. Notable denominations who ordain women in the USA include Episcopalians, Presbyterians (PCUSA), Lutherans (ELCA), the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the United Methodist Church although there are others. Many of the same denominations ordain women throughout the world. For example, the majority of the Anglican Communion, in theory allows for the ordination of women.

In the listed denominations, ordination to priest/minister, bishop, elder, or deacon is allowed.

In other denominations, women can be ordained to be an elder or deacon. Some denominations allow for the ordination of women for certain religious orders.

Many denominations have divided or united around the issue of ordination of women. Also, several of the denominations that openly ordain women have broadened their ordinations to include homosexuals.

Ordination of homosexuals


The ordination of homosexuals as Rabbis is an issue being dealt with in nearly all sects of Judaism. Often this issue is dealt with by Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism, although not exclusively. The most noted openly homosexual rabbi is Rabbi Steven Greenberg. Trembling Before G-D is a documentary dealing with homosexuality and Orthodox Judaism.


The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches is the only American denominations with an official stance allowing homosexuals to be ordained. The United Church of Christ, because of its decentralized model, allows ordination out of default since there are no official denomination-wide stances on doctrine. Other denominations such as The Episcopal Church have openly ordained homosexuals despite official policies to the contrary. Some denominations allow for these ordained to be in union with their partners. Other denominations require a vow of celibacy. Most of the mainline protestant denominations are openly discussing the issue such as the Presbyterian Church USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA) and the Uniting Church in Australia.

Recently the ordination of Gene Robinson to the order of bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, and the near ordination of Jeffrey John (was to be ordained Bishop of Reading) in the Church of England have caused a stir in the Anglican Communion, as not all provinces approve of such actions.

The ordination of homosexuals is not a new thing, but the open ordination has come to light. Often those who were homosexual did not admit their sexuality, and were ordained. Upon the ordination of Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop J. Neil Alexander of the Diocese of Atlanta said he voted for the ordination because Gene was open about his sexuality and honest, whereas in the past known gay clergy were ordained to the episcopate only because they lied about it.

In many churches this is a very volatile issue, as is the ordination of women in many churches. It is not likely that a resolution will be swift. Within mainline churches the Confessing Movement has been a vehicle for the opposition to the ordination of homosexuals.


Humanist and other rationalist religious organizations recognize and affirm the right of celebrants who are consenting adults to enter into relationships with other consenting adults regardless of their sexual orientation or gender.

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