I put this material together for a pamphlet, so it’s not meant to be an exhaustive discussion of everything, but a quick summary of the biblical sources of the Anglican priesthood and some of the traditions that go with it.
#1 – Aren’t priests just an Old Testament thing?
Ironically, the English word priest actually comes from the language of the New Testament. One of the words for a church leader in the New Testament is πρεσβυτηρος (presbyter), often translated as elder in modern English Bibles. In Old English, presbyter came to be shortened to prest or preost; and after several centuries of vowel shifts it has morphed into the word we know today – priest.
Over time, the English word priest was also applied back to the Old Testament order of priests due to certain similarities in function and religious leadership. In the English-speaking world this has caused some measure of confusion, especially between Catholics (expecting a Christian use of the word priest) and Protestants (expecting a Jewish use of the word priest). But in terms of the word’s origin and proper meaning, a Christian priest is the same as a presbyter or elder.
#2 – Don’t Anglicans believe in the “priesthood of all believers”?
The concept of the “priesthood of all believers,” as emphasized by the Protestant Reformers, is an appeal against clericalism – the malpractice of the ordained clergy lording their authority over ordinary Christians with an unproductive “holier than thou” mentality. The New Testament passage most frequently invoked among Protestants is 1 Peter 2:9, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…”
What is often overlooked here is that this is an allusion to Exodus 19:5-6, “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.” Even in the Old Covenant, the entirety of God’s people shared in a royal priesthood; and yet that didn’t preclude the existence of a specific group of priests – Aaron and his descendants. In much the same way, there is a specific order of Christian priesthood that does not take away from the “royal priesthood” in which we all share.
#3 – So what are Christian priests for?
Christian priests are the spiritual leaders – elders – called to shepherd God’s flock. This is done under the Jesus the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4), and involves guiding, protecting, and feeding the flock, as Jesus instructed Peter (John 21:15-17). This feeding of the flock is particularly understood to refer both to Scripture and Sacrament – preaching the Bible and presiding at Holy Communion.
In Anglican practice, priests are shepherds at the local level, serving under the larger pastoral guidance of bishops (the English word for επισκοπος, often translated in Bibles today as overseers). Priests are ordained both spiritually and physically: spiritually by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and physically by the imposition of hands by a bishop, in much the same way described in the New Testament (such as in John 20:22-23, Acts 6:6 & 13:3, 1 Timothy 4:14 & 5:22, 2 Timothy 1:6, and Hebrews 6:2).
What’s up with the clothes?
Virtually everything is symbolic, often representing multiple things.
- Priests & Deacons wear black representing the fact that they’re sinners too. Also it’s because black’s historically the simplest color, marking a renunciation of worldly gain.
- Bishops wear purple because in the late Roman Empire they were permitted to wear the royal colors. To this day it’s a mark of their special authority within (not over!) the Church.
- Part of the symbolism of the clergy collar is to show that they are slaves of Christ.
- The white robe, called an alb, is a garment inspired by the visions of Revelation which is worn by all God’s faithful people. It is a symbol of the cleansing resulting from Christ’s blood shed for us.
- The stole is a symbol of the yoke of Christ, and it is worn differently by Bishops, Priests, and Deacons so they can be identified one from another.
- The over-garment, called a chasuble, is inspired by the seamless garment worn by Christ when he was arrested.