|This article forms part of the series
|Bishop - Priest - Deacon
|Subdeacon - Reader
Cantor - Acolyte
|Chorepiscopos - Exorcist
Doorkeeper - Deaconess - Presbytide
|Patriarch - Catholicos
Archbishop - Metropolitan
Auxiliary - Titular
|Archimandrite - Protopresbyter
Archpriest - Protosyngellos
|Archdeacon - Protodeacon
|Protopsaltes - Lampadarios
|Abbot - Igumen
|Ordination - Vestments
Presbeia - Honorifics
Clergy awards - Exarch
Proistamenos - Vicar
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The word 'presbyter' is, in the Bible, a synonym for bishop (Gr: επίσκοπος - episkopos), referring to a leader in local Church congregations. However, since at least the second century, it has been understood as distinct from bishop and synonymous with priest. Its literal meaning in Greek (Gr: πρεσβύτερος - presbyteros) is "elder."
Through the sacrament of holy orders, an ordination of a deacon to the priesthood is performed by the bishop. This is done during the Divine Liturgy, immediately following the Great Entrance, showing that the newly-ordained priest is to be involved in the consecration. The congregation will acclaim his ordination by shouting Axios (he is worthy).
The full vestments of the priest are the sticharion, the epitrachili (stole), the belt, the epimanikia (cuffs), and the phelonion - when not serving at Liturgy, a priest may wear fewer vestments, but at least his stole.
The sticharion is a long-sleeved tunic, worn by all degrees of clergy, that reaches all the way to the ground. It reminds the wearer that the grace of the Holy Spirit covers him as with a garment of salvation and joy. It has sleeves that are designed to be tucked under the cuffs, unlike those of deacons (and minor orders) which are heavier and designed to be worn over the cuffs.
The epitrachili (stole - lit. 'around the neck') is the principal vestment of a priest, and without it he cannot serve.
The epimanikia (cuffs) are worn around the wrists, tied by a long cord, and are also worn by bishops and deacons. They serve the practical purpose of keeping the inner garments out of the way during the services. They also remind the wearer that he serves not by his own strength but with the help of God.
A priest ministers to the people of God in the stead of the bishop. This includes:
- Celebrating the Divine Liturgy;
- Celebrating services of the daily cycle (e.g. matins, vespers, etc);
- Celebrating baptisms, marriages, funerals and any sacraments of the Church.
Usually, a priest will
- Hear confessions. In some jurisdictions, this is allowable immediately; in others, being a confessor is something a bishop invites a priest to undertake.
A priest may be assigned as rector of a parish, a position that will include pastoral ministry, preaching and administration; or may be assigned to be an assistant priest, a position that includes helping to shoulder the pastoral responsibilities, as requested by the rector.
It should be noted that a priest's conduct does not inhibit the grace of God acting through them. Christ is the one who gives grace, merely using his ministers as 'conduits' to the people.
Priests are permitted to wear a cassock; this is done as a sign of his suppression of his own tastes, will and desires, and his canonical obedience to God, his bishop and the liturgical and canonical norms of the Church. Priests are also permitted to wear the exoraso (or ryassa). In the Russian tradition, all priests are able to wear the pectoral cross; in other traditions, all priests are able to wear the kalimafhi in services. In jurisdictions that utilise clergy shirts, priests generally wear a clergy shirt with collar.
During services of the daily cycle, the priest is vested in an exoraso (or ryassa) and stole, and tradition varies as to whether he vests with cuffs, and how often/long he wears the phelonion. During the Liturgy (and when preparing to celebrate the Liturgy), the priest is vested in his full liturgical vestments.
In addition, to complete his duties, the priest is permitted to touch the Table of Oblation, the Altar, and to move through the Royal Doors.
Since the presbyters are assigned by the bishop and belong to the specific congregations they have no authority or services to perform apart from their bishop and their own particular parish community. On the altar table of each parish, there is the cloth called the antimension signed by the bishop, which is the permission to the community to gather and to act as the Church. Without the antimension, the priest and his people cannot function legitimately.
The earliest organization of the Christian churches in Palestine was similar to that of Jewish synagogues, who were governed by a council of elders (presbyteroi). In Acts 11:30 and 15:22, we see this collegiate system of government in Jerusalem, and in Acts 14:23, the Apostle Paul ordains elders in the churches he founded. Initially, these presbyters were apparently identical with the overseers (episkopoi, i.e., bishops), as such passages as Acts 20:17 and Titus 1:5,7 indicate, and the terms were interchangeable.
Shortly after the New Testament period, with the death of the Apostles, there was a differentiation in the usage of the synonymous terms, giving rise to the appearance of two distinct offices, bishop and presbyter. The bishop was understood mainly as the president of the council of presbyters, and so the bishop came to be distinguished both in honor and in prerogative from the presbyters, who were seen as deriving their authority by means of delegation from the bishop. The distinction between presbyter and bishop is made fairly soon after the Apostolic period, as is seen in the 2nd century writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who uses the terms consistently and clearly to refer to two different offices (along with deacon).
Initially, each local congregation in the Church had its own bishop. Eventually, as the Church grew, individual congregations no longer were served directly by a bishop. The bishop in a large city would appoint a presbyter to pastor the flock in each congregation, acting as his delegate.
Married and Monastic priests
Orthodox priests are divided into two distinct groups, married clergy, and monastic clergy. In the Orthodox Church a married man may be ordained to the priesthood. His marriage, however, must be the first for both him and his wife. He may not remarry, and he must continue in his ministry even if his wife should die.
If a single man is ordained, he must remain celibate to retain his service. This is often done alongside the candidate taking monastic vows, becoming a hieromonk or priest-monk.
The Orthodox Church often refers to presbyters in English as priests (priest is etymologically derived from the Greek presbyteros via the Latin presbyter). This usage is seen by some Protestant Christians as stripping the laity of its rightful priestly status, while those who use the term defend its usage by saying that, while they do believe in the priesthood of all believers, they do not believe in the eldership of all believers.
Presbyters are often referred to as Father (Fr.), though that is not an official title. Rather, it is a term of affection used by Christians for their ordained elders. In this context, a priest's first name is generally used after the word Father.
Priests are often styled as the Reverend (Rev.) and therefore referred to as the Reverend Father (Rev. Fr.). Higher in bestowed honor and responsibility, Archpriests and Protopresbyters are styled as the Very Reverend (V. Rev.), while Archimandrites can be styled as the Very Reverend (V. Rev.) or as the Right Reverend (Rt. Rev.). It is also appropriate and traditional to refer to a clergyman as "the Priest Name" or "Archpriest Name". This latter practice is especially prominent in Churches with Slavic roots, such as the Church of Russia or the Orthodox Church in America.
The wife of a priest will also have a special title, usually in the language of the jurisdiction of her husband.
Rankings of priests
Sacramentally, all priests are equal. However, they are ranked and serve by seniority according to the date of their ordination.
Just as with bishops and deacons, there are distinctions of administrative rank among priests. A non-monastic priest can be bestowed the honour of Archpriest or Protopresbyter, while a monastic priest can be given the honour of Archimandrite or, in the Slavic traditions, Igumen. In the Russian Orthodox Church, an archpriest can be awarded the mitre, making him a Mitred Archpriest.
- Liddell & Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, pp. 301, 668
- The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, p. 2297
- The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed.), p. 1322
- Christos S. Voulgaris (Prof. of New Testament Studies, Dean of the School of Theology of the Univ. of Athens). The Sacrament of Priesthood in the Holy Scriptures.