In the current (coronoavirus) situation, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the nature of church, and the lessons we might learn for the future for a healthy church.
Sort of related to that, I’ve been thinking about my own (Anglican) tradition, and the mess I believe we are in, for all sorts of historical reasons, over leadership.
The New Testament has various words for gifts and roles within the early church. The roles are – Deacon (Diaconos), Elder (Prebyteros) and Bishop or Overseer (Episkopos)
It may be that the roles of Elder and Bishop were pretty much the same thing ? The Deacon (origin of the role in Acts chapter 6) was different and seems to be to do with meeting practical needs.
In around the 2nd Century, the word priest begins to be used for presbyter, mainly in connection with the eucharist – sharing of bread and wine as commanded by Jesus at the Last Supper.
The origin of the word priest comes from the Old Testament role, (hiereus in Greek), from which we get the word hierarchy.
My point is that churches today that use the word priest as a way of describing an ordained person, are using and Old Testament word for a role that stood between us and God.
The New Testament emphasis is on leadership, rather than on a role connected with a cultic ritual – eg sacrifice.
The Eucharist (Holy Communion) is in some ways a reinterpretation of the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, seeing Jesus death, symbolised in bread and wine, as a sacrifice. But there doesn’t seem to be anything in the New Testament that justifies a role of priest, in the same way as the Old Testament role. To remember Jesus in bread and wine is far removed from that sacrificial system.
I am an ordained person in the church of England, and sadly the word usually used about people like me is priest. This unfortunately only goes to perpetuate a church that is hierarchical, with an undue degree of authority and power vested in the vicar.
As far as my ordination is concerned, I have always preferred to see myself as Episkopos (overseer) or Presbyteros (elder).
The part of the episkopos word – scope – tells me it’s something to do with seeing, so Episkopos is about having an overview of what’s going on.
The prebyteros (elder) role tells me that it’s to do with experience and maturity.
You might guess by all of this that I’m in a strange place with regard to the church I find myself in! Yet I believe for sure that this is what God called me to back in the early 90’s. I have no regrets, but have to live with a certain amount of tension.
One way of dealing with the tension is to find voices that are outside traditional Anglican thought, and so I have a connection with the UK Anabaptist Network, where words like priest are seen for what they are – designations that belong to a pre Christian era.