Just what is a Priest anyway?


On Sunday afternoon I was ordained Priest in the Church of England. Up until a few years ago, I would never have used the word ‘priest’ to describe myself. What changed? And what is a priest anyway?

A few years ago, whenever I heard the word ‘priest’ the main vision I had was of a figure from the Old Testament (such as Aaron), someone who served in the temple and made sacrifices for sin and so on. Now, all of that – the sacrificial system – was done away with in Jesus. He is the sacrifice for sin, the sacrifice which all the other sacrifices foreshadowed. So, to my mind, ‘priest’ was something of an anachronism: although Christians are described as a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9) – I believe in the ‘priesthood of all believers’ as they said at the reformation – I don’t think there are priests today like Aaron.

So why does the Church of England use the word ‘priest’? I think this is where we may have to do a little bit of digging for the etymology of the word. According to the online dictionary:

Old English preost probably shortened from the older Germanic form represented by Old Saxon and Old High German prestar, Old Frisian prestere, all from Vulgar Latin *prester “priest,” from Late Latin presbyter “presbyter, elder,” from Greek presbyteros

Now this is where we get in a bit of a muddle. The word translated ‘priest’ in the Bible is kohen (Hebrew) or hiereus (Greek). But the English word ‘priest’ apparently derives from the Greek word presbyter – which is used in the New Testament, and is translated ‘elder’. For example, Paul writes to Titus: “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town.” The New Testament elder is somewhat different to the Old Testament priest: the New Testament (and the early church) never described ministers as priests in the Old Testament sense. So, which one is the Church of England actually referring to when it talks about ‘priests’?

The answer is in the title to the ordination service liturgy: “The Ordination of Priests, also called Presbyters“. If you read the liturgy itself, ‘presbyter’ is also used several times just to make it crystal clear. So the CofE makes explicit that it sees the ministry of a priest as being that described in the New Testament of a ‘presbyteros’ – an elder.

So we end up in the slightly confusing situation where I am ordained ‘priest’, and yet not in the Old Testament sense. I am a priest in the general sense of all Christians (‘the priesthood of all believers’), but I am also a priest in the specific sense of being ordained presbyter. Unfortunately the English language has managed to get itself into this situation and I’m not sure there’s an easy way out. But I hope this post manages to shed a little light…

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