Is Anglican leadership biblical?

In reading the headline, you might think that I am about to explore some of the claims of the recent GAFCON meeting on whether the C of E is being led in the right direction. But in fact I want to explore a much more basic question: are the patterns of ministry and leadership, and in particular the three-fold order of ‘bishops, priests and deacons’, found in the New Testament, and does their practice follow the practice of New Testament leadership?

Someone might object: ‘What is the point of asking that question, since the Church isn’t about to throw away such a well-established historical precedent?’ But there are immediately a couple of important things to note. The first is that, in the Book of Common Prayer, there is a certain degree of circumspection as to whether this pattern is Scriptural:

It is evident unto all men, diligently reading holy Scripture, and ancient Authors, That from the Apostles time, there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christs Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. (The BCP Ordinal).

So these orders have existed—but there is no explicit claim that they are essential (the following sentences of the ordinal focus on the need for careful examination of those called) nor that they are ‘proved’ as necessary by the Scriptures (the test set out in Article VI of the XXXIX Articles).

But the second thing to note is that the Church of England has itself answered the question of the relation between current patterns of leadership and New Testament patterns—in the report from the Faith and Order Commission (FAOC) of January 2015, Senior Church Leadership. which I explored in the first chapter of my Grove booklet Evangelical Leadership: opportunities and challenges.

Both the report and my booklet begin by noting how important ‘leadership’ has become as an idea in both the world and the church. Since the 1990s, executive pay has moved from being around 60 times that of the average worker to almost 180 times it by last year. There are complex reasons behind this, not least the nature of the ‘closed shop’ of executives who appoint one another, and it raises important ethical issues. But it is a strong indicator of belief in the importance and value of leadership. The success of corporations often appears tied to the presence of a particular leader as CEO; football teams respond to success and failure by either lauding or sacking their manager; even theological colleges can thrive or fail depending on the principal it seems. And the FAOC reports notes how now, with the current focus on church growth, the spotlight has been turned on the leader.

In a Church of England press release, Professor David Voas, one of the leaders of the research, said that ‘Growth is a product of good leadership (lay and ordained) working with a willing set of churchgoers in a favourable environment.’ In the same press release, ‘leadership’ tops the list of ‘common ingredients strongly associated with growth,’ a list that also includes ‘clear mission and purpose,’ ‘being intentional’ and ‘vision.’ The Programme’s report, From Anecdote to Evidence: Findings from the Church Growth Research Programme 2011–2013, makes it clear that the ‘leadership’ in question is a matter of ‘motivating people, inspiring and generating enthusiasm to action’ (p 8); that is what they have discovered is needed for growth. (FAOC report, para 16).

This makes it all the more important to ask the question: what were NT patterns and practices of leadership, and how well do our own match this? The most basic challenge is to note the problem with the core question: it is not possible to name ‘THE leader’ in the church in Rome, Ephesus, Colossae, or any of the other places to which Paul writes. Leadership in the NT appears to be plural, as is made explicit by the description of the church in Antioch in Acts 13.1.

The second challenge is to note the terms that are used for leadership in the NT, and the ones that are not.  Despotes is used of masters who own slaves (1 Peter 2.18 and elsewhere), and is applied to God (Acts 4.24) which fits well with Paul’s self-designation as ‘bond slave’ in the opening of his letters—but is never used of Christian leaders. The term kathegetes is expressly forbidden by Jesus in Matt 23.10; the term means leader or teacher, but the teaching aspect is covered earlier in the passage, when Jesus also forbids the use of the term ‘rabbi’ since we have one teacher (didaskalos). Perhaps most striking is the absence of the normal term for ruler or leader, archon. It is used fairly neutrally of the rule of a synagogue (Matt 9.18), for leaders amongst the Pharisees (Luke 14.1) and for national leaders (Acts 3.17). But, in keeping with Jesus warning in Matt 10.25 (and the parallel in Mark 10.42), this term is never use for Christian leaders. There are three passages where we find the term hegoumenos (‘one who leads/guides’) used of church leaders (Hebrews 13.7, 17, 24; Acts 15.22 and Luke 22.26) but the related noun (hegemon) is used only to refer to royal or imperial governors like Pilate (Matthew 27.2).

Instead, biblical language about leadership tends to cluster around particular roles and draw on concrete metaphors. There is a ‘spiritual gift’ that is usually translated as ‘leadership’ in 1 Cor 12.28, kubernesis, which literally means the steering of a boat. We find kubernetes, stearsmen or pilots, mentioned in Acts 27.11 and Rev 18.17. But it is striking that this gift is listed as one among many, and is not given any prominence. (No-one was really interested in this gift when older Bibles translated it as ‘administration’!)

How do we account for this striking rejection and reconfiguration of the language of leadership? The FAOC report accounts for this by expanding on the idea behind Jesus’ prohibition in Matt 23. The suggest a ‘triangular’ understanding of leadership of the Christian community, noting that both the leader and the community itself depends on the call of God for their self-understanding and their identity.

At a very simple level, we can represent the triangular dynamic of these relationships in the form of an equilateral triangle enclosed in a circle. In this diagram, the two ‘sides’ of the triangle represent this double calling: God calls his people; and God calls individuals to lead his people. The base of the triangle represents the complex two-way relationship between people and leaders – a relationship created by God’s double call. (p 23)

This has profound implications for the way leadership is understood, and therefore for the way we understand the exercise of authority:

They [the terms use for leadership] are used to distance the authority of the leader from any sense of ownership or mastery, and to deflect attention back to the Lord of the church, who is the real source of the leader’s authority. They reflect what we may call a refracted authority, seen through a triangular prism that resists the construction of top-down management structures. (p 29)

This is such a helpful, insightful and striking observation about leadership in the NT that it is worth reflecting on for some time. Last week, I was teaching in Hereford Diocese on ‘Biblical reflections on leadership’, and intending this to be part of one of four sessions throughout the day—but it was so striking that we ended up spending most of the day discussing it!

It is helpful not least because it addresses two strong tendencies in church thinking about leadership. The first is a strong emphasis on the importance of leadership, and of the threefold offices of those ordained, which then struggles to find any role for the laity. Perhaps the worst of these was Linda Woodhead’s notion, articulated in the Church Times, that if we dispensed with all congregations and just retained the buildings and the clergy, ‘the most important functions of the Church would continue’! But it is equally present in any notion that the clergy, or one of the three orders (usually bishops) somehow ‘constitute’ the church itself.

The second tendency, present in Reformers like Luther, but also rediscovered in a slightly different way in the charismatic renewal movement from the 1960s onwards, is the idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ which sees all the people of God as, in some sense, having equal importance—and then struggles to see the need for particular forms of leadership.

This triangular model of ‘refracted authority’ does see (ordained) leadership as important, and arising from a particular sense of calling (vocation) from God—but sees its importance in relation to the fulfilment of the calling (vocation) of the whole people of God to become what God wants them to be. This is, of course, expressed par excellence in Paul’s comment in Ephesians 4.11–13:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 

It is striking that this passage on particular ministries follows on from an exposition of the unity of the faith and of believers (‘there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism…’) and that both the unity of the body and the different ministries arise from the calling of God. This is the same pattern we find in 1 Cor 12, where Paul moves repeatedly between the idea of ‘to each’ and ‘for all’.

But the reason that, in Hereford, we spent so long on this model is that is raises two very important questions. First, what does it mean for the exercise of power and authority? If the vicar is not ‘in charge’, how do we ever get anything done? And is this a recipe for chaos, where either the different members of the congregation do their own thing or, worse still, the dominant get their own way?

The answer to these questions is found in the different sides of the triangle. The calling of those in leadership is a calling to enable the people to fulfil their calling from God—they are leaders of the church, not just some random collection of people. So there is a real task of responsibility and accountability in both encouraging and enabling the people of God to grow in their maturity, discipleship and obedience to God. And this growth is something that the leaders themselves share, since they never cease to be part of the laos of God:

Do the virtues being demanded of senior leaders today sit uneasily with the virtues of discipleship? A Christian leader is, after all, a disciple first and a leader second, and that means that he or she is and remains a follower even while being a leader. Furthermore, as a disciple a leader is called to display the fruit of the Spirit…

And the FAOC report goes on to set out how the responsibility of leaders is exercised, in relation to the teaching of the word, in leading prayer and worship, in continuing the work of service, ensuring all are cared for, and in engaging in the wider world.

Nevertheless, leaders are called to exercise real authority –they have a calling that instils confidence both in the leader and in other members of the church. From earliest times, the church has sensed a need for order and focus, for a clarity of vision that looks to the needs of the whole body. This leadership is consensual. The social world of the New Testament was intensely hierarchical; authority was instantly recognized and respected (Luke 7.8). It is all the more striking that leadership in the church is accorded by mutual recognition rather than imposedby external authority: it has to be ‘recognized’ (1 Corinthians 16.15, 1 Thessalonians 5.12). Effective leadership depends on co-operation between leaders and led (Hebrews 13.17; 1 Peter 5.2). (para 114)

But the second question is: if we are to inhabit this ‘refracted leadership’ model, can we relate it to the threefold order that we have? The FAOC report also engages with this question, and notes some of the tensions that arise. Early on, the formation of monarchical, geographical episcopacy conflated the ideas of local eldership and translocal apostolic ministry, in a way which (in some senses) compromised both, and the challenge to the threefold order is that, in the NT, it is very hard to relate presbyteral and episcopal ministry in any obvious way—indeed, the terms appear to be used interchangeably at some points.

Similar observations can be made at other critical points of history.

The Church of England’s decision to retain the historic three-fold order of bishop, priest and deacon also reflects the political realities of the Reformation in England. (para 151)

The report is really worth reading, not simply as a reflection on structure issues, but in offering a biblical challenge to the ethos of all church leadership. And my Grove booklet Evangelical Leadership goes on to look at what it means then to be leaders in mission, in being rooted in Scripture, and in engaging in the wider world.

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92 thoughts on “Is Anglican leadership biblical?”

  1. Fascinating and stimulating read Ian as usual. However if I am not mistaken you seem to think that the Church of England has ever asserted that her Orders are Scriptural (there is a certain degree of circumspection as to whether this pattern is Scriptural) in the sense that the three-fold order can be read directly out of the pages of Scripture. The Church of England has never made such a claim so in that sense her Orders, in that sense, are “not Scriptural”. Hooker hammered this point home in his Lawes in which he objected to Puritan demands that their Orders were Scriptural and could be found in Scripture. The Puritans as you know wanted to be directed directly by Scripture and wanted a Biblical warrant for everything that they did. But note, Hooker wrote the LAWES of Ecclesiastical Polity not the LAW of Ecclesiastical Polity. And so Hooker would gladly concede that the Orders of the Church of England were not Scriptural in that sense. But as he went on to point out they were there in the form that they took from the times of the Apostles. And that they were not contrary to Scripture. Hence the insistence of the Ordinal that “it is evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scripture AND (note the AND) ancient Authors, that from the Apostles time there have been these Orders of Minsters in Christ’s Church; Bishops, Priests and Deacons..” Accordingly, Hooker would argue, it is futile to try and find a Scriptural pattern for Orders but given that the Orders that the Church received came from Apostolic times and are not contrary to Scripture they should be held in “reverend estimation” for to strike at the nature of Orders is, in Calvin’s words, “to plot the ruin and devastation of the Church”

    • Interesting, Nigel. Thanks for sharing this bit of history (of which I was unaware). Curious whether or not all things not directly contrary to Scripture are, therefore, permitted by virtue of that status? In other words, just because Scripture does not forbid something is not the same as saying it’s permitted. A bit of discernment (and leverage, too, mind you) is needed.

      ….just thinking here.

    • Hi Nigel,

      The quote from the Ordinal specifically relates to the existence of the threefold order (as is evident from scripture and ancient authors), rather than the nature of such order.

      Concerning the nature of threefold order, we do have the clear precedent of Philip’s ordination as a deacon (which Hooker describes as the fundamental to all orders). Deacons are ordained specifically to see to the needs of the destitute (Acts 6:2-4), whereas the apostles gave themselves to “prayer and ministry of the Word”. Certainly, Paul did not establish any requirement for deacons to demonstrate an aptitude for preaching or teaching (1 Tim. 3:8-13).

      In contrast with the ‘laying on of hands’ by Antioch’s prophets and teachers prior to Paul and Barnabus’ ministry among the Gentiles (Acts. 13:2,3), Philip had no such ordination to minister the word of God in Samaria. And without ordination, he even administered the sacrament of baptism to the Ethiopian eunuch.

      This is because, as Hooker explained: ‘God…hath in the like aboundance of mercie ordeined certain to attend upon the due execution of the requisite partes and offices therein prescribed for the good of the whole world, which men thereunto do hold theire authoritie from him whether they be such as him selfe immediately or as the Church in his name investeth it is neither possible for all nor for everie man without distinction to take upon him a charge of so great importance.’

      So, although admission to holy orders is normatively through episcopal ordination, this does not prevent God from ordaining to ministry directly, as He did with St. Philip.

      In explaining the extension of the original role of deacons to include preaching and baptism, Hooker wrote: ‘Whereupon we may rightly ground this axiom, that when the subject wherein one man’s labours of sundry kinds are employed doth wax so great that the same men are no longer able to manage it sufficiently as before, the most natural way to help this is by dividing their charge into slips and ordaining of under officers.’

      Furthermore, St. Paul considered the preaching of the word to be the hallmark of his God-given apostolic mission, rather than administering sacraments, like baptism (1 Cor. 1:13-17)

      Sacraments cannot be invalidated by the nature of the person administering it. Even the Roman Catholic Church does not consider a Mass to be invalid because it was celebrated by someone whose orders were withdrawn by excommunication or laicization.

      This concurs with St. Augustine’s rhetorical question to the Donatists: ‘Do we then maintain that, even when spiritual grace is dispensed to those that believe by the hands of a holy and faithful minister, it is still not the minister himself who justifies, but that One of whom it is said, that “He justifies the ungodly?” Romans 4:5

  2. Good question

    I guess the ‘three fold orders’ of Anglicanism are as Biblical as the term ‘leaders(ship)’ which is to say as rare as hens teeth in the NT 😉

    I wonder what would happen if we moved our concept away from ‘leadership’ and the three fold orders to the Pauline concept of ministers and ministry as seen in 2Cor3 – ministry of reconciliation, of life, of glory, of the Spirit; or of Paul in Rom15v16 where he speaks of being given the minister of Christ Jesus with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel. The Anglican ordinal which is one of our better bits of liturgy actually speaks of ministers and ministry – I think we need to make more of this and certainly less of pagan purple.

    Ive been ordained 23years this wknd, and today I witnessed ordinands running through their liturgy for ordination at a cathedral. I wonder what difference a sense of being ordained to be ministers of Christ, of reconciliation, of the gospel, of life, of the Spirit. May all those being ordained this Petertide be gripped by this.

    • The work of John N Collins (an Australian Roman Catholic) relates interestingly to this. He has examined the uses of the word ‘diakonia’ and related words in, as far as I know, all ancient literature. His main conclusion is that the word group does not really relate to being a servant. ‘diakonos’ is not close to ‘doulos’. Rather a ‘diakonos’ is very often one who carries something from one person to another. Often, this is words.
      My favorite part is when he illustrates a use in Greek romantic literature from Shakespeare, quoting from ‘Much Ado about Nothing’. Don Pedro acts as a matchmaker for Claudio to Hero, and Claudio says to him, “How sweetly you do minister to love”. The ‘deacon’ might be less a servant and more an emissary of love.

  3. correction -uploaded without reading:
    ‘I wonder what difference a sense of being ordained to be ministers of Christ….rather than deacons or priests…would make to their future ministry?’

    • Hi Simon,

      Perhaps, since all clergy are deacons first, they would prioritise alleviating hardship and oppression, both material and spiritual, as their primary role, rather than expecting the absolute deference of the laity on pain of arbitrary exclusion.

      In the CofE, I’ve unfortunately experienced the latter more than the former.

      • Hi David

        Im really sorry that’s been your experience – but the opposite is also true – as both deacon and priest I’ve been treated by some laity much as Paul said, ‘the scum of the earth’ 1Cor4:13. My father, a Baptist pastor, painfully experienced the same treatment.

        But I wonder if an ordinand is in trouble from the minute they are ordained: in one of the oldest and certainly the grandest building in the county, with 1000 people’s having travelled to witness what happens to you, the air thick with angelic choirs, ancient ceremony, and liturgy and all with you dressed in strange kit at the centre of it. At the same time both very humbling and profoundly honouring. Sometimes we can forget the humbling and lean into the honouring.

        • Hi Simon,

          I’d agree that the opposite is also true. I believe that clergy could learn a lot from our military. Despite the pageantry of their passing out parades, military training is all about preparing soldiers for personal involvement in protecting our liberty, delivering relief and facing armed conflict.

          I wonder whether theological colleges could do a lot more to prepare clergy adequately for the spiritual analogy to this.

          What would the spiritual equivalent of special forces selection look like?

          • David
            I’d love to chat about this but dont want to hog this thread –
            I wonder if I might email correspond with you
            my email is simon dot ponsonby at

  4. Thanks David.

    Good point.

    Of course we must bear in mind that during the time of the Apostles things were much more fluid than they came to be. For a number of reasons. The Canon was still open. Miracles were still being performed. Prophets were being raised up. But with the passing of the Apostles and the closing of the Canon the life and ministry of the Church settled down into a routine. Hence the appeal in the Ordinal to Scripture and Ancient Authors. Thus what we see described in the NT cannot be taken as normative for subsequent generations….

    • Hi Nigel,

      Thanks for your reply. While there may have been some fluidity in the primitive church, in the NT, St. Paul commended the Thessalonians (2 Thess. 2:15, dated ~51 CE, or post-70 CE) for maintaining what had become settled apostolic tradition.

      As you’re aware, in 1 Cor. 11, St. Paul also reminded the Corinthian church that he had passed on to them the tradition of the Eucharist as he had received it. He also explained the need of ‘head covering’ for women which Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Hippolytus of Rome all attest as being settled tradition into the next century.

      There are other well-established hymns and sacramental formulas in the NT, which the Church Fathers recite in their writings.

      So, despite the relevance of Ancient Authors, this demonstrates that what we see described in the NT should very much be taken as normative for subsequent generations.

  5. However did ‘priest’ come to be the main functional office of leadership when it is not a New Testament category at all?

    • Hi Peter,

      ‘Priest’ is derived from the Greek word, presbuteros, which is translated as ‘elder’ in the NT.

      Richard Hooker used presbyter, and, in his writing, he distanced himself from the sacrificial connotations of priest.

      • Thank you David.
        Yes, I find it strange that this is the connection when the NT uses ‘hiereus’ as the word for priest. Also elder is always referred to as one who is part of a group (elders) and indeed bishops are plural too as in Philippians 1:1. I appreciate the interchangeability of the use of bishops and elders as well. This fits in with this article’s reference to shared leadership ministry being the NT norm. Also they were clearly ‘lay’ people in the sense in which we use the word, being recognised for their gifts and maturity.
        I suppose Anglicanism is stuck with its interpretation of these categories. I’m a Reader (not in the NT !!) but sit uneasily with the role of priest (and bishop) as being a cut above the rest. This is not particularly as a manifestation of their personality but their designated role as consecrators and all the hoops jumped through to justify this – e.g. their ability to consecrate is not dependent on their personal morality or holiness etc. Does a role of ‘priest’ really comport with our unchurched age in sharing the message of the gospel?

        P.S. David, did you give the talk on ‘male female complementarity’ at the Psephizo conference? If so, I wondered if I could find the text for it somewhere as I couldn’t get my notes down fast enough!

        • Hi Peter,

          Thanks for replying.

          Hooker did prefer presbyter to priest because the latter carried the connotation of a divinely appointed mediator between God and mankind:
          ‘Howbeit because the most eminent part of both heathenish and Jewish service did consist in sacrifice, when learned men declare what the word Priest doth properly signify according to the mind of the first imposer of that name, their ordinary scholies do well expound it to imply sacrifice..

          Today, it may well suit some in the Church to promote clergy through emblems and attire as an ontologically distinct and divinely appointed caste which is exclusively capable of imparting sacramental assurance.

          The fact remains that, in their writings, Church Fathers, like St. Augustine, Ignatius and others, dispelled this Donatist notion and we should broadcast their teachings loud and clear.

          BTW, you can download my summarised notes on ‘Theological Reflections on Male-Female Complementarity’ from here:!AssphAYLL1d4gaRjPwcopURN5EzA6w

    • Adolf Von Harnack’s claim in his history of the development of church dogma suggests the notion of priest and sacerdotal priestcraft developed in the post apostolic church, when her leaders clutched at authority and dignity of office as their charisms waned and the mystery cults grew. Von Harnack has often been dismissed as an old liberal, but I wonder whether this thesis has been proven wrong?

  6. Nigel Thanks for your comments.
    With regard to the Church “settling down” …
    I’m OK with the Canon of scripture being closed but beg to differ radically from the inference that the age of miracles and prophecy is past.
    I might have agreed with you 50 ys ago. When I was a young Christian miracles were in books or abroad but as time has gone on and particularly in the last 10 years The signs of God’s Kingdom and the exercise of the gifts of God’s spirit including prophecy has come closer to home and has become more and more commonplace in my experience, both within regular established denominations and in groups gathered from various churches and in the individual ministries of the people of God.
    The church is losing it’s political power but is regaining it’s roots in power in the spiritual realms. Some how or another cessationalists seem to change their theology once they experience a miracle or 3. Would you like to? … or would you not?

  7. Thank you for an interesting article and discussion. Nigel Orchard in his opening comments expresses my position. I do not find any one pattern of ministry in the NT. It seems to me to be exploratory, evolving, practical and possibly therefore experimental at time. So I find it difficult to appeal to 2 Thess 2.15 as evidence of a ‘settled apostolic tradition’ when we simply do not know what that looked like or what the thought the word ‘tradition’ actually contained.
    I am disturbed by the near total dominance of the word ‘leader; in present ministry discussion and training programs as the NT clearly and deliberately avoided the word (as Tomlin below notes). I also think it is misleading to say that the NT does not use the category ‘priest’. It is true it is not applied to individuals. But quite daringly it is applied to the whole people of God in 1Peter – ‘you are a royal priesthood’. And Graham Tomlin discusses it at length in ‘The widening circle – priesthood as God’s way of blessing in the world’ in the context of the epistle to the Hebrews. So I tend to say to potential ordinands I meet with, if we entrust certain people to the office of priest because we are a priestly people. Any ministry in the church expresses the character of the whole.

    • Hi David,

      There is a clear missionary pattern of appointing elders in every town (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5).

      You go too far in stating that ‘we simply do not know what that looked like or what the thought the word ‘tradition’ actually contained, when we could declare that of any word to be found in ancient writings. The lack of complete knowledge of the full scope of those traditions should not undermine our knowledge of those aspects of tradition which are readily apparent.

      For tradition, Paul used a word which was also described the regular Jewish religious practices of fasting and hand-washing. The Eucharist, women’s head-covering and baptism were established traditions of the early church.

      There was also an established missionary pattern of appointing elders in every city to provide spiritual oversight. (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). Paul established clear criteria for ministry (1 Tim. 3) and assessing material needs (1 Tim. 5:4), which were implemented by the Church Fathers.

      This was reinforced by the apostles who wrote to different churches to remind them that elders not only had God-given responsibility for oversight (1 Tim. 5:17; 1 Peter 5:2), but also that those in their charge had a duty to submit to responsible oversight in the Lord. (1 Thess. 5:12, 1 Peter 5:5)

      Of course, we know from Church history that certain aspects of the tradition did evolve, but that doesn’t imply the absence of anything in the NT which constituted ‘settled apostolic tradition’.

      • David. Greetings. You do not convince me. A variety of leadership/oversight practice is found in the NT – and even those named we know very little about in practice. Local practice could vary with the same name used. Elders appear suddenly in Acts, with no explanation as to who they were or how they were appointed. It is certainly reasonable to presume they were the Christian counterpart of the Jewish elders but we are not told that – nor if Christian eldership took a different expression in the light of the gospel or the life of the Spirit. That is surely a reasonable assumption too? The letters to Thessalonica simply refer to the “leaders” of the church – most likely house church leaders (1 Thess.5:12-13). The letters to Corinth have no reference to any elders or other leadership titles but again to house church leaders. The letter to the Philippeans addresses “bishops and deacons” (Phil.1:1), but we have no explanation about them either or what they do or how they are chosen. The Pastorals suggest a much more institutionalised leadership structure with office of “bishop” and “deacon” mentioned (1 Tim.3; 5:17ff. Titus 1:5). Overall – even where offices and titles (“bishop”, “elder” and “deacon”) are used we are given no clear job descriptions of what they actually did in the church community.

        • Hi David,

          As I explained: ‘the lack of complete knowledge of the full scope of those traditions should not undermine our knowledge of those aspects of tradition which are readily apparent.’

          So, whereas scripture doesn’t provide us with consistently defined job descriptions for elders, it does provide evidence that they were appointed by the apostles with clear criteria for admission.

          Evidence that certain offices and rites were established by the apostles and were perpetuated by the Church Fathers is enough to establish ‘settled tradition’, that the Church Fathers passed on what they had received.

          Settled tradition does not require lock-step conformity to comprehensively detailed ob descriptions.

          • David But in terms of this discussion thread what use is a ‘settled tradition’ if we do not know how it worked in the NT? I have been in several churches when it was very fashionable to have ‘elders’. A lot of the time we had taken the name but were having to make up how to do it – and a very mixed experience it was. And if the NT ‘settled tradition’ is presumed to have included male headship and women head covered, not teaching or leading does that actually mean we should be doing the same (if we actually know what ‘the same’ meant then)? Genuine questions.

        • Hello David, in terms of how elders were chosen and their function, does it not tie in with the gifts mentioned in Ephesians 4: I always liked Watchman Nee’s categorisation into 4 functions – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (grouping the last two as a combined ministry). This is referenced in the Antioch Church where there were prophets and teachers and from which Barnabus and Saul were recognised as having apostolic calling. The qualifications of bishops in Timothy stress the teaching gift. I always find the excerpt in Acts 20 where Paul calls the Ephesian elders together somewhat illuminating as to elders’ ministry as modelled by Paul when he was among them: the example of a mature spiritual life, teaching from house to house, pastoring the church, supporting the weak, and being leaders because they have disciples who are learning from them. Timothy was ‘well-spoken of’ by the church at Lystra, so clearly they were always looking out for people with outstanding ‘leadership’ gifts.

          • Peter Thank you this. I agree there are general principles for ministry in the NT. But your example illustrates the problem. The texts that list charismatic ministries do not mention elders. So how did elders relate to charismatic ministers? Could you be an elder and a prophet? Where did authority lie in relation to these varied ministries? We just do not know because we are not told. Are you saying that at Antioch prophets and teachers had the authority to choose and appoint apostles? And given that significant ministry was itinerant in those days how did ministerial authority ‘travel’ from one place to another? I recall that in the Didache the test of whether a traveling prophet was genuine or not was that if they stayed more than three days they were ‘false’. And what exactly constitutes ‘outstanding leadership gifts’ (noting that the NT carefully and deliberately avoids using the word ‘leader’ for its ministers)? Thanks again.

          • Thanks David.
            In trying to fathom a hermeneutic for what we generally term ‘leadership’, I guess we have to allow for the fact that there was no NT letter prescription but glean from what we have. Obviously the Hebrews’ writer doesn’t shy from using the word leader (hegeomai) three times in chapter 13. I suppose one could be pedantic with poimen from Ephesians 4 in that shepherds ‘led’ their flock! But maybe more concisely, Peter puts it all together:
            “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder … Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, (serving as overseers [in some manuscripts]). Elders are pastors and an apostle can be an elder too.
            I suppose when I mentioned ‘looking out for leadership gifts’ I was thinking of 2 Tim 2:2:
            “what you have heard from me … entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also”

          • Hi David,

            If Paul’s experience is anything to go by, then his account of coordinating his ministry with the leaders in Jerusalem would explain how charismatic ministers should relate to elders.

            Despite the message preached by Peter, John and James not adding to the gospel that he preached (Gal. 2:6), he was still divinely encouraged and humble enough to submit his gospel to their scrutiny: ‘I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain.’

            The focus of that scrutiny was not his ‘outstanding leadership gifts’ but the consonance of his message with Christ’s revelation to the apostles and his exemplary repentance and faith in furtherance of it.

            Concerning the status of charismatic ministers, Hooker subsumed prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers into the presbyterial order.

            However, he rejected the notion that the prophetic office per se could be ordained by men: ‘And we no where find prophets to have been made by ordination: but all whom the Church did ordain, were either to serve as presbyters or deacons.’

            Thomas Smyth D.D.’s explanation of the evangelist’s ministry could be applied equally to prophetic ministry: ‘The work of an evangelist, as such, was thus, altogether extraordinary and temporary; but, in his ordinary character and minsterial standing, he was no more than a pastor, or presbyter’.

  8. Paul’s Priestly ministry he describes in terms of preaching the gospel – Rom15v16
    This to my mind is the heart of the priesthood and yet often overlooked in discussion.

    • Agreed, Simon: evangelising *is* priestly service (hierougonta to euangelion) in the NT; “presiding” at the eucharist is never called this. Now there’s a strange inversion! And I don’t understand how David Runcorn can take away with one hand (‘we don’t know who they were, how this worked in practice’ etc and then professes to give with another: “we entrust certain people to the priestly office because we are a priestly people”. This is just Moberly’s old liberal catholic idea of “ministerial priesthood” and it has no foundation in the NT for understanding the Christian ministry.
      There are many, many things we don’t know about the first century church because they were never written down or if they were, the writings didn’t survive – like 99%+ of first century writings. Titus 1.5-7 make it clear that Paul appointed Timothy ‘to appoint elders in every city’. Roger Beckwith’s excellent little book ‘Elders in Every City: the Origin and Role of the Ordained Ministry’ is a good introduction to the kind of questions that David raises and shows that actually we *do* know quite a lot about first century practice – even if we can’t name the ‘ministry team’ in Iconium in AD 85. I recommend the book as a good entrée to the subject.

      • Brian Thank you but I think you have misunderstood me. I am suggesting various patterns of ministry were emerging in the NT churches and there was no one way of doing it. As you admit we are told very little about how this ministry was actually set up or exercised. I have given some NT evidence for this. So yes, Paul tells us Timothy appointed elders in all churches in his care. But does it follow that everyone else was doing the same? Is that even necessary to assume that? If so why, as I point out, are elders not mentioned in some of the other epistles? If there is no one settled pattern that is ‘scriptural’ that is to be expected. We evangelicals love to find a ‘univocal’ pattern and meaning but sometimes it just ain’t there. Varied patterns of ministry have continued to emerge in the church through history – in all denominations and sometimes using similar names. I certainly don’t agree at all with all the ways the word ‘priest’ has been used by historic churches but I have pointed out that Peter and Hebrew explore the priestly theme in distinctive and even unexpected ways in relation to the people of God. Why would Peter even go near that? I am puzzled you call this discussion old and liberal. I am neither! I cited a recent excellent study of ministry by an evangelical theologian and bishop, Graham Tomlin. Thank you for the reference to Beckwith. I will follow it up.

        • Dear David (and Brian, Simon and others) I think the evidence supports many of your observations, but I am not sure they support others.

          There is an interesting review of Beckwith (which I too hesitate to shell out even £65 for on Amazon!) at

          Paul Bradshaw highlights that Beckwith is too optimistic about monolithic practice in the NT period, and I think you (David) are quite right to point this out–which I think it evident on even a casual reading of the NT. In fact, the FAOC paper does point this out—not least in its reflection of the later development of the threefold order. Two key moves it notes are problematic in relation to the NT: the conflation of local presbyteral ministry with translocal apostolic ministry in the office of ‘bishop’; and the integration of episcopal and presbyteral ministry into one hierarchical system, which the NT does not obviously allow!

          I like the idea of office of an individual ‘priest’ expressing the corporate priesthood of the people of God—which is not in fact a daring innovation, but a recovery of the original vision of the people of God in Ex 19.6 prior to the establishment of a priestly caste in the Levites.

          The problem is that calling individuals ‘priests’ can only be effected by *differentiating* them from the people in terms of what they can and others cannot do, which completely undermines the idea of their expressing the people’s priesthood. And of course Peter’s (and Revelation’s) specific appeal to Ex 19.6 undermines any notion of a ‘priestly’ caste of any kind—which is why, quite shockingly for a Jewish document saturated in the OT, Revelation conspicuously omits any reference to priests. I think I would like to be more honest and say that such differentiation is not actually a function of theology so much as a function of an institution’s need to have order and control—which is not necessarily a bad thing, though is not always good.

          Yes Graham Tomlin tries to make the case—and makes the important observation that priestly ministry, in offering people to God, is really about evangelism—which surely cannot be limited to any caste in the church. But his case for a more ‘catholic’ understanding that currently influences much Anglican use completely founders, as I point out.

          If we simply reverted to the historic term ‘presbyters’, which has a long history of use in the C of E, is used around the world, and connects us back with the NT, I think all these problems would be avoided. If anyone objected to that term, then they would need to object to what the ordinal and authorised Anglican statements actually say about ordination.

          • Thanks Ian Helpfully challenging and stretching my thinking. In passing I still recall running a discussion group at Trinity Bristol for ordinands on the topic of ‘priesthood’ . One ordinand was a Northern Irish Presbyterian by background – gracious but scrupulously biblical in all things. I expected him to be very critical. In fact he quietly and thoughtfully said – ‘because of my background I cannot comfortable with the word ‘priest’. But I recognise there is something in the content of the word I need for my understanding of ministry’. That says it for me too.

          • I understand the tension—and of course from a social and psychological perspective people often feel they need a ‘priest’. Once when visiting the secure mental health unit in Nottingham, someone said ‘they wanted to see a priest’. So I went, and found that’s what they wanted: to see a priest. We didn’t say much; he just sat there and looked at me.

            But I am not sure this popular perception will really do—not least because in the popular imagination, the RC understanding of ‘priest’ and the Anglican one get collapsed and combined into a folk understanding. We might want to start there with people, but I am not sure it will do to end there.

        • Edward Schillebeeckx (a Roman Catholic) would agree with the proposition that the NT displays a viariety of models of leadership in the churches. In his book “Ministry; Leadership in the Community of Jesus Christ”, he draws out the differences between groups he identifies as ‘communities’, distinguishing between those in the line of ministry expressed in Ephesians, for example, from that in the Pastoral Epistles, the ‘Matthean Community’ and the ‘Johannine Community’.
          One interesting idea he brings to this is that the shift in time in ministry was not “from charisma to institution, but a shift from the charisma of the many to the specialized charisma of just a few.” (from his “The Church with a Human Face”.
          The ‘Didache’ gives an interesting picture of ministry, probably from the immediate post-testamental period (even more interesting if it is later). It shows the existance at its time of itinerant apostles, prophets and teachers. Notably, when visiting a congregation, the vistor takes precedence over the presbyters/elders in presiding at the eucharist. It is only in the second century that these itinerants faded and the teaching responsibility was taken away from them and lodged with the episkopos, who was becoming first among equals among the presbyters.

          There is a hint of this in 1 Tim 5.17, which is clear that, at that stage, not all presbyters were teachers and preachers. The role seems to be about ‘directing the affairs of the church’ (NIV) [‘rule’ as in ESV seems a bit strong here, perhaps someone could comment.]

          One other snippet comes from my looking at Acts 15.22 to look at the use of ‘hegoumenos’. There is quite a lot of complexity in terms of ‘leadership’ in just a single verse. Judas Barsabbas and Silas are “leaders among the brothers” but it is the “apostles and the elders, with the whole church” who decide to send them.

      • Brian. A used copy of Beckwith’s book on Elders (128 pages) is currently for sale on Amazon for £324. It is much more valuable than I realised!

          • I once saw one of my books going for £1000 on – no-one bought it which surprised me 😉

            Someone once gave me a copy of my own book which they’d bought in Oxfam bookshop – that also surprised me!

          • Brian I agree. Without you to donate a copy it makes you wonder why the early church opted for such an expensive ministry option.

  9. I am reminded of the caustic comment of G B Caird (who was a Congregationalist) on the BCP’s words, ‘It is evident unto all men diligently reading Holy Scripture . . . ‘ – ‘That kind of diligence is fortunately less common than it used to be’. (Language and Imagery of the Bible, 81).

  10. Do we know anything about the size of a congregation in the NT period? This must have some impact on the type of ‘leadership’ that the congregation needs.

      • Thank you Ian.
        So, if a first century congregation was around 40-60, then does it make sense to try to use the Biblical material directly to try to workout how congregations of 400 plus (e.g. St Aldates and the like) should be organised?
        I ask from the perspective of an intelligent, educated and informed lay person – who is usually just expected to turn up, sit/stand as instructed, give some money, and is not expected to do anything else …

        • St Aldates was chosen as an example of a large church. No implications about how St Aldates works are made in what I wrote and I am sorry if any offence has been taken.
          My second paragraph (starting ‘I ask …’) is my experience of much of my church going over 30+ years, which hasn’t included St Aldates.
          Sorry Simon!

          • LOL – i’ve been on staff there for 20years hence my interest 😉

            I’d have been gutted if that was people’s experience of our church life – no doubt some may feel its such – your question is important – if the apostolic letters address church life in contexts of 30-50 folk, then how do we apply these pastorally in a church of over 1000. The answer is lies in encouraging small groups at the heart of what we do – and we have about 500folk in such – still a way to go.


      • I remember James Dunn making a similar point many years ago about the size of houses of the well-to-do in Corinth. He thought there might be room for 30 or so in the atrium, and since this was the average size then of a Methodist congregation, they clearly had the correct NT church order! 🙂 For some reason the Church in Pompeii is not well remembered …

  11. Sorry to come a bit late to this party and not theologically trained (Reader and General Synod member) but I wrote down a quote years ago which still seems valuable. It was from John Robinson who said something like “You can have as high a doctrine of the priesthood as you like providing you have a higher doctrine of the church, and as high a doctrine of the church as you like providing you have a higher doctrine of the kingdom”.

    • Thanks Keith – I had forgotten that. Wonderful. He was also told by a wise mentor on the eve of his ordination. ‘If you are to be ordained in the CofE you need almost as a high a doctrine of corruption as you do of glory.’ I have been long enough in the CofE to consider that neither cynical nor exaggerated – simply truthful end wise. A church of forgiven sinners in a fallen world.

  12. I might be going on here, but surely the idea that only a priest can validate marriage is yet another anomaly. The bible has nothing about priests (or presbyters or bishops) having anything to do with marriage. I see that humanists want a ‘humanist-faith’ marriage now and some others object to marriage on the misinformed basis that marriage is essentially religious rather than the social construct it began as.

    I suppose this applies to sacraments generally. My friend was asked at interview for ordination training in the CofE, “How many sacraments are there?” and after giving the answer two was told, no, you’re wrong, there are seven!!!! I mean, can lay people really not be involved with Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, Confession, Marriage, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick? I know plenty of lay Christians who are (maybe not Holy Orders)!

    • Hi Peter,
      That’s interesting.
      In our church, lay people offer wine at Holy Communion, and also anointing after Holy Communion ( I am one of the anointers). We have three Lay Readers, but no clergy at this time, and when no visiting clergy are available to conduct Holy Communion , a Lay Reader conducts Holy Communion by extension, which of course means chasing around looking for a local priest who can bless the bread before the service! Sometimes I wonder if having the bread blessed by a Lay Reader occasionally might not really be a cardinal sin 🙂

      • Hi Christine,

        Perish the thought that a mere Lay Reader could invoke the strong magic of consecration which, from time-immemorial, has been the preserve of the Church’s hieratic tradition!

        • When any church entrusts to certain of its members the task of saying certain words or presiding over important expressions of its life I would hope it is to do with an understanding of reverence and holiness – not ‘magic’? (and please can we be sensitive using the word ‘magic’ in the context of this discussing communion). I have worshiped in a wide variety of denominations in my life. I have never been in a church that believed that anyone could do anything. As we have noted here, patterns of ordering and representative authority were set up in the NT churches.
          In passing, I am the Warden of Readers in my diocese – they stopped being called ‘Lay’ Readers some years ago by the way. ‘Communion by Extension’ in the CofE is for taking to the house bound and sick. It is not for supplying regular services elsewhere because clergy are in short supply – but I know it goes on and there is nothing new in the ‘why can’t anyone say the words’ debate? But part of the discussion that needs to happen in a denomination like the CofE that heavily promoted weekly parish communion in a previous era is – what is communion for and how often do local church communities ‘need’ to receive communion it when weekly is no longer possible? This is more than being tied to hierarchy and ‘clericalism’. I know small local churches that are now exploring other (neglected?) expressions of worship – bible study, prayer and fellowship together (and Readers are core in that). So they meet less often for communion but at events that gather the wider community in celebration. Less frequent communion can be a gain in terms of valuing and reverencing. In some Free Churches they only have communion quarterly and after very careful preparation – because it so central and holy. And there too certain people and entrusted with presiding over the meal.

          • Dear David Shepherd and David Runcorn, thank you both for replying. David S. – I smiled at your comment because I thought it was tongue in cheek. David R. – in our church we have been in an interregnum for more than two years, and without any clergy at all for 5 months, so we have talked a lot about Holy Communion. I am interested in your question: what is communion for and how often do local communities ‘need’ to receive communion when weekly is no longer possible? I have asked this question at church because as far as I know the frequency with which we need to celebrate Holy Communion is not specified in the Bible. Maybe once a month or even once a year would be enough? One other question about Holy Communion which was asked by an elderly parishioner made me smile, but I know that it was a genuine enquiry, and not frivolous: Why do the priests have to eat and drink all the bread and wine that remains after the service? Why can’t they give the bread to the birds? My answer was : pass!

          • Christine I feel for you and your community in such a long vacancy. In our diocese we work quite hard at supporting local communities through such times – but I know it doesn’t always happen. It is demoralising and, long term, it more often leads to decline than invigorated local lay vision.

          • Thank you, David R. We have been well-blessed with visiting clergy, and the Assistant Archdeacon of the Diocese preached at our church recently and was in conversation with many congregants. He is also going to preach at our sister church later this month. But many church members are taking on extra tasks and are feeling tired!

          • David R. – correction: the Assistant Archdeacon preached at our sister church at the end of June. I temporarily got June and July mixed up!

          • Thankfully, Christine understood my reply to be ‘tongue-in-cheek’.

            Ordained ministers may well ensure that the Eucharist is celebrate with due order, but ordained ministers per se cannot infuse the Eucharist greater reverence and holiness than God Himself has bestowed without regard to the celebrant.

            To believe otherwise is to believe in magic.

    • Tim – congrats on the publication, but don’t expect many here would pay the $200 to read your chapter – come on, give us the headlines

      • I do a couple of things in the chapter. The first is review the pastoral offices in the NT and make a case for only one main office, that of the Overseer. I also make an exegetical case that captial-D Deacons are, in fact, apprentice Overseers. The second thing I do is explore how much this is reflected in the 1550 CofE Ordinal, and notice that if you look at Bucer’s input, a good case can be made that the CofE may have also envisaged just one order in three degrees. The appendix has a prose log of all of the Pauline references in the Ordinal’s services.

  13. Christine I feel for you and your community in such a long vacancy. In our diocese we work quite hard at supporting local communities through such times – but I know it doesn’t always happen. It is demoralising and, long term, it more often leads to decline than invigorated local lay vision.

  14. 1 Here is an impertinent begging the question: are Anglican leaders biblically Christian? It seems to be far more important than names or structure.
    2 There seems to have been no discussion of the terms “Vicar” or “Curate.”
    3 While I follow the points made, I’m not convinced that other than the Royal Priesthood of all believers that there is any place for a New Testament office the priest, particularly, the vicarious aspect. But what do I know, and whatever it has no influence.
    3 Authority, the vesting of; the who, how, what why where and when is also important, and the hierarchy, delegation thereof.
    4 David Runcorn, I agree with your last comment, last sentence, largely over the dissipation of authority in those circumstances. Is it delegated? Is it in the Church Council, the Warden. Is it shared with non-believers? But, if what Christine describes can take place of necessity outwith the religious Offices of the system, is it necessary at all to have the system Offices in the first place. There are liturgies to be followed, to be read as scripture can be read by church members.
    5 Communion. Christine has raised some excellent points. I can not see anywhere in scripture, though I stand to be corrected, that it has to be through ordained ministers or delegate. It could be celebrated in House groups.
    6 The frequency of Communion: it is a remembering of the centrality of the cross. I recall someone with a prophetic gifting say they always divided their sermon note paper with quarter lines as a reminder of the centrality of the cross in every sermon.
    7 Drinking all the wine. I recall at a Church Council meeting in the Methodist Church where there was some polarity in discussion over whether the wine should be alcoholic, a long-standing member (don’t know if she’d signed the Methodist Pledge) saying that the reason there were so many alcoholic priests in the CoE was because they had to drink the leftover communion wine !

    • Hi Geoff,

      Thanks for making some important points here.

      I’ve looked at several arguments against lay presidency and many are typified by Rev. Gregor Cuff’s letter to the Church Times, in which he wrote:
      ’The Christian eucharist grew out of the Jewish Passover supper, traditionally presided over by the head of the household – a clearly delineated role. In the Church of England (as in all branches of the historic Church), the head of our household of faith is the bishop, whose prerogative it is to preside at the eucharist. He (or, rather, his office) is represented locally by priests whom he has ordained or licensed. He cannot be represented by people he has played no part in sending, as could be the case for “accredited members” of Caroline Hansen’s church ( Letters, 26 May). If he is to be involved in their “accreditation”, we already have a word for his action: “ordination”.

      The non-sequitur here is that this argument treats the clerical presidency of the Eucharist as an immutable tradition borne of patriarchal precedence at the Passover, despite (as Ian explained) Jesus emphatically rejecting that kind of patriarchal religious authority that predominated within Jewish culture.

      The tradition of priestly presidency of the Eucharist may well be part of long-standing Anglican practice, and enshrined in canon law, but it’s question-begging to reject lay presidency on that basis.

      Other sacramental traditionalists reject lay presidency on the basis of Hooker’s statement:
      ’Seeing that Sacraments therefore consist altogether in relation to some such gift or grace supernatural as only God can bestow, how should any but the Church administer those ceremonies as Sacraments which are not thought to be Sacraments by any but by the Church?’ BOOK V. Ch. L., 2.

      Yet, this statement does no more than to affirm that those who should administer sacraments should be those who recognise them as such (thereby including the entirety of lay and ordained believers who recognise the efficacy of sacramental grace).

      St. Ignatius certainly had no qualms about duly delegating presidency of the Eucharist: ‘Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is (administered) either by a bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it.’

      It’s high time that the CofE recognised that Canon B12 derives more from the Act of Uniformity (which reasserted the necessity of episcopal ordination that the Puritans abolished) than it does from any aspect of apostolic tradition.

      • Act or Uniformity 1662:
        X. Persons administering the Sacrament before they are ordained Priests;

        Penalty £100; and Disability for One Year.

        And be it further enacted by the Authority aforesaid that no person whatsoever shall thenceforth be capable to bee admitted to any Parsonage Vicarage Benefice or other Ecclesiastical Promotion or Dignity whatsoever nor shall presume to consecrate & administer the Holy Sacrament of the Lords Supper before such time as he shall be ordained Preist according to the forme and manner in and by the said Booke prescribed unlesse he have formerly beene made Preist by Episcopall Ordination upon pain to forfeit for every offence the sum of One hundred pounds.

        In reading this, Matt. 15:9 instantly came to mind!

  15. David
    Are you aware of any examples in history, in any denomination, where communion or breaking of bread was/is done by those not ordained as ministers or not recognised as ‘elders’ in the church? Besides the exclusive Brethren I can’t ???? So regardless of how Anglican orders and theology of consecration has developed, it seems generally throughout the history of the church in the world, that churches quickly develop an order where communion is presided by a president with recognised authority to do so – ordained by the denomination or by local congregation. Is that true and if so I’m wondering why? It’s not a biblical decree so is it the work of the Spirit ?


    • Hi Simon,

      For practical reasons, it is to be expected that the ministers of any congregation will have a central role in preparing and leading worship, including the Eucharist. The fact that this has been normative doesn’t make the case for preventing local ministers from accrediting committed lay Christians to share the role of Eucharistic presidency with them.

      As you’re aware, Justin Martyr’s First Apology Ch. 65 provides an unquestionable evidence of Eucharistic presidency. This involved receiving the bread and wine and leading the blessing and thanksgiving, after which deacons would distribute the consecrated elements throughout congregation.

      Nevertheless, Justin Martyr’s phrase ‘o proestoti ton adelphon’ is also legitimately be translated as ‘that one of the brethren who was presiding’. So, it would be something of a historian’s fallacy to assume that Eucharistic presidency in the primitive Church would conform to the Anglican norm of one episcopally ordained minister for each congregation.

      I’m also inclined to agree with Archbishop Usher’s considered, well-informed, but episcopally rejected position that: ‘the intrinsical power of ordaining proceedeth not from jurisdiction, but from order. But a Presbyter hath the same order, in specie, with a Bishop. Ergo, a Presbyter hath equally an intrinsical power to give orders, and is equal to him in the power of order; the Bishop having no higher degree in respect of retention or extension of the character of orders, though he hath a higher degree, i. e., a more eminent place in respect of authority and jurisdiction and spiritual regimen.”

      So, while it may be true that “churches quickly develop an order where communion is presided by a president with recognised authority to do so”, the unanswered question is whether ‘accreditation’might become a recognised means for the Church to delegate Eucharistic presidency (when a lack of ordained clergy makes this necessary) to committed lay Christians.

  16. Thanks David
    indeed – I believe that God does appoint ‘leaders’ priests/pastors etc and it makes sense for them to preside though not exclusively. The idea that presidency is the preserve of the priest is not supportable from NT Scripture and borrows heavily from the OT Priestly cultus (or even as Harnack says, from Mystery religions). I sometimes think a whole theology of the eucharist has developed merely to keep priests in power. The notion that somehow their holy hands and their orders mean they alone can specially consecrate is a fiction and leans to magic as you suggest – David R’s well meaning protestations not withstanding. As an ordained priest in the CofE I am subject to and do obey the canons of the CofE.. However, theologically, I would not have a problem recognising & releasing appropriate fellow Christian members to consecrate. In the Baptist Church, I believe the Pastor can appoint a deacon or elder or the visiting preacher of the day to preside. Paul clearly says that the body and blood must be rightly recognised (1Cor11v29) by those partaking and how much more so by the president. However, to speak of only the priest able to celebrate communion is indefensible in the NT which must surely be the locus and focus for our theology and practise.

    • Hi Simon,

      I wholeheartedly endorse your reply and its candour, like a rare jewel, stands out from that dull sea-bed of clerical careerism.

    • Simon ‘The idea that presidency is the preserve of the priest is not supportable from NT Scripture’. Well the NT doesn’t reserve anything to ‘priests’ does it?
      ‘to speak of only the priest able to celebrate communion is indefensible in the NT’. But the NT gives us no information of any kind as to who precisely did preside at communion in the early church. So it is not possible to defend lay presidency – or ‘anyone could do it’ from the NT either. We are not told.

      • David R – I’m not defending lay presidency per se – I’m just questioning priestly presidency per se.

        I think we can be pretty sure communion/eucharist was not then what it is now because anything approaching what we do do now finds a crushing silence from the NT. What we do now only begins to be seen in a formalised liturgical manner well into the post apostolic era (Justin Martyr 150 ish).

        What do we have – a reasonable supposition that the eucharist was more akin to the Jewish traditions of blessings at sabbath meal with bread and wine – where the head of the house prayed, blessed and distributed and once Christian, did so in remembrance of Jesus.

        We do know Jesus at the last supper instituted the meal and said ‘do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me’ – do what exactly? To eat bread and wine and remember him. But did Jesus intend this memorial to become a service presided by a priest or a memorial of him at meal-times? Jesus certainly did not stipulate who was do it in what precise gathering and in what manner – there is no holy invocation, no sacramental infusion, no epiclesis, no representing Christ – they are told to when eating a fairly typical meal to eat and remember Jesus’ sacrifice.

        We do know from Acts2 that they broke bread in their homes and may assume this was a form of eucharist and may assume the apostles were not present to all the thousands of new post Pentecost converts to preside over such and may assume it was lay presidency?

        We do know from 1Cor11 that the communion was a bit of a shambles in the context of a meal and clearly not the formalised, liturgical, priestly ceremony we developed. So, whatever we cannot say, we can with certainty say the institution ordained at our Lord’s last supper, practised in the early church homes, and at corporate church gatherings such as Corinth did not look like that. And given we’ve little else to go on from C1st Apostolic Church, I suspect we now practise a developed rite that would be rather surprising to the apostles – what with the clearly scripted liturgies, the priestly robes and incense and bells and genuflecting and so on. Not that this development is not at times magnificent and prophetic and aesthetically inspiring and pregnant with meaning and even a means of grace to those who draw near with faith…but when we do what we do are we being Biblical? Apostolic? Dominical? well, yes and no. And again, I see no evidence from the NT for lay presidency – I see no evidence for priestly presidency – or even our notion/practise of priesthood.

        I am an ordained Anglican Priest (of 22years last weekend) and content to give due canonical obedience to my Bishop in all things lawful – I have regularly wept as I have celebrated communion moved by the grace of Jesus – but that doesn’t stop me questioning the who and how we do it.

        The biggest argument for me is subjective – I have partaken of communion in many settings around the world where the minister was not an Anglican priest: with the Catholics, Reformed, House church, Baptist, Vineyard, Agape meals in homes etc etc … and receiving there has often been no less a memorial, no less a grace to me, no less food for the journey. Do those who put such emphasis on Anglican priestly orders then suppose what these others are doing is mere charades, deviant at worst or at best a sign but not the thing? I suggest answering that question raises huge questions for us Anglicans.

        • Simon
          sorry – I missed this before my earlier reply. My reference to lay presidency was more general – not a response to you. I agree with you on this … including the tears! Thanks. At my ordination (39 years ago this September) the preacher said ‘your priesthood is to lead others into their priesthood’. I have never forgotten that moment. He did not mean ‘get more people ordained like you’. I have always understood him to mean ‘be the means by which the whole people of God enter and live their priestly identity in Christ’ (cf 1Peter). Over the years I recognise how seductive aspects of the institutional identity of ordained ministry can be and I grieve for times my own living of it has excluded rather than included. But I still aspire to those words.

        • Dear Simon, David R. and David S,
          I really appreciate all your comments. They have given me much to think about and I am still thinking about it. As I read your comments I also have a deep sense of the peace of God which transcends all understanding, and the wisdom from on High. Thank you.

      • “But the NT gives us no information of any kind as to who precisely did preside at communion in the early church”.

        Indeed. Yet, what we do know from the NT about the ministry of the Word and the other sacrament of the gospel, is that Philip, despite being ordained as deacon to (in the apostles’ words) ‘wait on tables’, did not need presbyteral ordination to spearhead evangelism in Samaria or to administer the inaugural sacrament of baptism to the Ethiopian eunuch.

        The restrictions on Eucharistic presidency could be included among those described in Article X of the Formula of Concord: ‘Some ceremonies and Church practices are neither commanded nor forbidden in God’s Word, but are introduced into the Church with good intention, for the sake of good order and proper custom, or otherwise to maintain Christian discipline’

        Article XXXIV warns that: ‘Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the traditions and ceremonies of the church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, (that others may fear to do the like,) as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren’

        However, the intention here is not, on the basis of private judgement, to break the Anglican tradition of episcopally ordained Eucharistic presidency, but it is to demonstrate that there is nothing in scripture preventing it from being extended.

        Concerning a different matter, I remember you seeking change similarly .

        • Well said indeed. And we are not wanting to violate the sacred, or abuse church order and decency, but merely ask whether where we have got in our practise has deviated a long way from where we started.

          I actually woke very early this morning and my thoughts were “Philip preached and baptised and wasn’t a priest” He did invite the apostles to come and anoint the converts in Samaria so clearly being brought within the mother church and under the authority of the apostles was necessary.

          When I read the NT, what strikes me is the weight being placed on the anointing of the Spirit and setting apart ‘to proclaim the gospel’. This preaching office, and not the sacerdotal presiding, are firmly front and center.

          And yet so often we downgrade preaching – by employing laity and Readers to do such (rightly), but not releasing the same to preside, we appear to make a value judgment that preaching the gospel and teaching the Word is less ‘sacred’ than the ‘sacrament’. I’m not sure that’s Biblical!

          • David and Simon. Thank you for this continued exchange – and yes to you both.
            ‘there is nothing in scripture preventing it from being extended’. Totally agree and find that the most helpful way of expressing what we are discussing. Ministry structures and patterns of authority and oversight were clearly present in the early church – as they are today. I would argue that is because the NT church was an astonishing ‘new’ faith expression. So there is both a recognition of necessary structures but a necessary willingness to allow these to be extended under the impulse of the Spirit (eg Philip). I think we agree on this. Thanks again.

  17. Dear David S. and Simon,
    I find what you have written really interesting, and it makes perfect sense to me, as a lay person, especially given the current situation in our church. What I would be interested in knowing about – can you help me with this, please? – is the authority structure within the Anglican Church, and the extent to which priests need to submit to Bishops, and Bishops to Archbishops, with regard to Holy Communion and other matters?
    Thank you!

    • Thanks Christine – well, i’m no expert on such matters, but as clergy we swear to pay due canonical obedience in all things lawful. My understanding is that its not so much to our own Diocesan Bishop per se but to the Bishop as they represent the canons and orders passed to us – (the Bishop’s themselves must swear obedience to these too). And those canons state that only a priest can celebrate. So, it is right for an ordained anglican minister to uphold such and if they can’t they should resign their orders. However, that does not mean said canons can’t be examined and tested and debated and if found unsound, then changed. As an Anglican I find our theology and ministry inconsistent: we have 2 sacraments ‘Baptism and Eucharist’ and only priests can do the former whilst in exceptional circumstances Readers can baptise. As an Evangelical I believes in the centrality of God’s Word proclaimed in creating the Church, and we rightly welcome Readers and laity to preach. So we seem to have an hierarchical spiritual ontology, with the Eucharist at the top and then Baptism and then Preaching. I do wonder, would the NT Apostles ever recognise such?

    • Hi Christine,

      I’d agree with Simon. So, in keeping with canon law, the current remedy to your situation would be Communion by extension (

      You would just need to be mindful of the guidelines issued by the HoB (see page 31).

      The parish does need to obtain the permission of the diocesan bishop. The way this works is for another parish with an officiating minister to select and train lay people, in good standing, to act as officiating ministers. In that parish’s earlier service, the Eucharist is consecrated with a surplus for your later service.

      At the end of the first service, the officiants would carry the consecrated bread and wine to your service and administer communion, albeit without the prayer of consecration.

      It’s not ideal, but I hope this helps.

      • David Shepherd, Simon and Christine I offer no opinion on this but the rubrics referenced above make clear ‘Communion by Extension’ is only for ‘exceptional’ circumstances and for which specific episcopal permission is required. It is is not a way of supplying regular communion to a congregation without a priest. It happens a lot though.

  18. Interesting Post.

    2 Points/Questions…
    1)Isn’t the trans-local ministry now party fulfilled in Evangelists who take the Gospel to new places?

    2) Titus 1:5 speaks of Titus appointing Elders. But Anglicans generally don’t have plural elders. So is there really an analogy to Titus?

  19. The Monarchical Bishop and the Presbyter-bishop are not the same. The Monarchical Bishop is a successor to the Apostles. The Presbyter-bishop is succeeded by the modern Presbyter. And clearly ordination is a multiplicity not a parallelism. If Paul speaks of a Bishop and Deacon and Presbyter in almost interchangeable fashion it is simply because they were multiple orders and not just plural. An Apostle was a Deacon and a Presbyter. Hence the qualifications for a Christian Rabbi would be same whether as a Deacon, Presbyter or Apostle. The Monarchical Bishop is seen clearly when St John the Divine writes to the 7 Apostles (methinks mistranslated as Angels) of the Churches in Asia [Minor].
    We see Timothy and Titus becoming territorial Apostles with powers to ordain in the NT. Though initially the office of Apostle devolved to this other type of Bishop they were territorial in name but had universal authority. It was a Romano-Byzantine development for them to have only one or two claimants to universal authority later. So to confuse Presbyter-bishop with Apostle-bishop/Presbyter is the issue at stake.
    Paul and Barnabbas from acts were already recognised prophets and rabbis and were being commissioned for Apostolic work. So it seems in that instance at a point a Presbyter-bishop would be promoted to an itinerant Apostle. So it is not that our orders are not in the Bible. We have to look for the correct type rather than similarity in word.
    A Bishop in our words corresponds to an Apostle.
    A Presbyter in our word will be a Presbyter-Bishop in the Bible
    A Deacon in our words is most often a Transitional Deacon and that is consistent with the Bible though elements of Permanent Deacon were present.
    That said we definitely need the clergy as the standard every Christian should aspire to. Right now we have SSM, NSM, OLM and OPM among other categories like Chaplain and Vicar of old. Men and women are admitted to orders and flexible training regimes. Why shouldn’t we just instead of saying clergy should lose privilege not just make sure that in a given congregations we have as many people as possible becoming OLMs with a single Incumbent who will be on rotation.
    Some senior Presbyters of about 12 will be voted as Canons. And 7 Deacons as Stewards every 3years.
    Those who are in discernment will then represent the laity. A Church needs it clergy-laity distinction. Just that it should be moving people from clergy to laity on a regular basis. You shouldn’t be permanent laity.

  20. I was drawn to this article because I have been led by the Lord to be involved in an Anglican church plant after having grown up in the Episcopal church (US) and then having been in a non denominational church practicing plurality of leadership for the last 20 years. I had somewhat forgotten why I left but its all coming back. Sadly, one of the issues in crystallized hierchical structures is the lack of and unwillingness to, lay down the power that people possess because of their own ambition. My interactions with priests lately haven’t changed. They believe they are called to something greater than the laity. They think they are imbued with spiritual authority because they give it to one another. No, spiritual authority comes from God. People can occupy offices in the church but the authority comes not from the office but from God. Jesus is the Head of the church, not any priest or bishop. While I respect all of the folks here on this thread and the call on their life, ordination from men or institutions doesn’t grant more authority in the church. That comes from God. The scriptures teach us that we are a royal priesthood (ALL OF US NOT SOME OF US). There is a priesthood of ALL believers, not just some. We are ALL living stones being built together to be the house of God. When institutions start creating classes of people in the church (which they have and it is not scriptural) we are doomed. I am finding that trying to function in this church spiritually is so difficult because (lay) people don’t want to because they have been taught not to by the priests. So, its a vicious cycle, self perpetuating and almost impossible to change.


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