Anglican Orders of Ministry Part I

During the Reformation the Church of England, along with a minority of other Protestant churches[1] maintained its pre-Reformation episcopalian polity, with its three orders of deacon, presbyter, and bishop. In this two-part essay, I explore the Anglican orders of ministry. In this first part, I begin by discussing episcopalian polity generally; in the subsequent piece I will discuss the three orders individually.

The preface to the Ordinal[2] in the Book of Common Prayer (1662) provides a brief overview:

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 Christ’s Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.[3] Which Offices were evermore had in such reverend Estimation, that no man might presume to execute any of them, except he were first called, tried, examined, and known to have such qualities as are requisite for the same; and also by public Prayer, with Imposition of Hands, were approved and admitted thereunto by lawful Authority.[4] And therefore, to the intent that these Orders may be continued, and reverently used and esteemed in the Church of England, no man shall be accounted or taken to be a lawful Bishop, Priest, or Deacon, in the Church of England, or suffered to execute any of the said Functions, except he be called, tried, examined, and admitted thereunto, according to the Form hereafter following, or hath had Episcopal Consecration, or Ordination.

The preface begins with a historical claim; namely, that three orders of ministry are traceable to the time of the apostles.

A three-fold order as such cannot be found in the pages of the New Testament and was not universally known during the Apostolic Age. While all three words appear in the New Testament with reference to the ministry of the Church (along with others), they are used with a degree of fluidity that indicates the clearly defined orders of a later age were not yet known. Too few texts survive from the period for us to offer a perfectly clear reconstruction. However, it is clear that roles and offices differed somewhat from place to place in this period and developed in different ways over the following centuries. There is a voluminous literature investigating the development of early church polity on which I will touch briefly.[5]

Jerome, writing in the late fourth century, believed there had been a gradual development towards the organizational system known in his day:

[W]ith the ancients the same persons were presbyters who were also bishops, but that gradually, in order that the plants of dissension might be uprooted, the entire administration was transferred to one. Therefore, as presbyters may know that by the custom of the church they are subject to the one who has been placed over them, so also bishops may understand that they are greater than presbyters more by custom than by the veritable ordinance of the Lord. (Commentary on Titus 1.5)

Though different historical reconstructions abound, scholarly consensus seems to support the conclusion that three distinct orders of ordained ministry may be traced to within the lifetime of (at least) the St. John the Apostle.[6]

The earliest explicit reference to the three-fold ministry is to be found in the Ignatian Epistles (c. 107).[7] Besides Ignatius, the other three extant texts (outside the New Testament) of roughly equal antiquity are the Epistle of Polycarp, I Clement, and the Shepherd of Hermas, which, despite references to ministry, do not suggest familiarity with the three, tiered orders Ignatius describes. The evidence indicates that church polity was not uniform at the time that Ignatius was writing, but the three orders do seem to become universal by the middle of the second century.

Beyond stating that “from the Apostles’ time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ’s Church” the Ordinal does not insist. As Paul Avis explains,

The English Reformers did not regard episcopacy as essential to the life of the Church for the simple reason that they held with all the Reformers that the Church is constituted by the gospel expressed in word and sacrament: while these are necessary to salvation, any particular form of polity is not.[8]

Ordained ministry itself was not regarded as indifferent (on the contrary, on that the New Testament is clear), but systems of organization could be altered according to need. The chief reason for this view is articulated in Article VI:

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

The lack of a biblical injunction regarding polity meant that it could not be regarded as necessary.

Another contributing factor was the difficulty of coming to terms with the failure of the episcopacy to safeguard biblical doctrine. Irenaeus’ (c. 130 – 202), Against Heresies was well known to all the Reformers. In this defence of apostolic doctrine from various groups collectively referred to as gnostics, the second-century Bishop of Lyons argued that the person-to-person chain of leadership from the apostles to his own day formed a safeguard against erroneous and dangerous teaching.[9] But, the sixteenth century Reformers were faced with the question of what to do when bishops safeguard doctrines repugnant to the Gospel. In places where the historic episcopal establishment persecuted the Reformation, the episcopacy failed to safeguard “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3), and it became necessary to take other means for the ordering of the ministry. By unexpected twists and turns of providence, in England (and a few other places) the Reformation gained allies within the highest levels of the establishment, allowing the Ecclesia Anglicana to maintain its historic structure.

By the late sixteenth-century a number of divines came to believe the bible did in fact prescribe a model of polity. In 1570, the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, Thomas Cartwright gave a series of lectures arguing that presbyterian polity was divinely instituted and, therefore, no indifferent matter. Cambridge Vice-Chancellor John Whitgift (who was elevated to Canterbury in 1583) responded:

The substance and matter of government must indeed be taken out of the word of God, and consisteth in these points, that the word be truly taught, the sacraments rightly administered, virtue furthered, vice repressed, and the church kept in quietness and order. The offices in the church, whereby this government is wrought, be not namely and particularly expressed in the scriptures, but in some points left to the discretion and liberty of the church, to be disposed according to the state of times, places, and persons.[10]

Following Whitgift, Richard Hooker defended the Elizabethan settlement against Cartwright, Laurence Chaderton, John Rainolds and others who argued for presbyterianism.[11] It should be noted that while these divines fall under the broad umbrella of “puritan,” they were decidedly not separatists; they argued about the constitution of the Anglican Church from within it, rather than criticize it from without (indeed, they all opposed the Brownists). Chaderton and Rainolds both participated in King James’s Hampton Court Conference and served as translators for the new authorized Bible translation of 1611. Rianolds and Hooker were lifelong friends, despite their different views on the direction the Church of England ought to take. Although it would have strengthened his case to assert (as his prebyterian interlocutors did) that a particular form of polity was divinely ordained, Hooker was unwilling to go beyond the clear testimony of Scripture. Like Whitgift, Hooker maintained that polity is a question of order not doctrine and “Laws touching matter of order are changeable, by the power of the Church; articles concerning doctrine not so” (Lawes V.8). For Hooker, episcopacy is of apostolic origin, but not divinely ordained; its maintenance is desirable, but not necessary.

John Bridges, Bishop of Oxford and Thomas Bilson, Bishop of Winchester both claimed more for episcopacy than its antiquity, catholicity, and desirability. Bridges (in 1587) and Bilson (in 1593) argued that episcopacy is jure divino (by divine law) and, therefore, necessary.[12] They do not spell out what their position means for foreign Protestant churches, most of which were not able to maintain the episcopacy. Bishop Joseph Hall’s (1640) Episcopacy by Divine Right Asserted (written under Laud’s supervision) maintained that in cases of necessity it may be dispensed with. Though most conformists embraced the jure divino position, there remained considerable disagreement over what exactly that meant.[13] For example, Bishop Hall, whose work became a standard of the jure divio position, said concerning the international body of Protestant divines assembled at Dort,

[T]here is no difference in any essential matter between the Church of England and her sisters of the Reformation… the only difference is in the form of outward administration, wherein we are so far agreed as that we all profess this form not to be essential to the being of a church, though much importing the well or better being of it according to our several apprehensions.[14]

During the Interregnum, Bishop Cosin and others in exile with Charles II received communion in the Huguenot church, on the grounds that their lack of episcopal orders was forced upon them.

After the 166o Restoration a significant change was introduced into the Ordinal. Previously, the Church of England had always accepted into its own ministry those who had been ordained in other Protestant churches. After 1662 only those who had episcopal ordination were admitted into ministry, requiring re-ordination for any who lacked it. This alteration strained the relationship between the Anglican and other Protestant churches. Nevertheless, while episcopal ordination was required within the Church of England, it did not imply the un-churching of all non-episcopalian Protestants. Bishop Burnet’s 1699 Exposition of the Articles, continues in Bishop Hall’s line, maintaining that where episcopacy could not be maintained another constitution was permissible.[15] Archbishop Wake wrote,

I could have wished that the episcopal form of church government had been retained by all of them [the Reformed churches]. In the meanwhile, far be it from me to be so iron-hearted that on account of a defect of this kind . . . I should believe that some of them are to be broken off from our communion, or, with certain insane writers among us should assert, that they have no true and valid sacraments.[16]

After the 1660 Restoration, the historic pattern of Christian ministry became a definitive part of the Anglican identity. Though disagreement continued over what to think of the ordained ministry of non-episcopalian churches outside of England, virtually all agreed in the value and benefit of maintaining the historic polity of the church.

Continuity with antiquity was one of the chief reasons the episcopacy was so highly valued. Article XXXIV helps explain this reasoning more fully:

Whosoever through his private judgement, 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 woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren.

If the structure handed down from ancient times does not conflict with the scriptures but answers to the biblical aim, end, or telos of Christian ministry, wisdom recommends its maintenance. As Hooker says,

Neither may we in this case lightly esteem what hath been allowed as fit in the judgement of antiquity, and by the long continued practice of the whole Church; from which unnecessarily to swerve, experience hath never as yet found it safe. (Laws V.vii.1).

The continuity thereby preserved provides stability, strength, and comfort.

In his epistle to the Philippians, Paul wrote, “Join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.… Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (3.17; 4.9). Similarly, he censures those who did not live “according to the tradition that they received from us” (II Thess. 3.6). To the unruly Corinthians the apostle asks, “What have you that you did not receive?” (4.7). In reception, therefore, the faith of the Christian lies. We have received, undeservedly, a perfect salvation from God in Jesus Christ. We have not wrought this hope with our own hands or minds; we only receive it. This principle of humble, grateful reception ties together all that we believe and do as disciples of Christ. This attitude is an antidote against strife and disorder. And, as Paul also told the Corinthians, “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints” (I Cor. xiv.33).

That being said, I hasten to add, in Cranmer’s memorable words “There was never anything by the wit of man so well devised, or so surely established, which (in continuance of time) hath not been corrupted” (Preface to the Prayer Book, 1549). The principle of grateful reception should not be made the enemy of repentance; which is none other than recognition of our constant tendency to err and a will to change. We daily confess, “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,” and such errors accumulate over time. That too, is part of the benefit of experience — learning from our mistakes. So, Article XXI, regarding ecumenical councils of the church, explains,

They may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.

The Anglican Formularies, then, aim for a balance between reception and repentance. The rulings of councils and the ancient traditions of the church are not to be ignored, nor lightly dismissed, but they must be evaluated in light of the Scriptures, which they too aimed to understand, follow, and apply in their particular circumstances. So Basil of Caeseria said, “We are not content simply because this is the tradition of the Fathers. What is important is that the Fathers followed the meaning of the Scripture” (On the Holy Spirit, 7:16). Indeed, this is the very essence of ministry, as Paul wrote to Timothy

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. I charge thee therefore… Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. …[W]atch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry. (II Tim. 3.16-4.1-2, 5)

The Formularies will not allow us to conceive of the historic episcopacy as an end in itself, but always as a means for carrying out the purposes for which ordained Christian ministry was instituted.

In the second part of this essay, I explore the Anglican understanding of the particular orders of deacon, presbyter, and bishop.

  1. E.g., the Moravians, the Church of Sweden, the Church of Denmark, et al.
  2. I.e., The Form and manner of Making, Ordaining, and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, According to the Order of the Church of England.
  3. In Europe by the high Middle Ages the picture was significantly more complex. Chrsitian ministry was understood preeminently as the sacerdos offering the sacrifice of the mass; all other orders were understood in relation to that. It was generally held that there are seven orders: the three major orders of priest, deacon, and subdeacon and the four minor orders of doorkeeper, reader, exorcist, and acolyte. The status of the bishop as an order was ambiguous — equal to the priest in relation to the mass but over the priest in ecclessiastical hierarchy. Aquinas, for example, in Summa Suppl. q. 37, a. 2 identifies nine orders (the seven already named along with bishop first and psalmist between exorcist and reader), but then says bishop and psalmist are not orders properly speaking to reduce the number to seven. He says the work of the priest is “ordinary perfection,” the work of the bishop, “excellent perfection,” and the work of the pope, “most excellent perfection.” It is not until Suppl. q. 40, a. 5, that he directly addresses this confusion, explaining that, as every order “is directed to the sacrament of the Eucharist,” the episcopate is not an order; i.e., the bishop has no more power than the priest in relation to the sacramental body of Christ. However, in that the bishop has a different office in the church and, in relation to the mystical body of Christ, a power which the priest does not have (i.e., conferral of orders and confirmation), in this other sense, it indeed is an order of ministry.
  4. Article XXIII. Of Ministering in the CongregationIt is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of public preaching, or ministering the Sacraments in the Congregation, before he be lawfully called, and sent to execute the same.

    And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men who have public authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.

  5. Bishop of Durham J. B. Lightfoot pioneered the historical-critical investigation of these developments in “The Christian Ministry” (appended to his 1868 commentary on Philippians); his work, though dated, remains a classic and, in the words of  Geoffrey R. Treloar “became the basis for subsequent Anglican reflection on the ministry” (Lightfoot the Historian, 1998). The subsequent literature could fill a library; for some of the more notable recent treatments see: Kevin Giles (2017) Patterns of Ministry among the First Christians: Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged; Alistair C. Stewart (2014) The Original Bishops: Office and Order in the First Christian Communities; Benjamin L. Merkle (2003) The Elder and Overseer: One Office in the Early Church; Francis Sullivan (2001) From Apostles to Bishops: The Development of the Episcopacy in the Early Church.
  6. In demonstrating this, Bishop Lightfoot believed he had vindicated the position maintained by the Ordinal. Lightfoot was surprised by those who thought his findings undermined the episcopacy. In an 1888 homily) he says “We cannot afford to sacrifice any portion of the faith once delivered to the saints; we cannot surrender for any immediate advantages the threefold ministry which we have inherited from Apostolic times, and which is the historic backbone of the Church” (qtd. from Damian J. Palmer, 2014, Negotiating the Historic Episcopate: Christian Unity Discussions Between the Anglican and Non-Episcopal Communions 1888-1938, unpublished PhD thesis, p. 40).
  7. Bishop of Antioch and, according to tradition, a student of the Apostle John. He was arrested (for his faith, though the precise provocation is unknown) and taken to Rome where his letters indicate he expected to face torture. While en route he wrote letters to churches in Asia Minor and one to his friend Polycarp (traditionally held to be another disciple of St. John). While the earliest references to the three-fold ministry are found in his letters, it would be incorrect to read into Ignatius developments of a later age. In Ignatius, the bishop is overseer and Eucharistic presider of a single community. Moreover, he hardly ever mentions the bishops apart from the presbytery and diaconate. E.g., “your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ” (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, 1885, edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe). A collegial polity seems indicated. Absent are the claims that the episcopacy/presidency derived from the apostles or that ordination was restricted to the bishop. See Allen Brent (2007) Ignatius of Antioch: A Martyr Bishop and the Origin of Episcopacy, pp. 161.
  8. Paul Avis (2002) The Church in the Theology of the Reformers, p. 116.
  9. Irenaeus introduces the concept of succession not to discuss the validity of orders (much less how they are conferred) but to argue that the doctrine of the Church had been unchanged since the apostles. Episcopal and presbyterial succession are used interchangeably in Adversus Haereses. See John Behr (2001) The Way to Nicaea: Formation of Christian Theology, Vol. 1, p. 42; Colin Buchanan (1961) “The Church of England and Apostolic Succession,” The Churchman 75(1), p. 22; Jeffrey G. Sobosan (1974)“The Role of the Presbyter: An Investigation into the Adversus Haereses of Saint Irenaeus,” Scottish Journal of Theology 27(2), p. 140.
  10. Works, Vol. I, pg. 6
  11. Stanley Archer summarizes Hooker’s position: “While he argues that the rank originated with the Apostles, enjoyed divine approval, and flourished throughout Christendom, he rejects the view inherent in the Catholic position that the office is divinely commanded or is a result of divine law.” Archer (1993), “Hooker on Apostolic Succession: The Two Voices”, The Sixteenth Century Journal 24:1.
  12. Avis (2002) p. 126.
  13. Anthony Milton (1995) summarizes the development of views of the episcopacy within the early Church of England in Catholic and Reformed: The Roman and Protestant Churches in English Protestant Thought, 1600-1640, pp. 454-477. Milton writes “Even among those who upheld episcopacy as jure divino, there were implicit disagreements about what the term actually signifies, although this may have served to encourage the doctrine’s passive acceptance rather than reduce it. It was with some justice that the Calvinist conformist Robert Sanderson observed that ‘the truth is, all this ado about Ius Divinum is in the last result no more than a verbal nicety: that term being not always taken in the one and the same latitude of signification” (pg. 458).
  14. Nathaniel Dimock (1910) Christian Unity, p. 34.
  15. See his explanation of Article 23.
  16. J. T. Tomlinson, “The Attitude of the Church of England Towards the Ministry of Non-Episcopal Churches.”

Drew Keane

Drew Nathaniel Keane is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University and a PhD candidate in the School of English at the University of St. Andrews, writing a thesis (tentatively) titled The Use of the Prayer Book: The Book of Common Prayer (1549-1604) as Technical Writing for an Oral-Aural Culture. With Samuel L. Bray, he edited the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition (IVP Academic, March 2021). From 2012 to 2018 he served on the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. More of his work is available at

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