The Protestant Problem with Priesthood

Many aspects of Anglicanism can perplex other Protestants—including at times the suggestion that Anglicans are Protestants (the English Martyrs, the 39 Articles, and all that notwithstanding).[1] Those things to which suspicion attaches are generally aspects of Anglican polity and liturgy that seem “Catholic”—that is, those things that share names or appearances with what one might see in a Roman Catholic Church—never mind that underneath those outward similarities are often significant theological divergences from Roman Catholic doctrine..

But of all of these it is the notion of priesthood that prompts a threshold objection by many Protestants to Anglicanism. Among Protestants, only Anglicans retain the nomenclature of priest for their clergy, rather than exclusively using functional descriptors instead (e.g., preacher, pastor, or the more generic “minister”)—all terms Anglicans also use, albeit sometimes in different ways.

Even among those other Protestants who don clerical collars or wear priest-like vestments in worship, the word “priest” is not used. Bishops, curiously, seem fine for Methodists, Lutherans, and those in some Holiness traditions (for example), but never “priest.” The word for most Protestants with Reformation sensibilities is simply too loaded.

There is a difference, of course, in how Anglicans (and Roman Catholics) read the Biblical texts with respect to ordering church polity. Anglicans see as informing those scripture passages the long tradition of the church from early centuries on, with its threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons. Meanwhile, many other Protestants hold that this polity was in error for all those years—especially as there is no explicit notion in the New Testament church of a Christian leader being called a priest—despite thorough familiarity with the idea and the vocabulary. And the importance of Apostolic Succession through the laying on of hands by bishops complicates the discussion further.[2] Those debates, as important as they are unresolvable, are beyond the scope of this essay, which will discuss the transcending theological objections to the notion of a clergy priesthood after Jesus.

At the outset it is important to note that while some Protestants may think the Anglican priesthood seems “Catholic,” Roman Catholics deny the Anglican priesthood has any equality with theirs or even see it as a valid priesthood—a stance that has long vexed Anglicans. Pope Leo XIII in the 1896 Apostolicae Curae declared Anglican orders “absolutely null and utterly void,” and that was reaffirmed in 1998 under Pope John Paul II and later reinforced during Benedict XVI’s papacy. Certainly, Anglican theology about the Eucharist (essentially Reformed and explicitly rejecting transubstantiation) is itself enough to highlight the differences in the notion of priesthood between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. But other doctrines and practices (including priestly celibacy) also make the point.

But from the Protestant side, it is undoubtedly the nature of the medieval priesthood and the associated abuses that cause non-Anglican Protestants to look askance at the Anglican priesthood—even though the worst of those abuses were interestingly not in Britain at all, but on the European Continent, and certainly not after the English Reformation.

While the great disputes of the Reformation—the Solas—were not in the main about priests per se, hardly a single matter in contention at the Reformation did not have at its center the priest. It was the priest who made the priestly sacrifice of expiation at the Mass that assured forgiveness of sins. It was the priest who heard confession and was thus integral to bestowing the forgiveness necessary to ensure salvation. It was the priest who oversaw masses for the dead, and thus was the necessary interlocutor to help speed along the purgation of one’s loved ones. It was the priest who (despite often being ignorant and poorly schooled) was the interpreter of Scripture to those who had no Bible to read in the vernacular. There was no salvation apart from the church; there was no church without the priest; therefore, there was no salvation without the priest. Indeed, the priest’s sacrifice at the altar seemed to have a more immediate importance than the distant sacrifice at Calvary. And the forgiveness on offer by the priest (subject to appropriate penance) was more visible and thus seemingly more relevant than the forgiveness obtained on the Cross.

To some degree this was a caricature of the role of the medieval priest, but like most caricatures it was entirely recognizable, even if not universal. Indeed, before the Reformation the idea that one could approach the throne of God without the mediation of a priest was surely to many unthinkable—and of course most had no reason to think it, as many did not read, and if they did, they did not read the Bible or have access to it.

The Reformation curatives to a distorted and inflated view of the priesthood were two great Biblical truths that seemed to undercut Roman Catholic doctrine—both with respect to the priesthood and more generally to the larger issues (transubstantiation, the sacrifice of the Mass, the interpretation of Scripture, etc.)—doctrines that required a view of priest as unique and indispensable mediator between man and God. It is difficult to discern how strongly the Reformers would have reacted against medieval notions of the priesthood were it not for the abuses they were seeking to address, abuses that seemed to usurp the role of Christ himself while conveniently creating no small amount of financial gain for the Church at the same time. All of this made it well-nigh impossible not to assail the mediating role of priest as it was then on display.

The first of these foundational doctrines is that there is but one true priest and mediator for humanity: Jesus Christ, “the one mediator between God and men” (1 Tim. 2:5, ESV), our “great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God” (Heb 4:14). The writer of Hebrews is the most emphatic that Christ is our one mediating priest. As Robert Terwilliger notes, “Jesus is the end of all other priesthoods.”[3] Five times our Prayer Book invokes Jesus as “our only Mediator and Advocate.”[4]

Integral to this is that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was complete and efficacious at that Good Friday moment—in Anglican Prayer Book terms that Christ “made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” The mediating action of the priest to repeat or continue or apply the sacrifice of the Mass was thereby unnecessary. That work on our account at Golgotha was finished, full-stop, by Christ, our one mediator, our one priest.

The second truth is that the Church is a priesthood of all believers. Indeed, Christ made his church “a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Rev 1:6) and “a holy priesthood.” (1 Pet 2:5). The writer of Hebrews plainly stresses the role of the church as priestly (Heb 13:10-16). While some Protestants often give an individualistic gloss to this doctrine—at times wrongly distorting it into the notion of “private judgment,” Terwilliger rightly observes, “it cannot mean the priesthood of each believer separately, but the priesthood of the whole body which is the body of Christ the priest, in whom all Christians are members together.”[5] It is worth noting that the writer of Hebrews did not see the notion of a single mediating priest and a Church that was also a priesthood as in any way incongruous or contradictory. As Thomas Hopko notes, these two priesthoods are in fact one and the same—and the “sacramental priesthood is the objective sacramental realization and expression within the church of this one priesthood.”[6]

These two indisputable Biblical positions did force a correction to the skewed view of the Roman Catholic priesthood, and they can also be found in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, which strongly stresses both of these points usually identified with Protestant criticism of the Roman Catholic priesthood.[7]

But if in the New Testament there are no Christian priests as we know them, and if Scripture identifies Christ as our one great high priest and the church as a priesthood—where and what is the basis for having some other sort of priest at all? And what exactly would that priest’s role be, without supplanting either Christ or his Church?

Anglicans would respond that these questions should be pointers to why it is right to have priests, and what functions they serve. Indeed, it could be said that Anglicans have priests because Christ is our one priest and because his Church is a priesthood of all believers. Priests are not in contradiction to these twin certainties about priesthood, but because of them, and springing from them. They provide and reflect the Biblical model. They define the essence of priesthood. Just as the priesthood of all believers, properly exercised, in no way dilutes or diminishes or competes with the singular priesthood of Christ, neither does the ministerial priesthood, properly exercised, supplant either Christ as priest or the Church as priesthood. Indeed, the human priesthoods when properly lived out should be extensions and reflections and agents of Christ’s priesthood, organic to and inseparable from Christ’s priesthood. Just as others should see Christ in us individually, and Christ in his Body the Church, they should see Christ’s priesthood in those who act as his priests.

Perhaps as we consider this problem of nomenclature, an analogy can be helpful.[8] In the Navy, when an officer in command is rendered honors when boarding a ship, the boatswain rings the appropriate number of bells denoting the officer’s rank, and then announces the officer. But the name announced is not the officer’s own, but the name of the command the officer holds. So, for the commanding officer of my first ship, USS America, for example, the boatswain would announce, “America, arriving.” This officer, of course is not the USS America, and is self-evidently not a ship. He is not capable of doing what that ship does. Neither is that commanding officer the only person who belongs to that ship: he is but one of many hundreds, each of whom have a critical role in the operation of the vessel doing things the captain cannot do—and who in a corporate sense are more “the ship” than the captain. There are certain critical things that only a ship captain can do, not because he is special, but simply because he has been the one charged to do them. Owing to his gifts—including that of leadership—as well as the unique responsibility and trust that have been placed upon him, he has for limited purposes been equated in title with the ship itself. This name he carries only because there is a ship with that name, one that comprises a ship’s company of which he is part. While his being named for that moment as the ship itself is a high privilege, it is one that reminds him and others of the great trust that has been placed on him and his responsibility both to the ship and those in his care, with whom he serves. It also emphasizes that his own personhood has been set aside because of his calling to serve as captain: his own name is absent from the honors. In short, this honor equating him with his ship is an emblem of service and of sacrifice.

The priesthood vis-à-vis Christ’s priesthood and that of the church is likewise. The priest does not replace the One Priest, any more than the ship captain replaces the ship. The priest does have certain distinct duties placed upon him. But neither his being priest nor discharging these duties diminishes the priesthood role of the Church, any more than the ship captain diminishes his crew by fulfilling his function. The priest does carry the name priest—as a reminder of trust and responsibility, both to the One Priest and to the Church who depend upon him. The priest has set his self to the side in service to Christ and his Church. There is nothing unbiblical about one who is already a member of the “holy priesthood” of the Church that is serving our One Priest himself being called a priest.

If, then, it is proper that we have a priesthood, what is it that distinguishes that priesthood from the priesthood of all believers? One can draw this distinction by function, most visibly by those discrete duties associated with the Anglican priest’s role of parish rector or vicar. The priest there is the pastor and spiritual leader; he preaches and teaches God’s Word; he baptizes and oversees preparation for Confirmation; he administers Holy Communion; he pronounces absolution; he conducts marriage services; he provides counseling and opportunity for confession; he attends the sick and dying; he buries the dead. Such a definition, however, would be insufficient on multiple grounds. Within Anglican polity, a bishop (who is also a priest and deacon) can do all these functions; a deacon can do most of them; the laity can do some of them. Most importantly, this partial list describes what a priest may do: it is not the essence of what and who a priest is.

There are various ways of saying what a priest is, but three roles in particular stand out, and all three are also found in Christ himself, whose ministry the priest should emulate.

First, the priest is a servant leader. As Jesus did, he leads by giving himself for the sake of others—in this case for Christ and for those for whom the priest is pastor. That he is called to serve selflessly does not obviate his call to leadership and proper exercise of authority. In his preaching—in which he has the authority of one who proclaims the Gospel—in his teaching, and in his oversight of discipline (including, if necessary, maintaining the integrity of Holy Communion by determining who comes to the altar), he protects the boundaries of the faith. His call to service is a call to lead and guide in a way that brings to safety and keeps secure those in his care—by word and by example.

Second, the priest is one who offers sacrifice. In some sense, every person in every vocation makes sacrifices. But few vocations demand that one set one’s very self aside so to reflect another in everything said and done. But this is what the priest is called to do: to “put on Christ,” to reflect Christ in all he does. Just as the Church is to be Christ’s Body, so is the priest as a leader of the Church is to be likewise, and even more plainly so. The discipline of celibacy in the Roman Church, for all its problems, does at least honestly recognize and provide a constant reminder of the depth of sacrifice that the priest will be called to endure. All that most of us take for granted as “ours”—even in trust from God—the priest must give to those he serves. The priest’s life is marked by Christ’s sacrifice, and in each of the functions above as in the totality of his ministry and his life, is called to re-present the sacrifice of Christ. The priest is prompted and called by the sacrifice of Christ for sacrifice, in its many dimensions. And like Christ, the priest will have the rewards of anguish and rejection. The priest is also integral to offering the sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving of the people at the Eucharist, and in re-presenting to them Christ’s “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world” and through the Eucharist joining them together as beneficiaries of that sacrifice.

Finally, the priest is one who mediates. This word is likely to cause angst among non-Anglican Protestants, given the baggage that comes with the notion of mediation. But the Anglican notion of mediation is not that the priest is indispensable to the communication between God and man, or that he is a gatekeeper for those seeking Christ (or vice versa). It is always, as FitzSimons Allison notes, the Gospel itself that “mediates and relates us to Christ.”[9] The mediation of the priest, as a minister of this mediating Gospel, is rather much more in the sense of facilitation and advocacy, of standing in that place where he might best show the way between where we are and where we ought to be, between our fallen state as sinners in need of God’s grace and mercy and that state of glory to which we are called. He is between God and man, but not as an obstacle or impediment, a tollbooth or gateway. The priest is there as a sign, or a navigational aid, or as one who goes with us because he knows where and how to ask for help when we might not. He is a mediator also in the sense of being an agent, one who in ministry and manner of life, in the preaching of the Word and in administration of the Sacraments represents Christ to us, not because of any insufficiency on the part of Christ or inaccessibility of Christ, but as an obedient witness and advocate on his behalf. At the same time, the priest is an agent for those in his flock, ceaselessly and energetically interceding on their behalf in prayer, and doing all he can to bring them closer to Christ and further in faith, as a “representative person of this holy folk, the people of God, the body of Christ.”[10] As such mediating agent the priest advances both the cause of Christ and his Church—and in the process also corrects the errant views of mediation that helped prompt the Reformation..

The Reformers saw clericalism as one of the negative results of errant theology, and to a great extent the churches spawned from the Reformation aimed to reduce the theological distance between priest and parishioner, between clergy and laity. This was a healthy reflex and a necessary corrective to distortions in doctrine and polity. But the temptation of clericalism is arguably as evident, or more so, in some of today’s Protestant churches, the Reformation focus on preaching having too often morphed into a focus on preacher. As one example, putting the pulpit in the center—so to deemphasize the centrality of the priest’s mediating role in the Eucharist and reemphasize the Word—arguably resulted in the preacher instead becoming the greater center of focus. When such shifts (however effected) approach creating a personality cult, one can discern a role being ascribed to the Protestant preacher far transcending the claimed mediating role of the medieval priesthood at its worst. In short, the risk of clericalism exists no matter what one’s theological bent, as with idolatry in its other manifestations.

Anglicans should not be reluctant to use the nomenclature priest or to fully embrace and defend the Anglican notion of priesthood. Properly articulated and practiced, it stands as a pointer and reflection of Christ as our one High Priest whose sacrifice for us was completed on the Cross and the Church as the priesthood of all believers, those for whom that sacrifice was effectual. In so doing it deemphasizes the personality of the clergy member and emphasizes the Christ who calls us together in worship, communion, and service.

  1. Some Anglicans, particularly those who identify as Anglo-Catholics, also reject the identification of Anglicanism as Protestant. Here I use the term to distinguish non-Roman Catholic churches that have their historical roots in the 16th century Protestant Reformation, of which the Church of England was one.
  2. And by no means do non-Anglican Protestants have agreement on church polity, either.
  3. Robert E. Terwilliger, “What is a Priest? —One Anglican View,” in Robert E. Terwilliger and Urban Tigner Holmes, To Be a Priest: Perspectives on Vocation and Ordination (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), 3.
  4. Book of Common Prayer 2019 (Anglican Liturgy Press), 98, 112, 129, 679 (twice).
  5. Terwilliger, 6.
  6. Thomas Hopko, “What is a Priest? –An Orthodox Statement,” in Terwilliger and Holmes, 25.
  7. U.S. Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church (Garden City: Image, 1995) Paragraphs 1544-1533, 429-432.
  8. The use of the masculine pronoun here is in no way intended to be a commentary on the suitability of women as priests or ship captains.
  9. C. FitzSimons Allison, “What is a Priest? –Another Anglican View,” in Terwilliger and Holmes, 13.
  10. Allison, 12.

Alexander Whitaker

Alexander Whitaker is President of King University in Bristol, Tenn., where he is also Professor of Law and Religion. He has law degrees from the University of Virginia and Georgetown University, and before his higher education career was an active-duty captain in the Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps. An Anglican layperson and former ACNA diocesan chancellor, he holds graduate theology degrees from Duke University and Trinity School for Ministry, where he has served as trustee for more than a decade.

'The Protestant Problem with Priesthood' have 4 comments

  1. June 8, 2020 @ 10:36 am Sudduth Cummings

    Splendid article and clear explanation. Thank you for quoting The Rt. Rev. Robert Terwilliger, whose voice has been largely lost since his untimely death. As one who was deeply blessed by his teaching at General Seminary, and the recipient of his extensive training in how to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, I was formed by his wisdom and learning. (However, noting the weaknesses of my own ministry, I needed to learn more!) He became a mentor a friend, preaching at my ordination to the priesthood and at my Institution as Rector of a parish. Among many other clergy, I cherish his memory and am grateful for how God used him in shaping us as well as for his faithful witness to the apostolic, catholic, and evangelical faith once delivered to the saints.


  2. June 8, 2020 @ 11:46 am Kevin Davis

    Very interesting and informative. On the point that “The mediating action of the priest to repeat or continue or apply the sacrifice of the Mass was thereby unnecessary,”and related points, I assume that the Roman Catholic response would say that the sacrifice of the mass offers the sanctifying benefits of Christ’s sacrifice, not the justification of the individual. After all, in RC doctrine, the faithful must be in a state of grace (“saved”) in order to receive the Eucharist and receive its benefits. The reception of Holy Communion sanctifies and strengthens those in a state of grace, and thus it presupposes salvation, namely through baptism and faith. It does not confer salvation as such; rather, it strengthens those saved. That seems like an important distinction, sometimes lost when Protestants say that the RC doctrine of the sacrifice of the mass is what brings salvation (aligned with justification in typical Protestant sensibility) to the individual, when it actually presupposes that the individual is already justified.


  3. June 8, 2020 @ 3:15 pm Sudduth Cummings

    Suggestion: Leander Harding’s book on Anglican priesthood is a jewel of clarity and sound theology. Titled “To Persevere in Love: Meditations on the Ministerial Priesthood from an Anglican Perspective,” 2013, Wipf and Stock, I’d commend it to anyone exploring the nature and theology of priesthood in the Anglican tradition. I’ve suggested it or given copies to newly ordained clergy, seminarians and clergy from other traditions exploring Anglicanism.


  4. June 10, 2020 @ 7:42 am Cynthia Erlandson

    Really good article. The analogy of a ship’s captain, and the explanation of the protestant pastor’s pulpit being centered — thus emphasizing him and de-emphasizing Holy Communion — were particularly helpful.


Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

(c) 2024 North American Anglican