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The Meaning of Ordained Priesthood in Ecumenical Dialogues by Herbert J.Ryan from 'To be a priest', edited by Robert E. Terwilliger and Urban T. Holmes

The Meaning of Ordained Priesthood in Ecumenical Dialogues

by Herbert J.Ryan

from To be a priest, pp. 91-99,
edited by Robert E. Terwilliger and Urban T. Holmes, Seabury Press, New York, 1975.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions.

Herbert J.Ryan, S.J. is associate professor of historical theology at Loyola University at Los Angeles. He has taught at the General Theological Seminary in New York and has a wide range of experience in ecumenical contact, both formal and informal, between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.

In contemporary theology there is no question more difficult, more controversial or more urgent than the meaning of the ordained ministry. The difficulty arises not only from the pastoral aspects of the question but from the different decisions that the Christian churches have made in the course of history to assure that in differing cultural and political circumstances the life of the Gospel be lived meaningfully, Christ’s message preached intelligibly and the saving mission which Christ received from the Father and entrusted to his Apostles be carried out faithfully in the Spirit. The neuralgic question which underlies the meaning of the ordained ministry is that of the apostolicity of the Church. Apostolicity is the technical theological term that grapples with the whole cluster of problems related to the question of how a Christian community may know that its life and message are authentically in continuity with the early churches formed by Jesus’ disciples to carry on Christ’s saving mission.(1)

The meaning of the ordained ministry is most certainly controversial. Each Christian church maintains that it is in living continuity with the early Church and that its witness of sacramental life and preaching makes the person and message of Christ meaningful for today’s world. Yet not all Christian churches are in agreement concerning the most obvious questions about the ordained ministry. The first two world conferences on Faith and Order held at Lausanne in 1927 and Edinburgh in 1937 recognized the need for a “ministry acknowledged in every part of the Church as possessing the sanction of the whole Church.”(2) Such a situation still does not exist. Yet if one may boldly summarize fifty years of ecumenical dialogue on the ordained ministry it would appear that an ecumenical consensus is emerging which would propose that the nature and meaning of the ordained ministry in the whole Christian Church should conform in broad outline to the structure and understanding of the ordained ministry as it existed in the Church at the time of the first four Ecumenical Councils.

As an acknowledged historical leader in the world-wide ecumenical movement, the Episcopal Church has made an outstanding contribution to this emerging consensus. Yet the Episcopal Church, in keeping with the Anglican theological tradition, has not articulated a confessional statement on the nature of the ordained ministry.(3) As Anglicanism generally, so the Episcopal Church has consistently proposed that her doctrine and practice is that found in Scripture and taught by the Ecumenical Councils of the undivided Church. From this self-understanding the Episcopal Church has engaged in ecumenical dialogue on the nature of the ordained ministry. The agreed statements, study documents and proposals which have been the fruit of this dialogue do not represent an articulation of a confessional position. What they do represent are informed prudential judgments which officially appointed members of the Episcopal Church deem to be consistent with their Church’s self-understanding of her doctrine and practice.

What are these ecumenical statements and what do they say about priesthood? In the last five years four ecumenical documents have been produced by groups with official representation from the Episcopal Church. They are: [1] in 1970 A Plan of Union for the Church of Christ Uniting,(4) [2] in 1972 Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue: A Progress Report,(5) [3] in 1973 Ministry and Ordination: A Statement on the Doctrine of the Ministry Agreed by the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (Canterbury Statement),(6) [4] in 1975 One Baptism, One Eucharist and a Mutually Recognized Ministry: Study Documents from the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches.(7) Three of these ecumenical statements are entire books. The length of all four of them prevents their being quoted extensively. They ought really to be studied in full. Yet certain highlights from the statements and a brief comment may at least serve to acknowledge the great effort of ecumenical theology that they represent.

A Plan of Union of the Church of Christ Uniting contains an entire chapter on the ordained ministry of presbyters (priests), bishops and deacons which situates this ministry within the one ministry given by Christ to the Church.

The Section on the Ministry of Presbyters follows that on the Meaning of Ordination and the Care of the Ordained Ministers. This section gives a brief account of the meaning of presbyterate (priesthood) and then describes eight Functions and Responsibilities of Presbyters. Presbyters are [1] Preachers of the Word, [2] Celebrants of the Sacraments, [3] Teachers of the Gospel, [4] Leaders in Mission, [5] Prophets for God, [6] Pastoral Overseers and Administrators, [7] Ecumenical Leaders, [8] participants in Discipline.

The Ministry of Presbyters

42 Presbyters, otherwise known as pastors, priests, or elders, called by God and authorized by the church, are ordained as ministers of the Word and sacraments, of the discipline of the church, and as teachers of the faith. From the beginning, the presbyterate of the church has shared and expressed in particular ways the ministry of Christ, who is redeemer, Lord, prophet, shepherd, teacher, high priest, intercessor, guardian, preacher, servant, and master. The ministry of the presbyter should reflect his call by Christ and his recognition by the people of God.

43 There have been in history many interpretations of the presbyterate and of its relationship with other ordained offices. The united church welcomes the diversity of these interpretations, but seeks to encourage new insights and understanding. All those who are recognized as ordained ministers in any one of the uniting churches at the time of unification will be recognized as ordained ministers by the uniting church. Prior to unification each ordained minister will choose whether to be a presbyter or a lay person in the united church. A lay elder who has been ordained to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, or a ruling elder in any of the uniting churches, through the service of inauguration may become a presbyter in the united church. He may, however, choose to become a deacon or a layman.

“To Be Ministers of Christ,” the seventh chapter of the Plan of Union is a rich statement on the meaning of the ordained priesthood. However, the chapter adopts a functional approach to ordained priesthood with the intention of being inclusive rather than precise. If one were to inquire how the ordained ministerial priesthood differs from the priesthood of all the baptised the answer would be that the priest is “ordained” and the baptised lay person is not. This functional answer points to a very serious weakness in the chapter. The chapter does not provide an adequate understanding of what sacramental ordination is. Ordination is rightly said to be “an act of the whole church.” But is the church" in this statement the local church or congregation with bishop, presbyters and laity or the universal (catholic) church? Who is the effective sacramental agent of the Holy Spirit in the act of ordination? Is it the bishop alone, the bishop joined with his presbyters or the laity joined with their presbyters and bishop? This question is passed over and points to the unresolved tension which runs throughout the chapter: the often brilliant juxtaposition of episcopal order and congregational polity.(8)

The Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue did not explicitly deal with the question of the meaning of the presbyterate (priesthood). However when treating the problem of apostolicity the dialogue necessarily touched on the ordained ministry. Its Progress Report provides an invaluable context for the understanding of the ordained priesthood. The text cited is from the joint report on Apostolicity that was produced at the fourth meeting of the dialogue at Minneapolis in April, 1971.

We agree that apostolicity belongs to the reality of the one holy catholic church; apostolicity is manifested in various ways in all areas of the church’s life, and is guarded especially by common confession and through that function of the church designated as episcope (oversight).

We agree that this substance of apostolic succession must take different forms in differing places and times, if the Gospel is indeed to be heard and received. At the time of the Reformation, one of our communions in its place experienced the continuity of the episcopally ordered ministry as an important means of the succession of the Gospel; in various ways the other in its place was able to take its responsibility of the succession of the Gospel only by a new ordering of its ministry. We agree that by each decision the apostolicity of the ministry in question was preserved, and that each of our communions can and should affirm the decision of the other. Until the Lord of the church grants a new ordering of the church, each communion should respect the right of the other to honor the distinct history which mediates its apostolicity, and to continue that ordering of its ministry which its history has made possible. Within the one church, both the Anglican continuity of the episcopal order, and the Lutheran concentration on doctrine, have been means of preserving the apostolicity of the one church.

For the future, we agree that if either communion should be able to receive the gift of the other’s particular apostolicity, without unfaithfulness to its own, the future of the church would surely be served. In any future ordering of the one church, there will be a ministry and within that ministry an episcope. The functional reality of episcope is in flux in both our communions. If we are faithful, we will together discover the forms demanded by the church’s new opportunities, so that the church may have an episcope which will be an episcope of the apostolic Gospel. Similarly, any future unity of the church will be a unity of common confession. The functional reality of the common confessions of the past (their contemporary interpretation and use) is in flux in both our communions. Our faithfulness will be that we think and pray together seeking to be ready for a new common confession when the Lord shall give us the apostolic boldness to proclaim the Gospel with the freshness and vigor of our fathers in the faith.

The Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue in fact has not directly treated the meaning of priesthood. It has, however, investigated the meaning of the ordained ministry and its role in the apostolicity of the Church. By so doing it has provided a theological context for a future detailed agreement on the nature of the ordained priesthood and how it differs from the priesthood of all believers. The Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue situates the meaning of the ordained ministry, priesthood included, within the notion of episcope (oversight). Episcope is a God-given range of gifts which enable for service (ministerium, ministry) that only the ordained can perform.

Ministry and Ordination, the 1973 Canterbury Statement of ARCIC, deals directly with the question of priesthood. The similarities to both the Plan of Union and the Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue are striking. By dealing directly with the question of ordination the Canterbury Statement clarifies a possible major ambiguity in the treatment afforded that question in the Plan of Union. By specifying what type of episcope only bishops and priests have, the Canterbury Statement expands on some of the same insights that the Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue has expressed.

14. Ordination denotes entry into this apostolic and God-given ministry, which serves and signifies the unity of the local churches in themselves and with one another. Every individual act of ordination is therefore an expression of the continuing apostolicity and catholicity of the whole Church. Just as the original apostles did not choose themselves but were chosen and commissioned by Jesus, so those who are ordained are called by Christ in the Church and through the Church. Not only is their vocation from Christ but their qualification for exercising such a ministry is the gift of the Spirit: “our sufficiency is from God, who has qualified us to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:5-6). This is expressed in ordination, when the bishop prays God to grant the gift of the Holy Spirit and lays hands on the candidate as the outward sign of the gifts bestowed. Because ministry is in and for the community and because ordination is an act in which the whole Church of God is involved, this prayer and laying on of hands takes place within the context of the eucharist.

15. In this sacramental act, {c} the gift of God is bestowed upon the ministers, with the promise of divine grace for their work and for their sanctification; the ministry of Christ is presented to them as a model for their own; and the Spirit seals those whom he has chosen and consecrated. Just as Christ has united the Church inseparably with himself, and as God calls all the faithful to life-long discipleship, so the gifts and calling of God to the ministers are irrevocable. For this reason, ordination is unrepeatable in both our churches.

{c} Anglican use of the word ‘sacrament’ with reference to ordination is limited by the distinction drawn in the Thirty-nine Articles (Article XXV) between the two ‘sacraments of the Gospel’ and the ‘five commonly called sacraments," Article XXV does not deny these latter the name “sacrament,” but differentiates between them and the ‘two sacraments ordained by Christ’ described in the catechism as ‘necessary to salvation’ for all men.

16. Both presbyters and deacons are ordained by the bishop. In the ordination of a presbyter the presbyters present join the bishop in the laying on of hands, thus signifying the shared nature of the commission entrusted to them. In the ordination of a new bishop, other bishops lay hands on him, as they request the gift of the Spirit for his ministry and receive him into their ministerial fellowship. Because they are entrusted with the oversight of other churches, this participation in his ordination signifies that this new bishop and his church are within the communion of churches. Moreover, because they are representative of their churches in fidelity to the teaching and mission of the apostles and are members of the episcopal college, their participation also ensures the historical continuity of this church with the apostolic church and of its bishop with the original apostolic ministry. The communion of the churches in mission, faith and holiness, through time and space, is thus symbolized and maintained in the bishop. Here are comprised the essential features of what is meant in our two traditions by ordination in the apostolic succession.

The Canterbury Statement clarifies how the ordained priesthood differs from the priesthood of all believers by showing what ordination means. In ordination the person ordained receives the gift of episcope from the Holy Spirit. This gift, episcope, belongs “to another realm of the gifts of the Spirit” than those gifts received from the Holy Spirit at Baptism. At their ordination priests (and bishops) receive from the Holy Spirit a gift of liturgical episcope which enables them to preside at the eucharistic liturgy. The effective agent of the Holy Spirit in the act of ordaining a presbyter is the bishop joined with his presbyters. Through his membership in the college of bishops the ordaining bishop simultaneously represents the universal Church to his local church and his local church to the universal Church. The presbyters who join with the ordaining bishop in the laying on of hands represent their individual congregations to the local church. In this way presbyteral ordination is an act of the whole (catholic) Church. The Canterbury Statement explicitly relates how the ordination of a bishop is an act of the whole (catholic) Church and how the bestowal of episcope involves the notion of apostolicity in faith and ministry.

The most detailed ecumenical assessment of the meaning of the ordained ministry is the 1975 Faith and Order Commission Report, One Baptism, One Eucharist and a Mutually Recognized Ministry. The third section of this report is entitled simply “The Ministry.” Excerpts from this section will provide a summary and conclusion to this brief article on the meaning of the ordained priesthood as it is expressed in ecumenical dialogue. The theology of the ordained priesthood which is emerging from these dialogues relates four key theological areas as aids to understanding what ordained priesthood means. These areas are: (1) apostolicity, (2) episcope (oversight), (3) ordination, (4) the difference between the ordained priesthood and the priesthood of all the baptised.

In the Faith and Order Report the ordained ministry is called the “special ministry.” The report shows the connection between the “special ministry” and apostolicity.

13. In order that his redemptive work might be proclaimed and attested to the ends of the earth, and that its fruits might be communicated to man, Christ chose apostles and committed to them the word of reconciliation.(2) Within the first Christian communities the apostles exercised a unique and fundamental function, which could not be handed on. However, in so far as they bore special (but not exclusive) responsibility for proclaiming the message of reconciliation, establishing churches and building them up in the apostolic faith, their ministry had to be continued. Although there was a variety of gifts in the Early Church, the New Testament reports a setting apart to special ministry, distinctions of service were made.(3) This special ministry was essential then—it is essential in all times and circumstances. Such a ministry is exercised by persons who are called within the community and given gifts and authority to transmit the living testimony of the apostles.

The report defines the “special ministry” in terms of episcope.

15. The essential and specific function of the special ministry is; to assemble and build up the Christian community, by proclaiming and teaching the Word of God, and presiding over the liturgical and sacramental life of the eucharistic community. The Christian community and the special ministry are related to one another. The minister cannot exist and fulfil his task in isolation. He needs the support and encouragement of the community. On the other hand, the Christian community needs the special ministry which serves to coordinate and unite the different gifts in the community and to strengthen and enable the ministry of the whole People of God. But above all, this relationship and mutual dependence manifests that the Church is not master of the Word and Sacrament, nor the source of its faith, hope and unity. Christian life as well as the ministry are received from the living Christ in the Church.

Entrance into the “special ministry” is by ordination.

16. The setting apart by God for this special ministry requires from the side of the Church a recognition of which a form is already found in Apostolic times (for example, 2 Timothy 1:6f.) and which later became commonly known as ordination.

The meaning of ordination is initially and briefly described when the Report describes the limits upon the ordained person in the exercise of episcope.

18. The exercise of such ministry has authority which ultimately belongs to Christ who has received it from the Father (Matt. 28:18); it is in this sense a divine authority. On the other hand, since ordination is essentially a setting apart with prayer for the gifts of the Holy Spirit for the continuing constitution and edification of the body, the authority of the ordained ministry is not to be understood as an individual possession of the ordained person but belongs to the whole community in and for which the minister is ordained. Authority in the name of God in its exercise must involve the participation of the whole community. The ordained minister manifests and exercises the authority of Christ in the way Christ himself revealed God’s authority to the world: in and through communion.

The report then discusses ministry and priesthood.

20. Even if the New Testament never uses the terms “priest-hiereus” or “priest-hood-hierateuma” to designate the ordained minister or the ministry, tradition has not been afraid of this usage. Although churches emerging from the Reformation avoid the word priesthood to designate the ordained ministry, churches of the catholic tradition employ this word in diverse forms: priestly ministry, ministerial priesthood, or, more recently, ministry of priesthood. The search for a reconciliation in ministries makes it especially useful to discuss this question of terms.

21. This manner of expression always refers the function of the priests to a priestly reality upon which theirs is based, but which exceeds it—that is, the unique priesthood of Christ and the royal and prophetic, common and universal priesthood of the baptized (1 Peter 2:9; Rev. 1:6, 3:10, 20:6). The priesthood of Christ and the priesthood of the baptized community is a function of sacrifice and intercession. As Christ offers himself for all men, the Christian offers his whole being “as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1). As Christ intercedes to the Father for all men, the Christian prays for the liberation of his human brothers. The minister, who participates, as every Christian does, in the priesthood of Christ, and of all the People of God, fulfils his particular priestly service in strengthening, building up and expressing the royal and prophetic priesthood of the faithful through the service of the Gospel, the leading of the liturgical and sacramental life of the eucharistic community, and intercession.

22. The ordained ministry is then of a completely new and different nature in relation to the sacrificial priesthood of the Old Testament. As He offers his life for the service of the mission in the world and of the edification of the Church, the minister is, as St. Paul says about himself, “a minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:16).(9)


1. An excellent treatment of apostolicity is “Catholicity and Apostolicity: Report of the Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches” in Faith and Order: Louvain 1971. World Council of Churches, Geneva, 1971,133-158. The research papers that formed the basis for this report are published in One in Christ VI-3 (1970), 243-451

2. T. Tatlow, “The World Conference on Faith and Order” in R. Rouse and S.C. Neill, A History of the Ecumenical Movement 1517-1948. The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1968, 405-441.

3. However the Episcopal Church does hold a position on the ordained ministry. Cf. “Statement of Faith and Order” (from the report of the Joint Commission on Approaches to Unity to the General Convention of 1949), Section D. Documents on Church Unity. The Seabury Press, Greenwich, 1962, 14-18. Ibid., Section D, No. 3 treats the priesthood and diaconate. The Tenth Lambeth Conference dealt extensively with the question of the ordained ministry. Cf. The Lambeth Conference 1968: Resolutions and Reports. S.P.C.K. and Seabury Press, London and New York, 1968,98-110. There is a good treatment of the ordained priesthood in Ibid., 100-102. For the issues involved in this Conference and the nature of its documents cf. Herbert J. Ryan, S.J., “Lambeth ‘68: A Roman Catholic Theological Reflection,” Theological Studies XXIX-4 December, 1968), 597-636.

4. A Plan of Union for the Church of Christ Uniting. COCU, Princeton, 1970, 1-104.

5. Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue: A Progress Report. Forward Movement Publications, Cincinnati, 1973, 1-175.

6. Ministry and Ordination: A Statement on the Doctrine of the Ministry Agreed by the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (Canterbury Statement), Worship XLVIII-I (January, 1974), 2-10.

7. One Baptism, One Eucharist and a Mutually Recognized Ministry. Faith and Order Commission of the Council of Churches, Geneva, 1975, 1-61.

8. For further perspectives on the Plan of Union, cf. A Sense of Waiting: A Notebook of Resources and Background for a Study of a Plan of Union for the Church of Christ Uniting. Ecumenical Office of the Episcopal Church, New York, 1972 and COCU: A Catholic Perspective. United States Catholic Conference, Washington, D.C. 1970, 1-48.

9. Ibid., 34-35, nos. 20-22. The statement bears a close relation to Canterbury Statement no. 13. The Faith and Order Statement would have gained considerably in clarity here by showing that liturgical eucharistic episcope is what is meant by ordained priesthood. The ordained priesthood is different from the unique priesthood of Christ and from the priesthood of all the baptised. The statement attempts to relate these three priesthoods to one another without previously distinguishing them. This causes confusion in the statement. The clearest treatment of these three priesthoods is J.M.R. Tillard, What Priesthood Has the Ministry. Grove Press, Bramcote, Notts., 1973, 1-28.

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