Beliefs   Worship   Ministry   History   Sacraments   Seasons


There are, perhaps, few subjects in the life of the Christian Church and of Anglicanism which are as troublesome of definition and as productive of controversy as bishops! There is also scarcely anything more central to the life of the Church.

The word “bishop” has come through the centuries to denote the highest office in the Church, the highest of the three apostolic clerical orders. The English word “bishop” comes from the Greek word “episkopos” which signifies an overseer, and it is used only four times in the Bible – thrice by Saint Paul and once by Saint Peter. How then did it become so important to the Church? The story is compounded of Scriptural passages pieced together and of steady development from the very earliest days of the Church.

The earliest top leaders of the Church – whatever they may have been called as to title – were the Apostles, called by Christ during His lifetime or elected by the eleven after His death to fill the place left by the traitor, Judas, (Saint Mathias) or selected by Christ after His ascension (Saint Paul). There can be no doubt from any reading of the Bible or from any common-sense point of view that these thirteen men held a special place with regard to Jesus’ ministry and with regard to the Church He left behind Him on earth. They were specially chosen as overseers, as legatees, as propagators, as protectors of Christ’s earthly body, the Church. His intentions for them are clearly described in one form or another in the four Gospel books. He empowered and commissioned them to preach and teach the Gospel, to baptize, to proclaim repentance and remission of sins, and   indeed specifically to remit sins. In short they were to feed His sheep, as He told St. Peter in so many words. These commands were sealed with the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles at the Pentecost.

The apostles were succeeded as years went on by other men who took over the supervision of the Church in various areas. These men were in turn succeeded by others who came to be called bishops and upon whom the Apostolic hands had been laid in ordination. The status of these bishops has often been in dispute and it is so even today. The word “overseer” in itself tells us little; an overseer may be a despotic ruler or protective guardian. Hence we must turn to Christ’s commission to the Apostles for guidance. What is clear from the commission is that they were to be spiritual guardians, protectors of the faith, baptizers, ordainers, confessors. What is not at all clear is the degree of non-spiritual rule they were to exercise in the Church.

Anglicanism has tended to play up the spiritual role and, especially in its later centuries, to downplay the temporal role. History seems to bear out the theme that when bishops play well their role as shepherds, teachers, teachers, guardians, they have almost no trouble with their flocks. It is inordinate claims of monarchical power which lead to trouble.

That bishops are central to the Church which Christ left for us cannot be disputed. We must look to them to maintain the purity of the faith, the continuity of the Church, the knowledge of the Gospel. They are the fountainhead of preaching, teaching, worship, ordination, absolution, and pastoral care. When a lay reader, a deacon, or a priest stands at the altar or otherwise functions in a congregation, he does so by the bishop’s commission or ordination. He represents the bishop, whether the latter is absent or present. The bishop is the electron, the neutron, the proton, the very atomic nucleus, as it were, of the diocese and thus of the Church. He is the essential and visible representative of Christ to the diocesan Church. Without the bishop, there is no Church, no Anglicanism. That is not to say that the bishop is the church. The Church is the whole people of God, laity and clergy alike, but the Bishop is their symbol, their shepherd, their “Father in God”. Thus the office of bishop deserves our love and our respect. In spiritual matters the bishop is supreme. In all else, he deserves our respectful consideration and his counsel should be heard. Without him there cannot be worship, or preaching, or forgiveness.


Ordained Ministry

A good deal of confusion exists in the minds of Anglicans and among Protestant Christians over the terms “minister” and “priest”. Are they just two terms for the same thing? The answer is definitely “no”.

The Book of Common Prayer uses both words, but not indiscriminately. For example, throughout the Office of Morning Prayer, the word Minister is used, with a single exception, that the absolution is to be pronounced by a Priest. In the Order for Holy Communion, on the other hand, the term Priest is used almost uniformly, except for the rubrics relating to the reading of the Epistle and the Gospel. And so it is with other sacraments and services of the Church. The word Minister is most commonly used, except in the services of Confirmation and of Ordinations and Institution, where it is mostly specified that a Bishop shall be the officiant.

What, then, is the difference? First, as to Minister, there are two kinds of Ministers – unordained and ordained. All Christians are Ministers in the sense that they are to proclaim the Gospel, to participate in the offering of worship to God, to comfort and help the needy, the poor and the sick, as well as all their fellow Christians. The parties to the nuptial contract in the Solemnization of Matrimony are the Ministers, the role of the Priest being to represent the Church as witness to the contract and to pronounce a blessing on the union. A lay baptized person may also be the minister to baptize in cases of necessity when an ordained minister is not available.

There are two special types of unordained Ministers. Deaconesses are “set apart” but not ordained, and they can read Morning and Evening Prayer (except for the absolution) and the Litany. Lay Readers are specially licensed and they may read the same portion of the Morning and Evening Prayer, the Litany, the Burial Office, the Epistle in the Order for Holy Communion, and certain other offices (always omitting priestly blessings or absolutions).

The Ordained Ministry, in Anglicanism and Catholicism generally, is limited to the three apostolic Orders of: Bishops, Priests and Deacons. Their ordination is accomplished by the Bishop or Bishops, and by the laying on of hands. A Deacon is a Minister, ordained and authorized to assist in the celebration of Holy Communion, to read the Gospel there at and administer the chalice, and to act as Minister at numerous other services, more widely than Deaconesses or Lay Readers. Still he is not a Priest, but a Minister.

To the Priest, through the laying on of hands by the Bishop, is given the sacred responsibility and authority to administer the Holy Communion and Baptism (normally), to represent Christ at the altar, to pronounce God’s absolution and God’s blessing. These are the things that no Minister, ordained or unordained, can do.

The Bishop is, of course, the focal point of the ordained ministry. He is the Church’s Chief Priest, pastor, teacher, liturgist, and defender of the faith in a diocese. He is the successor in his diocese of the Apostles, the first Bishops. He gives legitimacy to the Church as the continuation of the earliest Christian body.

Anglicans believe that only through Bishops, and their assistants, representatives and vicars in the ordained ministry, Priests and Deacons, can the catholic faith be carried on. The catholic faith is simply the full Christian faith spread by the Apostles and marked b Sacramental worship. The unordained ministry of laity, Deaconesses and Lay Readers, in Anglicanism (and their counterparts in other sectors of the Church catholic) and of ordained ministers in Protestant sects carry on an invaluable, worthy and essential function of worship, teaching, prayer and praise. Only in the Anglican (or other catholic) ordained Ministry, however, can be found the means to carry on the full, complete, sacramental worship spread by the Apostles. Anglicanism thus possesses something very special and very precious in the ordained apostolic ministry.


Lay Readers

Perhaps the simplest definition of a lay reader would be that he is an unordained lay minister licensed by the bishop to perform an important though limited ministry within the Church. Every part of the definition is important.

Custom and tradition have dictated that a lay reader shall be male. There is, however, no obvious rational analogy to the theology and tradition which restrict the threefold ordained apostolic ministry to males. As a matter of fact, the Canons of the Episcopal Church do permit the licensing of “a competent woman” in cases of necessity (even though a bit grudgingly!). The normal practice, however, limits this lay ministry to men.

Lay readers are licensed for two reasons. First, they are useful in assisting a priest whose duties are heavy, or who may be called away from time to time. Second, they are useful in situations such as those which exist in the continuing Anglican movement, where there is a shortage – sometimes a serious shortage – of ordained priests and deacons. In these situations, lay readers perform a valuable service in conducting services where otherwise there might not be services for lack of clergy.

What ministry can a lay reader perform? In Anglican (Episcopal) tradition, he is limited to certain functions within the range of worship services of the Church. He can:

  1. Read Morning and Evening Prayer although he cannot, of course, give the absolution or blessing;
  2. Read the Litany and the Penitential Office;
  3. Read the Offices of Instruction (rather more honored by neglect than by use in the present day);
  4. Read the Epistle in the Order for Holy Communion;
  5. Read the Burial Office, omitting any priestly blessing.

In addition, a lay reader may, if so licensed by the bishop, preach sermons of his own composition. It is important that this limitation of special license be observed and understood. Sermons constitute one of the Church’s important teaching instruments. Through sermons, the Christian faith is taught and clarified. If the faith is to be kept unchanged and pure, those who preach and teach and expound it must know it, must have qualified knowledge. This is why lay readers must prove to the bishop by examination or other evidence that they are conversant (and soundly conversant) with the Holy Scripture, the Prayer Book, Church history, Church Doctrine, the conduct of public worship (and, incidentally, know how to use their voices for that purpose!) and other pertinent areas of knowledge. This is a special ministry no less than that of the ordained clergy. It is a special service to the Church in its worship of God. Clergy and laity all share in the priesthood of Christ. All are ministers of the Lord, with an obligation to show forth the faith in their lives and to be disciples and evangelists of the Word. All share equally in the Office of the priesthood. Most are called to function as laymen. Some are called to be Lay Readers and to function in particular ways in that service. Some are called to be Ordained Ministers, fulfilling thus a very special function in the Church.

All are equal in the Lord. Lay Readers are simply special servants of the Church, without whom the Church would often be seriously crippled in its worship and its outreach.


The Male Priesthood

Anglicans believe that the sacred, threefold ministry of Deacons, Priests and Bishops is limited to males. To explain this, we must delve somewhat into the differences between the Catholic and Protestant traditions of Christianity.

A Protestant minister is a minister. A Catholic priest is both a minister and a priest. The difference is both subtle and great. A “minister” is a preacher, pastor, teacher, counselor (and, of course, administrator). But he does not serve at the altar, he does not administer the Sacraments, and he does not stand in the unbroken line of descent from Christ’s Apostles.

This last point, the Apostolic Succession, is important. The threefold Apostolic Ministry has been a hallmark of the Church Catholic since the earliest days. However, the Protestant part of Christendom chose to discard this hallmark at the Reformation. It thereby discarded Catholicism and the Sacraments, and kept for itself only ministers, not priests.

It is unarguable that the Deity is not sexual, as that term is understood by human beings. Nevertheless, Christ was, in His human nature, a male. He consistently taught us to think of God as a Father. One cannot ignore this consistent imagery, plus the fact that Christ did not choose to include women among His Apostles, and thereby established the principle of a male priesthood. For two thousand years the Church Catholic has followed His lead in this matter.

There is certainly no bar to women in the ministry. Christ had many women in His following and they undoubtedly ministered in various ways to His disciples. There would seem to be nothing in Christ’s teachings or practices to prohibit women from serving as ministers in many aspects of Church life – as teachers, counselors, administrators, etc. They do serve in many of these areas in Catholic bodies. But in Catholicism, of which Anglicanism is a part, that ordained ministry carries with it priesthood, and thus women cannot be accepted into ordination. The Priest serves at the altar, and the altar is not just another piece of furniture, nor just a repository for cross, flowers and a Bible. It is the place where the great Sacramental Mysteries of God are celebrated. When the Priest stands at the altar to celebrate the Last Supper, the Eucharist, the Mass, he does so as Christ’s icon, as Christ’s “other self”; he stands in the place of God who came to us in human form as a man. When he pronounces the absolution, he is the delegated successor of the Apostles, mento whom Christ gave the power to “remit” and to “retain”.

The inability of women to serve in this way has nothing to do with their physical, mental or moral ability to serve. Many could do all the things that priests do. In individual cases, they might do them better than given individual men. But the form of the priesthood was set by Christ, not by men, and we must be loyal to Him.

This categorical principle of priesthood in no way stigmatizes women as inferior. It is a mystical, dominical and theological differentiation between women and men, just as real as the physical differentiations between women and men. God has highly honored women. He chose Mary to be the Mother of Christ, making her that mysterious and paradoxical figure, “the Mother of God”. Christ highly honored women. He loved Mary and Martha. He forgave and loved Mary Magdalene. To women was entrusted the honor of discovering the empty tomb and thus being the first witnesses to the Resurrection. But, as God in his wisdom chose to send His Son to the world as a man, so Christ, in His divine wisdom, chose to use men as His Apostles and the prototypes of the priesthood. The pattern has been set for us. Can we change all this? The Catholic has always believed we cannot.



In its broadest meaning, the word “vestments” simply means clothing. In a narrower sense, it means clothing worn by a special group for a special purpose.

The ordained ministers of God are men set apart for a special calling. Every religion in every age and culture thought it fitting that the clothing of priests and ministers should denote at all times their special calling. Thus it is that Anglican and other priests of the Western Catholic Church have long worn a distinguishing garb even in everyday life. This garb is a black suit and a gray suit, or some combination of the two, with a plain white, round collar of several types. This dress marks them as men apart, and makes their calling and status readily identifiable. Their calling is not that of a nine-to-five worker, and as identifiable priests they are available in all sorts or physical, moral and psychological emergencies as they move about in our society.

In a still narrower sense, vestments are the special garments worn in the conduct of Divine Service. The basic and simplest form of this garb is the long black gown known as a cassock, over which is worn a white surplice. A priest wears a stole around his shoulders, hanging free in front. A Deacon, whose garb is otherwise the same, wears his stole over his left shoulder with the ends fastened together under the right arm. (It may be noted that choir members and servers or acolytes may (and often do) wear similar garb, except the stole, and that their surplice is called a cotta, being considerably shorter than that of the clergy).

It is widely customary in Anglicanism for the garments described above to be worn at all Services, whether of the Offices, the Eucharist or other celebrations. However, many Anglican clergy wear a more complicated and elaborate set of vestments when celebrating the Holy Communion. These consist of a white alb (with a rope girdle holding down the stole), a neck cloth called an amice, and the chasuble, a large oval sleeveless garment usually decorated with embroidery, representing the royal robe which the Roman soldiers mockingly put on Christ after they had scourged Him.

Bishops, of course, have certain distinctive garments such as the rochet, a long white linen garment, which in Anglicanism is traditionally styled with full sleeves having ruffles at the wrists. This is won over the cassock, and over it in turn is worn the chimere, a black or scarlet sleeveless gown. On certain occasion, an at certain points in a service, the bishop wears a distinctive headpiece called a mitre, symbolic of the helmet of salvation spoken of in Isaiah, and by Saint Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians. Anglican bishops wear a mitre which is shorter and more angular than those worn by Roman Catholic bishops.

In procession and on occasion of high ceremony, the clergy may wear copes, long capes of rich and colorful materials,

Lay readers, however, are garbed in cassock and surplice (wearing no stole, which is reserved for the ordained clergy), and may also wear an academic hood of the college and degree appropriate to the individual lay reader.

These are the basic and traditional vestments. Whether the norm is to use only the simpler ones, or to use the more elaborate ones for celebrations of the Holy Eucharist, will depend largely on the wishes and custom of the priest and parish. No overriding importance attaches to this choice. The services and Sacraments of the Church are entirely valid and efficacious in any case; indeed they would be so even if no vestments at all were worn. Yet tradition plays a meaningful role, and adherence to it makes for decently and orderly conducted services. Vestments add to the solemnity and dignity; and, where the more elaborate Eucharistic vestments are used, there is undoubtedly a richness and pageantry altogether appropriate to the worship of Almighty God.


This page is part of a series of Anglican teaching leaflets originally written by Perry Lankhuff and offered by Christ Church Anglican.