To speak of the "priesthood" in the liturgical tradition, the canons of the church, in patristic teaching, is perhaps inevitable but doing so is misleading. It is misleading because, as a result, our understanding of ministry is reduced to cultic terms. When one turns to the New Testament as church began to grow, it has known an official ministry (list): certain ones whom "God appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers" (1 Cor 12.28); deacons and overseers (Phil 1.1); elders appointed in every church (Acts 14.23); persons who labor among the brethren (1 Thess 5.12-13). In all these descriptions of the earliest text of the New Testament not once is the term "priesthood" used. The term priesthood is used a few times in the New Testament making reference to Christ himself (Hebrews) and in reference to the Christian people (chosen people) of God (1 Pet). The early church father's begin using the term priest but only do so in relation to the bishop (overseer) or in connection to the Eucharist. Ignatius speaks of the "one altar" of the Eucharist at which the bishop presides (Magn 7.2).
As the centuries continued we saw a development of the priesthood as the culture and society began to change and grow. More people began to join the Christian faith so the community naturally developed. At this point (2nd and 3rd centuries) we see an expansion and and order developing for the priesthood. Bishops, priests, deacons and even sub-deacons were include in the rank of priesthood. St. Epiphanius extends the priestly hierarchy to include sub-deacons. Part of the dilemma in understanding the priesthood, as mentioned previously, is the cultic terms used to associate with the priesthood. We have boxed in the term priesthood to mean "a man who wears black and can grow a beard". Priesthood, in short, appears to be on its way to becoming a generic term for clergy. The term comes to suggest an autonomous power to perform certain sacred acts-above all make beard and wine the body and blood of Christ-which is transmitted from ordainer to ordained without necessary reference to ecclesial context. We have forgotten the "priesthood of all" not only encompasses the individual who wears black but it includes the entire community. This explains the rule or "tux" that a priest can never celebrate a liturgy unless the congregation is present in the church. This misunderstanding of the priesthood has led to a lack of understanding what a priest is, what a proper deacon is and what their roles are to be. Sadly, a 8 year old child running around wearing a white tunic is considered a "deacon". We have detached the beauty of being a deacon to mere mockery by vesting our kids and saying they are "deacons". A deacon is the one who distributes the gifts (Eucharist) to the entire congregation and takes care of the well-being of the entire community. The role of the deacon was to take care of the congregation and to minister to the widows of the community. Sadly, "deacons" today are nothing more than a show trying to impress their loved ones as the "concert" goes on. How then can we define the priesthood?
Authentic Christian priesthood can be defined only by reference to its role within the Church, and this in turn can be understood only by reference to the entire economy of salvation: the mystery of God's hidden plan for humankind revealed in Christ revealed through the work of the Spirit. The priesthood then includes all people, both those who are ordained (bishops, priests, deacons and sub-deacons) and those who are "not ordained"; the laity (laos). The Didascalia, a third century manuscript devotes five chapters on the priesthood. It says that the "clergy and laity together comprise the Catholic Church, the holy and perfect, a royal priesthood, a holy multitude, a people for inheritance, within which are bishops, priests, and prophets, and princes and leaders and kings, and mediators between God and the faithful, and receivers of the word, and preachers and proclaimers therof, and knowers of the Scriptures and of the utterances of God, and witnesses of his will, who bear the sins of all, and are to give answer for all". Note the length of this definition and who it includes being part of the priesthood. What then is the work of the priesthood?
The Didascalia answers this question, "The whole aim of our art is to give wings to the soul, to wean it for the world and to present it to God; to preserve the image of God in man if it exists, to strengthen it if it has become enfeebled, and to restore it if it has become obliterated; to make Christ dwell in men's hearts through the Spirit. In a word, the aim is to deify and bestow the blessedness of heaven upon him who in fact belongs to heaven". The priest is understood as the instrument of a work which is, divine: the deificiation of man. When one reads the fathers nowhere does a definition of the priesthood focus on administration. Today priests have become bankers and financial advisers of mega churches. St. Gregory the Theologian writes, "...before a man has, as far as possible, sufficiently purified his mind and far surpassed his fellows in nearness to God, I do not think it safe for him to be entrusted with the rule over souls or the office of mediator between God and man". The goal of the minister of the word is not just to spit out knowledge but to raise the soul to a transforming knowledge of God through entry into the mystery of the divine dispensation, through participation in God's saving plan for humankind.
The most obvious aspect of the priest's (and deacon) ministry, particularly for us today, is liturgical. He is not only the minister of sacraments but the minister of the Eucharist. He brings together the community in the body of Christ. This great mystery is what culminates all that the church is called to do. Every activity, fundraiser, and church meeting can all be summed up in the Eucharist. Our entire life is Eucharistic and we must constantly seek out God in all actions activities with all human beings. With that being said, we must never think of clergy and laity as two separate entities. Just because one does not wear the black does not mean there is a separation. In order to understand the role of the clergy we must understand what the word "liturgy" means.
When we think of worship the first thing that comes to mind is the role of the priest (neglecting the order of the deacon). The priest celebrates, the laity attend. One does a few ritualistic acts, the other watches. This is another error and a serious one to consider in what it means to be part of the priesthood. The Christian term for worship is leitourgia (which we get the term liturgy from) means a corporate all-embracing action in which all who are present are active participants. All prayers in the Church are written in the plural. "We offer (the anaphora)", "We acknowledge" (the creed). The laity (laos) is in a very direct way the co-celebrant with the priest. The role of the priest is to offer to God the prayers of the Church, representing all people, speaking on the entire churches behalf. One example of this co-celebration can be demonstrated in the word Amen. We never pay attention to it yet it is a crucial word. No sacrifice, no blessing, no ordination, no prayer is ever offered without the use of the word Amen. Saying Amen means the entire church gives this prayer and sacrifice consent. Amen is indeed the word of the laity in the church expressing the function of the people of God. There is no service, no liturgy without the seal of Amen of those who have been ordained to serve God as community. Whatever liturgical service we want to consider, we must see that it always follows a pattern of dialogue (anaphora between the priest and the people) and cooperation (the kiss of peace offered to all) between the priest and the congregation. It is indeed a common action (leitourgia) in which the responsible participation of everyone is essential, for through it the church, fulfills the purpose of the liturgy; as a communal offering given up for the glory of His name. This explains the dynamic of the priest and the laity. Where is the role of the deacon in all of this?
Ignatius summed it up for the communities he was writing to (Trallians chapter 3 and Magnesians chapter 6). He laid down a threefold understanding of the priesthood (including deacons) representing the Trinity. He spoke of the Bishop being equal to God (first among equals), the priest represents the Apostle (the work of the Holy Spirit) [going out and making disciples of all nations] and lastly the deacon was compared to Christ (taking caring of the community and keeping the community on track). The role of the Bishop is to remain silent and to unite the church in the body of Christ, the priest missionises the church by bringing together all nations and the deacon takes care of the teaching and the well-being of the entire community. Sadly this threefold ministry is not found in many of the churches today.
Without a proper understanding of the threefold ministry in the Coptic Church (especially in the GTA [Toronto] where a bishop is nonexistent and deaconship is nothing more than a 2-hour gig on Sundays) the priest is coerced to be not only the Christ-like shepherd of his flock, but (along with the growing trend of constructing mega churches) must become the banker, project manager, and administrator of building projects and maintenance-as if being the shepherd weren't enough. This, in turn, dilutes the sacramental and liturgical role of the priest-priests become CEO's, and the congregation become employees of an enterprise. The Body of Christ, the church, is a taste of the kingdom on earth and the kingdom to come, and this kingdom does not merely exist on Sundays, but permeates every level of existence outside of the four walls of the church building. Let us continue the model that was handed down to us through the Orthodox tradition, and not caricature the industrialism exterior to us.
Forgive me for the scathing nature of this article. The blame falls on no one. This is but the effect of centuries of persecution, western influence, and below-par education...yet this is no excuse. The paradigm will not change overnight. But it is up to the church (i.e. us) to take small steps to not only proper Orthodoxy but proper Christianity. Let us restore the orders of the deaconate, let us all priests to return to the liturgical life they were called to, let the church boards govern building projects, let the congregation realize their role inside the liturgy and outside the church. Let us take small steps to the truth.