In spite of the fact that it is misunderstood, the Anglican reformers chose to retain the term “priest”. They did so because they knew that it had an honorable etymology. We must be careful to understand that our English word “priest” is derived from the Greek word presbuteros, which means an elder.
In fact the English word priest has come to be used to translate two Greek words: presbuteros with the meaning of an elder or pastor, and hiereus with the meaning of one who offers sacrifices at an altar on behalf of the people. It is clear that the hiereus style of priesthood came to an end when our Lord Jesus Christ offered himself up once and for all on the cross. Because of his sacrifice, all who trust in him have direct access to God’s throne of grace, with him alone as mediator. For this reason, to avoid confusion, the Church of South India has chosen to call its clergy presbyters.
What is the role of a priest in this sense of presbyter or elder? As with deacons, we meet with presbyters in the earliest church in Jerusalem. Without any introduction or explanation (suggesting that they were an established and accepted part of the church’s structure) we are told in Acts 11 of Barnabas and Paul bringing gifts from the Christians in Antioch to the elders (presbuteroi) of the church in Jerusalem. A few chapters on we find the same Barnabas and Paul appointing presbyters in each of the churches in Lystra, Derbe and Antioch. In his book Called to Serve, (revised and republished as Freed to Serve) Michael Green suggests that we should also understand the “leader” of Hebrews 13, “those who are over you in the Lord” in 1 Thessalonians 5, those who exercise leadership in Romans 12 and the “pastor-teachers” of Ephesians 4 as exercising the ministry of the presbyterate. With reference to these presbyters, the apostle Paul writes to Timothy:
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.”
Clearly Paul saw this as an important function within the church, especially when we remember that he was unwilling to accept compensation for his own work as an apostle. To this Peter adds:
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.
This high view of the office of elder is reflected in the service of ordination of priests in the 1662 Prayer Book, where the bishop says to the ordinands,
And now again we exhort you, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you have in remembrance, into how high a dignity, and to how weighty an office and charge ye are called: that is to say, to be messengers, watchmen, and stewards of the Lord; to teach and to premonish, to feed and to provide for the Lord’s family; to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this sinful world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.
The role of the presbyter, then, is to give pastoral leadership to the congregation. This means not only to teach and to preside at the Lord’s table, but also spearhead the outreach of the parish. Underlying this concept are the pictures which Jesus gives of the shepherd, who not only faithfully tends his flock, but also goes out to bring lost sheep into the fold.