|Priests and Bishops
priestly function almost certainly goes back to the dawn of the human
species. Ancient cave paintings record the shaman or tribal
priest. Amongst the Khoisan people of Southern Africa the shaman
(crudely termed "witchdoctor" by Europeans) still exists to access the
"dream-world" of animals and ancestors.
By the time of Jesus the priestly
function had been greatly elaborated throughout the known world. It
oversaw many types of function - from rites of passage concerning birth,
marriage and death, to animal, human or even child sacrifice. Its
members often formed a distinct caste, usually closely allied to what we
today would call the "secular" arm of government. Priests were, in
effect, civil servants.
Christians often think of the Hebrew priesthood of Jesus' time as
inherently evil. This bias is derived from the anti-Semitism which took
root early in the history of the Christian movement. The Jewish nation -
personified by its priesthood - was thought of as having been
responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. As Steve Mason remarks,
Christians typically ... saw the "death" of the Jews as a necessary
condition of the birth of Christianity ... the Church took over the
heritage of God's covenant from the Jews ... 
The Hebrew priests (Levites and Zadokites) in Jerusalem were
concerned mainly with cultic sacrifice of animals in the Temple, and
with the policing of strict dietary and purity laws.
The latter have survived into the Church of the 21st century in
modified form. Roman Catholics (by far the majority of Christians today)
are, for example, officially not supposed to receive Holy Communion
until they have been purified through confession to a priest. And until
comparatively recently, so-called "mixed marriages" of a Roman Catholic
to a non-Catholic or non-Christian were frowned upon - an echo of the
Jewish ban on contamination by contact with Gentiles.
In the earliest Church, Paul talks of himself as "serving like a
priest" when he preaches to the Gentiles. But here the Greek word
really means, in our modern sense, a civil servant. Jesus is regarded as
a "priest" in the Letter to the Hebrews (written by an unknown author).
This sort of priesthood seems to be linked to the obscure Hebrew idea of
a king-priest and not to the cultic priesthood. Reflecting this, the
traditional bishop's mitre is a thinly-disguised royal crown.
The Christian fellowship is for some a "royal priesthood" (1 Peter
2.9) - in the sense that it embodies a New Israel which is God's holy
presence in an otherwise unholy world, and which has been "called out of
darkness into God's marvellous light". The European Reformation took
this idea and transposed it into the priesthood of the individual
believer, a concept which is still central to the teachings of many
non-Catholic churches today.
The term "priest" as applied to a Church member doesn't appear in any
other Christian writing until the third century. But before then
Ignatius of Antioch (35-107) referred to himself as theophoros
or "God-bearer" and wrote,
Wherever the bishop (episkopos) is, the whole congregation
is present, just as wherever Jesus the Messiah is, there is the
worldwide (katholikos) Church. 
In contrast to the cultic overtones of the offices of bishop and
priest as quasi civil servants, the New Testament often uses the Greek
word diakoneo - the activity of serving, rather than that of
overseeing and controlling. The term diakoneo
is preserved today in the Diaconate, sometimes a permanent position and
sometimes a stage on the way to the priesthood.
It is this (the function of serving from a lowly position) rather
than the ruling or guiding role of a priest or bishop, which picks up a
vital thread in the teaching of Jesus. In Mark 10.42-45, for instance,
Jesus is dealing with disciples who want preferment in the new social
order Jesus appears to them to be promising. He puts them straight in no
You know all too well that those who assume rule over foreigners
boss them around; and you know how powerful officials tyrannise
people. It shouldn't be like that for you. With you, whoever wants to
be great should be everyone's servant (diakonos) ...
So greatness in Jesus' frame of reference is denoted by the activity
of serving others in the same way that a waiter serves at table. His
meaning becomes even clearer when we note that house servants in Roman
times were almost always slaves. At best a diakonos would have
been a person with few rights and fewer privileges, probably at the beck
and call of even the children of a household.
The most casual glance at the Church today indicates that the
priesthood (by whatever name) seldom, if ever, reflects this way of
First, the bulk of the Church is arranged into a rigid hierarchy. At
the top are the bishops, each in charge of a geographical area. Below
them are priests, most commonly given charge over local congregations.
Below them are deacons. They may have certain tasks in a congregation
and may assist at celebration of the Eucharist. Right at the bottom of
the pile are laypeople.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the Bishop of Rome is known as the
"Father" or Pope. In theory, he is primus inter pares
or " first among equals" - the "equals" being all the other bishops with
whom he supposedly exercises collegial control over the Church. In
practice, however, most popes have taken and held more or less absolute
Non-Catholic churches may have other forms of government. But in
essence the effect is the same - a rigid organisation of control into
hierarchies, some elected, some appointed.
The Anglican Church claims to be both reformed and catholic. It has
bishops, but they are usually elected by gatherings of priests and
laypeople. In the Church of England, bishops are appointed by the
State. In most cases, however, the bishops have effective powers of veto
over key aspects of church doctrine and order.
Second, the theory behind the priestly system in the Church is almost
universally that which emphasises a role in persona Christi -
that is, "in the person" of Jesus himself, a theophoros. But this
Jesus is not equated with a peasant or a servant but with a "risen
Messiah" who now co-rules the world with none other than God.
Even where the priesthood is thought of as a function of the entire
congregation, a "minister" or "pastor" is almost always appointed or
elected to embody that function and thus preserve good order in the
group. A bishop by any other name works just about the same. The only
group which does not do this is the Society of Friends (Quakers). Many
churches consequently think they they are not "proper" Christians.
It is the doctrine of in persona Christi which, one way or
another, produces the most intense conflicts within the Church at large
today. According to the doctrine, the priest becomes a "holy person"
(holy as in "set aside" or "dedicated") who represents fellow-Christians
to God. The priest also brings God to the people through the sacraments,
preaching, and teaching.
Most Christians today think of this representative role as relatively
benign. Only a few perceive its potentially great power. John Spong,
himself a bishop, points out that the priesthood when thought of in this
way becomes a determinant of salvation. In the heyday of priestly power
... claims were made that the only way ... God could operate was
through the authorized sacraments of the established church ...
Outside the Church, it was claimed, there was thus no salvation.
Spong and others maintain that this ancient power is being rapidly
eroded in today's secular societies. That appears true in the West. But
in many other cultures the priest still maintains his (seldom her) high
social status and influence.
The structure briefly summarised so far displays one outstanding
characteristic - it is potentially highly stable. A rigorously top-down
exercise of power tends to resist unwanted change better than one which
distributes power and influence right through an organisation. The
latter must rely for stability on balanced powers.
Other factors contribute to the high stability of the Church:
The power of those in charge - the bishops and their sidekicks,
the priests - is boosted by the claim that bishops, and through them
the priests, represent Jesus to the world. Seeing that their
forerunners have defined Jesus as coterminous with God, it is not an
exaggeration to say that the clergy can, and often do, exercise the
fear of God over their flocks.
This is still further reinforced by the frequently wholehearted
acceptance of the claims of bishops by Christians who are subordinate
to them. Those who submit themselves to the authority of bishops (or
pastors, or ministers or circuit superintendents) must usually do what
they're told in matters of morality and belief on pain of expulsion
from the fellowship.
In some cases, bishops are elected by priests and laypeople. In
theory, then, it should be possible for their grip on ecclesiastical
power to be weakened or broken when necessary. In practice, however,
this seldom happens because bishops and others typically organise
themselves into self-perpetuating power-blocks. Under such conditions,
the lone voice is easily muted and silenced. In the case of the Roman
Catholic Church bishops are appointed by the Pope. He is unlikely to
ensure that dissidents are invited to the ecclesiastical party.
In the relatively distant past this closed-shop arrangement has
perhaps not mattered much. Only the most determined and powerful
opposition has been likely to threaten the thrones of ecclesiastical
power. Even then, as the schism of the Eastern Orthodox Church in the
11th century and the Reformation of the 16th century show, separation
rather than change is the normal solution to major internal stresses and
As Bishop David Jenkins asserts, however, Christians in
the 21st century face a unique challenge. He notes that a few in positions
of ecclesiastical authority, even while administering and preserving
institutional religion, have woken up to the fact that
The taken-for-granted way of looking at the world which holds
widest sway and earns most prestige has no place for God ... The
Copernican revolution has been completed. 
But a large majority has either not fully recognised or not
acknowledged that the Christian world has willy-nilly moved into a new
age, one in which the ancient modes of thought no longer serve well. It
is proving impossible to preserve ancient images in cultures which are
now intensely secular.
The authorities of the Church at large are faced with an unenviable
choice. If they start using the constructs and knowledge of Western
secular cultures, then (or so it seems to them) they must jettison the
pre-scientific constructs and knowledge upon which their authority is
based. If they do that, then the power upon which they depend for their
very existence will eventually fade away. As Jenkins points out, there
... a revolution in the practical understanding of "what counts",
of "what has weight" ... the Bible does not "count for" God, any more
than does the Church as such ... Neither antiquity nor intensity, nor
extensiveness of belief are, as such, of decisive weight ...
One unfortunate result of the resistance of bishops to change is, as
current events tend to show, that they and the Church are gradually
being perceived as enemies of truth and opposers of genuine authority.
They are increasingly being seen as upholders of a false, limiting and
damaging way of life because they tend to reject anything which
None of the above is to denigrate or deny
the great pastoral work of priests and bishops. They do much to
motivate others for the good of the world. But one doesn't have to be a
bishop in the traditional sense of the word to manage and motivate
Nor is it to maintain that an organisation can do without
leaders who share responsibility and take on accountability. That is,
whatever form a Christian fellowship takes it will need mechanisms for
continuity and focus. Hierarchies are not intrinsically wrong or
What is at stake here, however, is not structure or
authority but the nature of the spirit which infuses the Church. A basic
question has to be asked and answered: Are the present cultic, controlling
offices of priest and bishop congruent with the life and message of Jesus?
Not of the Messiah created by the Church, but of the Jesus who actually
lived, who said and did certain things as a matter of good history.
Bishops and priests, far from enlivening and enriching the people
of God, are a powerful force within the Church who can with
considerable justice be accused of killing true knowledge of God in
the modern age, of wantonly blocking new directions, and of limiting
humanity's true freedom.
The way bishops and their subordinates use their power and
influence does not open the Church to new opportunities and
challenges. Instead it tends to put the Church into a consistently
defensive posture. Defensiveness in turn encourages Christians to
live in the past rather than, in Jenkins' words, "In the
present out of the past for the future".
Church hierarchies are frequently preoccupied with questions
which they ask - and then answer for themselves. They seldom allow
others to set their agendas. In so doing they tend to discount or
avoid the exciting and sometimes terrifying ethical and practical
questions upon which humanity's best minds are focused day-by-day.
As Jenkins says, "The really human and important issues are [now]
found and experienced in and through the world, not in and through
the Church ..."
The present incapacity of the Church to face up to the need for
totally new ways of construing Jesus of Nazareth does not bode well for
it as an institution. Many now see its future as a long and dull descent
into obscurity, first in the West and later elsewhere.
Be that as it may, the average Christian had best not look to its
priests and bishops for a way to serve a secular world. For if ordinary
Christians ask for the bread of life, they may well be given a stale
 Josephus and the New Testament, Hendrickson,
 To the People of Smyrna, Chapter 8
 Why Christianity Must Change or Die, HarperSanFrancisco, 1999
 Lambeth Essays on Faith, SPCK, 1969