Ordination Q & A

As we celebrate the ordination of Philip to the priesthood in July, it seems a good moment offer a short article on ordination. We hope you will find this helpful.


As we celebrate the ordination of Philip to the priesthood in July, it seems a good moment offer a short article on ordination. We hope you will find this helpful.

What does ‘ordained’ mean?

Vicar, ordained, curate, too many names. What’s going on with all that?

The starting point in all this is ‘ordained’. To be ‘ordained’ means to be selected and set apart for a particular purpose. It’s related to the term ‘ordered’ – everything set in a particular place. When someone is ordained they are selected by the Church and they go through a particular ceremony, where a bishop will lay his hands on the ordination candidate and pray that the Holy Spirit will empower them in the same way that it has empowered him. There are three layers in the Church to which people can be ordained. In order, they are deacon, priest and bishop. Everyone starts at the beginning and builds up the layers as the Church decides they are ready and gifted to move and to the next level. So a bishop is already a priest and a deacon, for example.

What is the difference between a deacon, a priest and a bishop?

Each of these levels of ordination means you are authorised and empowered by the Church to do certain things. A deacon can lead worship and prayer, preach, take blessed bread and wine to the sick and housebound, and is especially encouraged to reach out in practical ways to the disempowered and helpless. A priest does all those things, but can also declare God’s blessing and forgiveness and preside at services of Holy Communion – where people receive bread and wine as Christ’s body and blood. A bishop in turn is able to do all those things but can also ordain others to be deacons and priests and confirm people at confirmation services.

What does a vicar do?

Where do they come into it?

Although there are only three levels of ordination in the Church, there are lots of different jobs that people might do. The most important of these have particular titles attached to them. Everyone starts as a curate (or properly, an assistant curate), like Philip. They’re apprentices, still learning.

But once you’ve finished your training, and once you’ve been ordained to the level of priest, there are lots of different jobs and roles open to you. You might become a vicar – that is, a priest with sole responsibility over a particular parish. But equally you might become a chaplain – working in a prison, a school, a university or a workplace. Or after a while you might be able to rise to positions of more responsibility, like an archdeacon, who has oversight of a number of vicars, or the dean of a cathedral who has charge of a whole cathedral and its people. To be any of these you have to be a priest first.


Are vicars Church of England? Are priests Roman Catholic?

I thought vicars were Church of England and priests were Roman Catholic?

No. True, you’ll generally only find Church of England priests referring to themselves as vicars or rectors, but the terms existed even before the Church of England broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. And your local vicar will certainly be a priest even if he or she doesn’t use the term regularly.

What does ‘minister’, ‘pastor’ or ‘clergy’ mean?

Are these guys vicars too?

Sometimes (We’re not trying to be difficult!). Within the Church of England you could use all of those for a vicar and it’d be right. In fact, you could use all of those for anyone ordained to any level, deacon, priest or bishop. But in different Christian denominations (a denomination is one of the subsets of Christianity, like Roman Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Greek Orthodox and so on) the church leaders will often prefer one of those terms. Methodists like to call their congregation leaders ‘ministers’, for example.

In Philip’s case he is all of the following: priest, curate, pastor, minister, ordained member of the Church, and member of the clergy. You could describe him and his role with any of those things.

What about ‘laity’?

Where do they fit in?

The term refers to those who are not ordained. It’s usually used for congregation members, but can also be used more widely to include non-Christians.

What about Lay Readers?

I’ve heard of ‘lay readers’. Does that mean they’re not ordained? What do they do?

Although we don’t currently have any Lay Readers at St Mary’s, Readers (sometimes called ‘Licensed Lay Ministers’) are non-ordained people who are nevertheless called to serve in the Church. To become a lay reader requires passing a selection conference (much like a selection process for those seeking to be ordained), and undergoing a period of training. Once they’ve passed the training they are licensed by the diocesan bishop, which makes it possible for them to lead certain worship services, preach, conduct pastoral care, and distribute the bread and wine at services of Holy Communion.