What is the go with the term ‘Priest’?


First of all, two questions…

Is the Anglican Church Protestant and Reformed?

Yes. The Anglican Church has often been described as being the Via Media (the Middle Way), and mistakenly that has been understood to mean that the Anglican Church is somewhere in between Rome and Geneva and thus Anglicanism is reformed Catholicism. However the reality is that the Anglican Church is the via mediabetween Martin Luther’s Wittenberg and John Calvin’s Geneva. It is both protestant and Reformed.

When we say in the Creed that we believe in “One Holy catholic and apostolic church, we mean catholic as in in universal, not Roman Catholic?

Yes, the term catholic comes from two Greek words which means “according to the whole” thus when Anglicans declare that the Anglican Church is part of the one holy, catholic and Apostolic church, they do not mean Roman Catholic.

So why do Anglicans technically call their pastors “Priests”? Isn’t that a Roman Catholic thing?

Perhaps you may be thinking that this is left over from the Roman Catholic Church, a vestige that the Reformation did not quite get around to eradicating when Thomas Cranmer sought to Reform the Church of England.

Or perhaps there is another explanation?

Well read on…

In the NT there is a word that refers to an elder and that word is presbyteros (for those into Greek, in Greek the word looks like this; πρεσβúτερος. It is the NT word designated for church leaders.When Christianity came to England in the Anglo-Saxon period, people did not speak NT Greek, but a form of Old English. So they pronounced the Greek word presbyteros as preost. Over time the word preost became “preest” or, “priest” in Middle English. And the understanding of this word “priest” was the same as the NT meaning of the term presbyteros.

The role of the Prebyteros was to pastor God’s flock, their primary role was to preach and teach and care for God’s flock, like a shepherd. They in no way function as someone who has the power to ABC (Absolve, Bless, Consecrated) and to offer sacrifices to God.

So why the misgivings about the term ‘priest’?

I think there are three reasons and they are extricably linked: the Roman Catholic Church, language and usage.

The Roman Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church has different understanding of the role of a Priest. They interpret the term ontologically. This means that according to the RCC, when a man is ordained as priest there is a change to his very nature. This ontological change confers power and authority to the priest to be able to offer sacrifices to God, to act as a mediator between God, and to be channel or conduit of God’s blessing (be it upon people, animals and even objects).


The Roman Catholic Church translated the Greek NT in Latin, (known as the Vulgate, translated by a man named Jerome) and the NT word Presbyteros was translated into a Latin word whose meaning does not correspond with the Greek term Presbyteros. Jerome used the Latin term sacerdos or sacerdotes which literally means one who presents sacred offerings (sacrifices) on behalf of people in order that they may be reconciled to God.  In essence the Roman Catholic Church has incorrectly and unbiblically redefined the role of the presbyteros (elder/church leader) to a role that has no Biblical basis.


Unfortunately the Roman Catholic Church has not only mistranslated the word Presbyteros  to Sacerdos, it also used a English word to serve as the designation for the term Sacerdos and the word they used? The word Priest, even though the word priest means something entirely different.  In short the term Priest has been hijacked and redefined to mean what it was never meant to mean.

Dealing with the Confusion

Although the notion of a sacrificing priest is entirely absent from the Ordinal (as there is nothing sacerdotal provided in the ministry of our Church), the word ‘priest’ is equivalent to the term ‘presbyter,’ and so when an Anglicans use this word, this is the meaning. However the most common way that Anglican Priests deal with this confusion is to drop the term Priest altogether and use the term pastor (which comes from the NT word meaning shepherd), minister; or the original Greek NT term Presbyter.

Sadly, there are Anglican priests who do think and believe that they have some sort of sacrificial role as priests (due to their imbibing of Roman Catholic theology that was trendy in Anglican circles in the mid 1800’s, known as the Oxford Movement) and so they use the term Priest and define it sacerdotally. So another reason why Anglican clergy who hold to the Biblical definition of the presbyteros drop the term priest all together is out of fear that they will be deemed to be ‘Catholic’ (as in Roman Catholic) either by people generally or by other clergy who hold to the Biblical definition.

So should Anglican Clergy use the term?

The Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal still retains the term priest, in the ordination service, the term priest is still retained.

The Rev. Dr. W.H. Griffith Thomas, Principal of Wycliffe Hall?, Oxford, in his The Principles of Theology: An Introduction to the 39 Articles elucidates as to what the role of a Priest is and what the role of a priest is not:

“We [Anglicans] have Bishops, Priests and Deacons, but the Priests are Presbyteri not Sacerdotes… in the New Testament and the Prayer Book [Book of Common Prayer], it is essentially pastoral, never mediatorial, but always concerned with the work of preaching, teaching, and guiding the flock. The minister is a prophet from God to the people, and not a sacrificing or mediating priest” [p. 321].

The term may have been hijacked by the Roman Catholic Church, but this does not mean that Anglican Christians should abandon the term in my humble opinion. The Book of Common Prayer still retains the term priest, in the ordination service, the term priest is still retained.

I hope this answers the question, “What is the go with the term ‘Priest’?

PS: the good news is that the term Priest is interchangeable with the term Presbyter, so in the diocese I serve the term Presbyter is used. And in light of the fact that most lay people don’t know the history of the word priest and see it in sacerdotal terms, perhaps this is a good move. Though I am not sure if the word Presbyter is recognised.



  1. Where did Jerome use the Latin sacerdos for the Greek πρεσβύτερος? He used the loanword presbyter in Acts 14:22; 15:2; 1 Tim. 4:14; 5:17, 19; Tit. 1:5; Jas. 5:14 and sacerdos for ἱερεύς (numerous times).


  2. Wycliffe used preest/prestis for presbyter in Acts 14:22; 15:2; 1 Tim. 4:14; 5:17, 19; Tit. 1:5; Jas. 5:14. (He used “eldere men” in Mt 15:2 and other places that refer to elders of the Jews.)

    But he also used preest/prestis to render ἱερεύς in the Gospels and Acts and, e.g., in Heb. 5:6 and throughout Hebrews 7 (in cases where Jerome had used sacerdos).

    See http://www.bibledbdata.org/onlinebibles/wycliffe_nt/

    Are you claiming that there was a time before Wycliffe when preest/prestis was only used for presbyter but not for sacerdos?


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