Written by: Russell P. Dawn
Anglican clergy are divided into three categories or orders: bishops, priests, and deacons. A threefold ministry (bishops, presbyters (elders), deacons) dates back at least as far as the early 2nd century, possibly earlier.
The highest order of ministry is the office of the bishop. In much of Anglicanism there are archbishops, but these are not of a higher order of ministry. Archbishop is the usual title conferred on a bishop whose area of jurisdiction is a province (collection of dioceses) rather than a diocese. An archbishop is a head bishop in a province. In some provinces the head bishop is called by another title, e.g., the Presiding Bishop in the U.S. Episcopal Church. The generic term for head bishops is "primate."
Bishops are the chief pastors and heads of their respective dioceses. They are pastors to the other clergy as well as the laity. A bishop must visit the parishes in his or her diocese, exercise discipline (often through delegates) over diocesan clergy, and uphold the doctrines of the faith. A bishop might have subordinate bishops (e.g., suffragans) to assist in meeting the needs of the diocese. Only a bishop can perform the rites of ordination and confirmation.
Ordinarily a bishop is ordained (consecrated) by an archbishop or other primate, and two other bishops. Anglicanism is one of only a few Protestant traditions that retain the title of bishop, and one of extremely few that claim the apostolic succession of their bishops. Apostolic succession holds that, just as Christ consecrated (set apart) and sent out the apostles, so also the apostles consecrated individuals to pastor the Church in given areas, and those who were consecrated did the same for their successors, and so on in an unbroken chain down through history. Apostolic succession is also called episcopal succession, from the Greek word that is translated bishop. It is for this reason that many Anglican bodies are self-styled as Episcopal (for instance, America's The Episcopal Church).
Anglicanism places a high value on its participation in apostolic succession. Episcopacy is viewed as a defining feature of Anglicanism and a ground of ecumenical ties with other Christian traditions. The unity of the Church is embodied in the historic episcopate, which is why the realignment taking place in the Anglican Communion is such a source of pain for bishops across the theological spectrum.
The next order of Anglican clergy is that of priest. Early in Christian history, as the idea of the Eucharist as a sacrifice developed, so did the idea of presbyters as priests. Over time the clergy came to be seen as representing both the people to God and God to the people. Priests were seen as having supernatural powers imparted to them upon their ordination, powers connected with the sacraments. Thus, the priest had the power to absolve of sins, to bring about the substantive change in the Eucharistic elements from bread and wine to body and blood (transubstantiation ), and to repeat the sacrifice of Christ to God in the Mass.