An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church

Presbyter, Presbyterate

From the Greek presbyteros, “elder” or “old man.” In the NT, “presbyter” indicates a leader of the church. The presbyterate refers to the collegial leadership of the presbyters of the church. A member of the Jewish Sanhedrin was said to belong to the presbyteron, which was the council of the elders of the people (see Lk 22:66). In Christian usage, the presbyters were at first indistinguishable from “overseers,” or bishops. The term “presbyter” was used interchangeably with episcopos, or bishop (see Ti 1: 5-7). By the second century, the presbyters joined with the bishop in an advisory council that was presided over by the bishop. The presbyters were associated with the bishop in the bishop’s ministry of pastoral oversight, administration, and liturgical leadership. However, the bishop was distinguished from the presbyters, who derived their authority from the bishop. By the third century the bishop came to delegate primary daily pastoral responsibility in a congregation or area to a presbyter. The presbyter would then be responsible for teaching and preaching, administration, and sacramental ministry in that place, under the oversight of the bishop. The English word “priest” is derived from “presbyter,” and used as a synonym for presbyter. After the Reformation, some churches began to use the term “presbyter” for the minister who preaches the word and administers the sacraments. The Anglican Church used the term “priest” for the second order of ministry. The 1979 BCP uses both terms. For example, directions for the Ordination of a Priest require that “at least two presbyters must be present” (p. 524). The Catechism notes that “the ministry of a priest or presbyter” is “to represent Christ and his Church, particularly as pastor to the people; to share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim the gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and declare pardon in the name of God” (BCP, p. 856). Some have favored use of “presbyter” because of historic association of the term “priest” with a narrow eucharistic piety, or with OT sacrifice. The term has also been favored in ecumenical discussions. The priests of a diocese or their meetings may be referred to as a “College of Presbyters.” See Priest.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.