The High Altar at Canterbury
Cranmer’s program for reform in the Church of England was not only concerned with the Book of Common Prayer and its regular offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, the Holy Communion (The Mass), matrimony, penance, confirmation and the burial service, but in the ordination to Church ministries. Among the Catholic liturgical books is one called a Pontificale and it deals with the ceremonies unique to bishops—ordination of bishops, priests, and deacons, consecration and or dedication of churches, and other rituals normally conducted by bishops rather than priests. Cranmer too needed a book of Episcopal ceremonies and so in addition to the 1549 Prayer Book, he issued an Ordinal. (An Ordinal is a type of book that contains the particulars of a Rite. Generally speaking, it is a book that tells you which prayers are to be said and which ceremonies are to be conducted on which days, but in this case the Ordinal replaced the pre-Reformation Pontificales of the various Rites used in the Church of England in the Middle Ages.) Consistent with his approach to the Prayer Book, Cranmer left many of the externals in place but he gutted the theological content of any reference to Sacrifice or of a proper priesthood. What I mean by “proper priesthood” here is one that has a sacrificial character, that is, where the priest offers sacrifice. Most of the Reform Churches on the continent had done away with the word “priest” for minister, stressing the character of the clergy to serve, but Cranmer was reluctant to do this. Moreover, most of the continental reformers had eliminated the distinction of bishops and priests, but again Cranmer—perhaps because he was a bishop—intended to retain the threefold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon. And unlike the continental reformers who stressed that the primary task of a Church minister was to proclaim the Word, Cranmer made it clear that bishops were consecrated and priests ordained for the Sacraments (here meant more narrowly as Baptism and Eucharist) as well as for preaching the Word. In fact, Cranmer’s revised rites did a very nice work in balancing Word and Sacrament while the Catholic rites had stressed sacraments to the expense of the Word.
Of course, this was one of the things that triggered the Reformation in the first place. The Word was not being preached and the sacraments had for the most part devolved into magical rituals. In some respects, Cranmer’s reforms were very happy restorers of the balance. Unfortunately, in terms of preserving the idea of the Eucharist as Sacrifice and the Bishop or Priest as having a sacerdotal character, this was deficient.
One of the problems we have in the English language is a certain imprecision in theological language. In Latin there are two words that one might use for a priest—Sacerdos and Presbyter. A sacerdos is one who makes things “sacer” or sacred. The corresponding Greek term is hieros. A presbyter (Greek: presbuteros) is an elder. It was borrowed by the early Christians from the synagogue governing structure where a board of presbyters (elders, presbuteroi) were the leaders of the assembly, regulating the life of the congregation, and interpreting the scriptures. The Latin word for a bishop is episcopus (Greek episkopos) which means an overseer. The Jerusalem Temple was served by bands of priests who inherited their title from their descent from Aaron, brother of Moses and first High Priest. The Christian communities of the first and early second centuries were led by an episcopus assisted by deacons or by a board of presbyters assisted by deacons. By the earliest decades of the second century these two systems coalesced into a system followed everywhere in the Christian world where the community was headed by an episcopus, assisted by his presbyteri, and his deacons. You notice I am very careful to say presbyteri rather than priests. That word sacerdos, priest, is reserved for Christ alone. Christ is the only Priest of the New Covenant, but gradually in those early years of Christianity, the community of believers came to how those who lead them—episopi and presbyteri reflected in their ministries—especially their leading worship—Christ the High Priest.
According to 1 Peter, all Christians share in the priestly office of Christ. In the current baptismal rite of the Catholic Church this is made explicit in the prayer anointing the newly baptized with Chrism. When we gather to celebrate the Eucharist and offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice with Christ our High Priest and when we stand with Christ our High Priest at the Throne of Grace and make intercession, we all, by virtue of our baptism, participate in Christ’s Priesthood. But the ordained bishop and priest share in the Priesthood of Christ in a way unique to the Sacrament of Orders. (The deacons receive Holy Order but do not share in the Priesthood of Christ in any way beyond that which was conferred on them at Baptism.) All this, I know, sounds very complex and a bit mystical, but in fact our worship is a mystical worship, that is a sacramental worship, in which earthly signs and symbols bespeak transcendent realities. This is what marks a difference of Catholic and Orthodox worship from that of various “Bible Churches” where worship is rather pedestrian and consists almost entirely of moral lessons drawn from the Scriptures. Don’t get me wrong—the scripture is given us for our moral instruction, but just read the Letter to the Hebrews or the Book of Revelation to see how the worship of the Church on Earth is meant to open the eyes of the soul to the heavenly worship led by Christ our High Priest.
The problem is that in the late Middle Ages some proposed theological ideas stretched the idea of priesthood far beyond any scriptural warrant. Instead of the bishop or priest participating in the Priesthood of Christ the High Priest, bishops and priests were seen to be the heirs of Aaron and of the Levites. For all practical purposes, Christ the Priest was removed from the theological equation. Cranmer was anxious to correct this abuse but he lacked the historical and theological sophistication—as did most of his contemporaries—to strike the right balance. As a result, the theological constructs in his Ordinal were flawed.
What must be kept in mind in this whole matter is that Thomas Cranmer—who is not one of my favorite people, Diarmud MacCulloch’s biography notwithstanding—intended to do what he sincerely believed Christ had meant for the Church to do in selecting people and setting them apart for ordained ministry. Unfortunately the Catholic Church would come to look on his ordinals—he prepared a second one in 1552—as flawed and consequently the rites to be a break in the Apostolic Tradition. That is a very complex question and we will look at it over time from several different perspectives.