'Be eager to do everything in God's harmony, with the bishop presiding in the place of God and the presbytery in the place of the council of the Apostles, and the deacons, most dear to me, entrusted with the service of Jesus Christ.
Each of you must be part of this chorus so that, being harmonious in unity, receiving God's pitch in unison, you may sing with one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father.'
- St Ignatius of Antioch, the God-bearer
For the salvation of the human race and the redemption of all creation, the Saviour Jesus Christ established his Church on earth: the mystical community of faith that exists in relationship - a covenant - with God, living in harmony and being nourished in the sacramental life in Christ.
The Saviour called his Apostles and commanded them to go out into all the world, spreading the Good News of salvation, teaching all nations, and baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28: 19). Not just the Twelve but also the Seventy Apostles (Luke 10: 1-12), He instructed to bring all people to salvation within this community of faith. Indeed, it was St Aristobulus of the Seventy who first brought the Gospel to these shores and planted the seeds of Christ's Church in the British Isles.
To ensure that the life and work of the Church continued after their deaths, the Apostles invoked the grace of Christ on their successors - chosen men from the Christian family who were of sound faith and could pass on the teachings and sacramental life of the Church to the next generation of Christians. These men were known as bishops. These bishops in turn ordained priests and deacons to help them with the work. As the Gospel spread throughout the world, new bishops were ordained by the Apostles and their successors to lead the Church, which will continue its work until its fulfilment when Jesus Christ will return at the end of time.
The sacrament of Holy Orders continues to sustain the Church of Christ today, and we continue the ancient and apostolic practice of maintaining the three orders of the priesthood, which we refer to as the "Major Orders".
The bishops of the Church are the successors to the Apostles as bearing the priesthood of Christ, both physically and spiritually. That is to say that every Orthodox bishop today can trace an unbroken line through the bishop who consecrated him, to the bishop who consecrated him, and so forth, all the way back to the Apostles. However, this tactile laying on of hands is not all that makes a bishop, for to remain legitimately Orthodox, he must also confess the same Faith as the Apostles for the preservation of the life of the Church. For this reason, it was established very early on that a new bishop must be consecrated by at least two, and ideally no fewer than three bishops. This is to ensure that they all agree that he is of sound faith and can be trusted to carry on the life of the Church. This is known as Apostolic Succession.
Excerpts from the Consecration
of Bishop Gregory of Arles
In each place, the bishop's role is to be the high priest, offering the Eucharist and proclaiming the Faith as received from the Apostles through the generations. He is to express that Faith for the benefit of the Church and the world today, rightly breaking open for God's people the Word of Truth (2nd Timothy 2: 15), and passing it on intact to the next generation of Christians. The bishop is to help his people to grow in faith for the sake of their salvation, and to protect the faithful under his care from uprisings of heresies - false teachings that can lead the faithful away from the apostolic Faith. Thus he is like a shepherd caring for his flock, and in the Western Orthodox tradition, the bishop's staff often takes the form of a shepherd's crook.
A church community cannot exist apart from its bishop, for it is through the bishop that a local church is connected to the catholic and apostolic Faith and life in Jesus Christ, and through their bishop to all of the local Orthodox churches around the world who hold to the same faith and whose bishops jointly share in this work in sacramental harmony with each other. This is what we mean in the Creed when we confess faith in the "Catholic and Apostolic Church".
Nowhere is the place of the bishop more clearly expressed than at the pinnacle of the Church's life together, the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, where He offers the Holy Sacrifice at the altar of God, surrounded by his priests, deacons, and all the faithful.
'Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people gather; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptise or give Communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid.'
- St Ignatius of Antioch, the God-bearer
Priests, also known as presbyters, as a separate entity did not exist in the earliest days of the Church, for in each city the faithful people simply gathered around their bishop and there constituted the Church in its fullness. However, as the Church in each place began to grow, it became practically difficult for all of the faithful to come together in one place for the Eucharist and the worship of God, and it was not possible for the bishop to be simultaneously in different places where the faithful had gathered.
It soon became clear that bishops needed assistants. Thus priests began to be ordained to share in the bishops' sacramental and apostolic ministry, albeit in a limited way. For this reason, in the divine services, priests wear some, but not all, of the vestments of a bishop. The priest offers the Eucharist, hears the confessions of the faithful and absolves them of their sins, anoints them for healing, and baptises and chrismates new Christians. However, the fullness of the priesthood resides only in the bishop, in harmony with his brother bishops. Therefore, a priest is never a free agent but serves God and his people only at the bishop's pleasure, as an extension of the bishop's ministry.
For this reason, whenever a priest performs any services of the Church, he commemorates his bishop in the prayers; he also receives his sacred Chrism (oil for the sacraments) from his own bishop, and only offers the Divine Liturgy on an antimensium (a special shroud bearing the relics of the saints) signed by the bishop, all as expressions of unity with him.
Deacons are servants to the bishop, both in the divine services and also in the life of the Church more widely. They attend to the bishop and his needs during the services of the Church, and have the role of keeping good order during public worship.
For this reason, many of the practical directions in the Church are given by the deacon. Some common examples are "Arise!", "Let us be attentive!", "Let us keep silence!", "Let us hear the Holy Gospel", ""Let us depart in peace!", and of course the beautiful exhortation of the people to confess their faith in the words of the Creed: "Let our lips be opened and our mouths proclaim that which faith has placed in our hearts!"
However, the practical instruction that is perhaps most closely associated with the deacon is "Let us pray to the Lord", which indicates another core part of the diaconal ministry. The deacon is, in a sense, a link between liturgy and life. While the priest is to pray for the people in church and cater for their spiritual and sacramental needs, the deacon is to be among the people in the world and see to their practical needs, to see how best he and the wider Christian community can give assistance, and to bring those needs back to the liturgical gathering of the Christian community to offer them before God in prayer.
So, in the litany, the deacon prays for catechumens, for "those who search for God but cannot yet name Him", for the sick, for the departed, for the homeless, for the safe delivery of children, and so forth, because from his working and living alongside the people of God, he will know who is exploring faith, who is sick, who has died and left grieving family behind, who is homeless, who is expecting a baby, and he is to bring those needs and concerns to the throne of grace, calling on the gathered people of God with the words, "Let us pray to the Lord".
In addition to the major orders, there also exist minor orders within the Church. These are not strictly considered to be part of the sacrament of Holy Orders but rather are a form of commissioning by the bishop of certain people to perform particular roles of service within the Church's liturgical life. The exact number and nature of the minor orders has varied over the centuries according to changing practical and pastoral needs but those that are in use today are the orders of Doorkeeper, Acolyte, Reader, and Subdeacon.
The Doorkeeper is responsible for ensuring that the church building is ready for the offering of divine worship to God: that the doors are unlocked and the church is open for services, that the building is clean and in good order, that the bell is rung to call the faithful to worship, and so forth. In places where the dismissal of the catechumens is performed, it is the role of the doorkeeper to secure the doors to ensure that those not yet united to the Church do not take part in the eucharistic assembly.
The Acolyte is responsible for lighting the lamps and candles in church, ensuring that incense is prepared and ready at the appropriate points, and for otherwise attending to the needs of the priest during the divine services under the direction of the subdeacon.
The Reader has the responsibility of proclaiming the Holy Scriptures for the hearing of the faithful during divine services. He is to do so in such a way that the words of Scripture may be heard by the faithful so that the meaning is communicated to them with clarity. The reader is often chosen for his gifts of clear speech and chanting ability, and so may also act as a cantor in co-operation with the choir.
The Subdeacon is ultimately responsible for seeing to the needs of the priest during the divine services, and overseeing the service of the acolytes to that end. He may prepare incense and present it to the priest at the appropriate times, as well as co-ordinate the acolytes for the entrance procession, the Gospel, and at the Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy. The subdeacon also customarily reads the Epistle at the Divine Liturgy. As he is literally an under-deacon, the subdeacon may also lead the faithful in prayer during the litany in certain circumstances, assist the bishop with the tricherium and dicherium, and may consume the Holy Gifts after Communion as an asisstant to the deacon or in places where there is no deacon.
The Handmaid of the Temple is not one of the traditional minor orders. Rather, it is a ministry introduced in modern times as a reimagining of the service that was performed by women in the Temple of Jerusalem in ancient times under the Old Covenant. The handmaids of the temple employ their gifts of sewing and embroidery to make, decorate, and maintain the vestments worn by the ministers of the altar. They look after the fabrics and textiles used in the worship of God, taking particular responsibility for the proper and reverential treatment of the veils, houseling cloths, and any other such items used in conjunction with the Holy Gifts of the Saviour's Body and Blood.