For he testifieth, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek — Hebrews 7:17 / Psalm 109:4

The human being was created to be the priest of creation: the one who unites creation to God by offering it back to God in thanksgiving. In this respect, all Christians, all members of Christ’s Church, belong to the ‘royal priesthood’ (often called the ‘general priesthood’), as St Peter says in his Epistle (1 Peter 2:9). At the same time, Jesus Christ is the only priest, pastor, and teacher of the Christian Church; he is the ‘one mediator between God and man’ (1 Timothy 2:5), our ‘merciful and faithful High Priest’ (Hebrews 2:17).

Through the sacrament of holy orders, those ordained receive the grace of the Holy Spirit so as to manifest the one priesthood of our Lord Jesus Christ, his presence and action, in the world. None of the Church’s sacraments can take place without a validly ordained member of the priesthood. 

Major orders of the priesthood:


The first order of the priesthood is that of deacon (diákonos), which literally means ‘minister’. The word hierodiákonos (‘priestly minister’) is therefore often used to distinguish those ordained to this rank of the priesthood — which is primarily a liturgical function — from other forms of ministry (diakonía) in the Church.

The primary role of the deacon in the Divine Liturgy is to call the people to prayer as he stands on the soléa (the elevated platform in front of the icon screen) between the priest in the sanctuary and the people in the nave. He will also read the appointed reading from the Holy Gospel and may distribute Holy Communion to the faithful. During the services of Vespers and Matins, the deacon will move throughout the church, censing the people — ‘collecting’ their prayers, in a sense, before bringing them to the holy altar. Outside the divine services, a deacon may also bring the Holy Mysteries to the hospitalised, imprisoned, and housebound. The deacon, then, is not in a position to perform any of the Holy Sacraments of the Church, but his role is rather to convey the fruits of these sacraments to the people.

In this capacity, the deacon symbolises the angelic ministers sent out to mankind. The orarion worn by the deacon is often thought to symbolise the wings of an angel, while the side-doors from which the deacon exits the sanctuary often bear icons of the Archangels Michael and Grabriel — the former, holding a sword, is depicted on the north door (from which the deacon exits, symbolising the expulsion from paradise), while the latter is depicted on the south door (through which he enters, symbolising our return to paradise by the saving work of Christ).

A deacon should be at least 25 years of age.

Presbyter (Priest)

The second order of the priesthood is that of the priest (hieréus) or presbyter (presvýteros, lit. ‘elder’). The priest is the one who performs the various sacraments: he baptises, chrismates, he joins people in matrimony, he anoints the sick, and hears the confessions of the penitent. First and foremost, he is the celebrant of the Divine Liturgy. The priest must also be a teacher, instructing the people in the Word of God, and a pastor, guiding and tending to the spiritual needs of the flock entrusted to him — a father to his spiritual children.

As mentioned above, the priesthood is not his personal possession, but belongs to Christ. A priest cannot exercise any of his sacramental functions outside the Church, but celebrate the mysteries on behalf of and with the blessing of a canonical Orthodox bishop. 

A presbyter should be at least 30 years of age.


The highest order of the priesthood is that of the bishop (epískopos, lit. ‘overseer’) or high priest (archieréus). In terms of his sacramental capacity, the only difference between a bishop and a presbyter is that only a bishop may ordain others to the holy priesthood. However, this is no small difference. 

The bishop stands at the centre of every Christian community as its visible point of unity. As St Ignatius of Antioch — one of the earliest Fathers of the Church and a disciple of St John the Evangelist — says, ‘Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize 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’ (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8).

The bishop ensures every Christian’s membership of the Church of Christ throughout the world and throughout time. Throughout the world in the sense that all Orthodox bishops throughout the world recognise one another by commemorating one another in the diptychs (list of all canonical hierarchs), and throughout time in the sense that every Orthodox bishop can trace their ordination back to the Apostles — and, through them, to our Lord himself — in an unbroken line of succession. 

Each bishop is typically connected to a particular geographical area, called a diocese. According to the canons of the Church, there should never be more than one bishop with ecclesiastical authority over any particular geographical area.

The episcopacy is the only order of the priesthood with mandatory celibacy in the Orthodox Church, and bishops are therefore chosen from monastic or widowed clergy.

A bishop should be at least 35 years of age.

Minor orders of the priesthood:


The role of the subdeacon is to assist the bishop or priests in the sanctuary during the celebration of the divine services. A subdeacon may touch the holy altar and handle the sacred vessels (when empty). According to the sacred canons, a person may not marry once they have been ordained to the subdiaconate, for which reason only men who are already married or who have taken vows of celibacy would be appointed to this order.

A subdeacon should be at least twenty years of age.

While ordinations to the higher orders of the priesthood involve cheirotonía (stretching out of hands), ordinations to the subdiaconate and other orders of the lower priesthood involve cheirothesía (placing of hands) by the bishop. 


The job of the reader (anagnōstēs), as the name suggests, is to read the psalms and other Scripture readings appointed at the divine services (such as the epistle reading during the Divine Liturgy or the Old Testament prophecies read at Vespers). 

At the ordination of a reader, the candidate is tonsured, signifying their entry into ‘the first step of the priesthood’.

Cantors (singers) were originally a separate order of the minor priesthood, but today readers and cantors are considered part of a single order. The role of the cantor traditionally is to lead the people in singing the various liturgical responses (‘Lord, have mercy’, ‘to Thee, O Lord’, ‘Amen’, and so on) and to sing the longer hymns and psalms not suited to lay participation.

A reader is expected to devote themselves to the frequent study of Scripture, while a cantor needs a good command of Byzantine music and knowledge of its vast repertoire of hymns. 

Also subsumed in the modern office of reader is the order of taper-bearer (altar server). Because the sacred canons forbid the entry of laypeople (of either gender) into the sanctuary, anyone appointed to help in the sanctuary during services should first have received the reader’s tonsure.

Readers should be at least eighteen years of age.