'Minister' and 'Presbyter' are not Low Church terms: Thoughts on the 1689 Proposed BCP

The 1689 Proposed Book of Common Prayer holds something of a bogey-man status in the High Church tradition, a wicked Latitudinarian plot to undermine the catholic nature of the BCP.  Over the next few weeks laudable Practice will consider aspects of the 1689 revision, questioning if they represent a rupture with the Laudian tradition.

Perhaps one of the most immediately noticeable proposed revisions was the use of 'Minister' rather 'Priest' consistently throughout the rubrics in the Communion Office.  It has to be admitted that this did represent a change from 1662.  It was not, however, a complete rupture.  The 1662 Communion Office did use 'Priest' in most rubrics, but not in every case.  Ten rubrics use the term 'Minister'.  Many such examples clearly indicate that 'Priest' and 'Minister' are being used interchangeably.  For example:

Then shall the Priest, turning to the people, rehearse distinctly all the TEN COMMANDMENTS ...

Minister. GOD spake these words, and said ...


When all have communicated, the Minister shall return to the Lord's Table, and reverently place upon it what remaineth of the consecrated Elements, covering the same with a fair linen cloth.

Then shall the Priest say the Lord's Prayer.

It is not only in 1662 itself that we find Laudian use of 'Minister' as interchangeable with - or, indeed, replacing - 'Priest'.  Jeremy Taylor's Communion Office, published during the Protectorate, used 'Minister' throughout, in place of 'Priest'.  Likewise, his 1661 Rules and Advice to his clergy was entirely couched in in the language of 'Minister', used 50 times to 1 use of 'Priest'.  The same pattern is seen in Cosin's 1662 Visitation Articles: 30 uses of 'Minister', 1 of 'Priest'.  This reflected established use and convention within the Churches of England and Ireland.  Both the 1604 English Canons and the 1634 Irish Canons routinely use 'Minister' in place of 'Priest'.  Take, for example, the English Canon 21 and Irish Canon 18:

every minister as often as he administreth the communion, shall first receive the Sacrament himself. Furthermore, no bread, nor wine newly brought shall be used, but first the words of Institution shall be rehearsed, when the said bread and wine be presented upon the communion Table. Likewise the minister shall deliver both the bread and wine to every communicant, severally.

For the most theologically significant Laudian use of 'Minister' we need to turn again to Taylor and his The Divine Institution of the Office Ministerial:

Now Christ did also establish a number of select persons to be ministers of this great sacrifice, finished upon the cross; that they also should exhibit and represent to God, in the manner which their Lord appointed them, this sacrifice, commemorating the action and suffering of the great priest ... what Christ does always in a proper and most glorious manner, the ministers of the gospel also do in theirs; commemorating the sacrifice upon the cross, “giving thanks,” and celebrating a perpetual eucharist for it , and by declaring the death of Christ, and praying to God in the virtue of it.

Rather, then, than being an impoverished and inadequate replacement for 'Priest', Laudianism provided a theologically rich account of 'Minister'.

Related to the use of 'Minister' was the introduction of 'Presbyter' in the title of the 'Ordering of Priests' and its opening rubrics

The Form and Manner of Ordering PRIESTS, i.e., PRESBYTERS.

Whereas it has been the constant practice of the ancient Church to allow of no ordinations of Priests (i.e.) Presbyters, or Deacons without a Bishop, and that it has been likewise the constant practice of this Church ever since the Reformation ...

This too was hardly a rejection of Laudian norms.  Laud had no qualms about using the term 'Presbyter' in rejecting the notion that "Bishops and Presbyters be all one Order". The 1637 Scottish Book, with which he was (fairly or unfairly) associated, used 'Presbyter' throughout.  Taylor (In the Power of the Church in Canons and Censures) similarly used the term in his discussion of episcopal order in the patristic churches: 

Of the same nature is the distinction of bishops from presbyters, and the government of the church by them; for this being done in the apostles' times, and immediately received by all churches, who, everywhere, and ever since were governed by bishops and by presbyters under them.

Bramhall challenged Baxter to find the term 'lay elder' in Scripture, saying "I will shew him the proper and particular names of Apostles, Evangelists, Bishops, Presbyters, Deacons, in Scriptures, in Councils, in Fathers, in Histories". There was, in other words, a well-established Laudian usage of 'Presbyter' for the second order of clergy, reflecting patristic practice.

This Laudian use of 'Presbyter' and 'Minister' - and the richness of the theological meaning given to them - was rooted in the thought of Richard Hooker.  Crucially, Hooker demonstrates that the use of these terms does not imply a 'lower' theology of orders than 'Priest'.  He says of "ministers of God" and "ministerial power":

For in that they are Christ's ambassadors and his labourers, who should give them their commission but he whose inward affairs they manage?  Is not God alone the Father of spirits?  Are not souls the purchase of Jesus Christ? What angel in heaven could have said to man as our Lord did unto Peter 'Feed my sheep'? Preach? Baptise? Do this in remembrance of me? Whose sins ye retain they are retained, and their offences in heaven pardoned whose faults you shall on earth forgive? What think we? Are these terrestrial sounds, or else are they voices uttered out of the clouds above? The power of the ministry of God translateth out of darkness into glory, it raiseth men from the earth and bringeth God himself down from heaven, by blessing visible elements it maketh them invisible grace, it giveth daily the Holy Ghost (LEP V.77.1).

Of particular note is Hooker's emphasis that 'Minister' is not a term that detracts from the administration of the Sacraments (echoed, as we have seen, in Taylor's later use of the term).  This is also evident in his use of 'Presbyter'.  While, of course, he does famously declare that "in truth the word Presbyter doth seem more fit, and in propriety of speech more agreeable than Priest with the drift of the whole gospel of Jesus Christ", his definition of the 'Presbyter' certainly cannot be regarded as 'low':

what better title could there be given them than the reverend name of presbyters or fatherly guides?  ... A presbyters according to the proper meaning of the New Testament is he unto whom our Saviour Christ hath communicated the power of spiritual procreation ... I may seriously therefore conclude that there are at this day in the Church of England no other than the same degrees of ecclesiastical order, namely Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons, which had their beginning from Christ and his blessed Apostles themselves (V.78.3 & 12).

In the Church of Ireland to this day, 'Minister' remains overwhelmingly the popular usage amongst laity, alongside 'Rector' and 'Curate'.  (I cannot help but note that one of the most famous accounts of the Anglican ethos - Trollope's Barchester Towers - refers to the parishioners of St Ewold's "anxious to get a look at their new minister", the High Church Mr. Arabin.) Rather than representing a diminished and impoverished understanding of Orders, this popular custom is a reflection of Hookerian and Laudian wisdom, pointing to an understanding that rejects sacerdotal, cultic notions (and how these disorder ecclesial and communal relationships) but which highly esteems the divine institution of the Ministry of Word and Sacrament in the parish.  

Likewise, the Church of Ireland's 1870 Declaration, in its description of episcopal order, uses "Priests or Presbyters", while the Canons consistently use 'presbyter' and 'minister'.  The preference for 'Presbyter' follows both Hooker and the Laudians, recognising the patristic use of the term (and thus reflecting the practice of what the Declaration, in good High Church fashion, terms "the Primitive Church"), and ensuring that the rich Hookerian understanding of 'Presbyter' continues to have meaning within the the life of the Church of Ireland.

The use of 'Minister' and 'Presbyter' in the 1689 Proposed Book, then, need not be regarded as an inherently 'Low Church' revision.  Both have deeply Hookerian and Laudian meanings. (We might also note that in Tract One, 'Minister' is used more frequently than 'Priest', and it opens with the line, "I am but one of yourselves,— a Presbyter".) To regard 'Minister' and 'Presbyter' as inherently 'Low Church' is to deny the wisdom of popular custom and tradition within Anglicanism, in which 'priest' remains very much a minority everyday description of the office and work of clerics.  Instead, 'Minister' - with 'Rector', 'Vicar', 'Curate' - reminds us of pastoral, teaching, and sacramental ministry within, not set apart from and over, the parish and community.


  1. Brian, I am heartily glad to see that you're launching on a series of reflections on the "Liturgy of Comprehension." Timothy Fawcett's Alcuin Club volume on the 1689 revision is a favorite among my books on 17th century Anglican liturgy. I think the liturgy is an underappreciated piece of our liturgical history, and I'm eager to see your consideration of it as reflecting not only Latitudinarian but High Church concerns.

    It may be due as much to residual Baptist/Evangelical Protestant or Presbyterian sensibilities, but I very much prefer the terms presbyter and minister to priest, given the possibility of misunderstanding what we mean by the ministerial Christian priesthood. I have long wished that presbyteros had been rendered into English as "preoster" (-> prester) as in some other Germanic languages, like Danish, rather that preost/priest; and that the word "sacerd" had survived as well to translate "sacerdos."

    Bramhall's challenge to Baxter, to find lay elders in Scripture, is an interesting one, because Baxter did not think that there were lay elders in Scripture nor in the early Church. In Christian concord or The agreement of the Associated Pastors and Churches of Worcestershire he writes,

    "That as we avoid the Titles of Lay-Elders and Preaching-Elders, so we do purposely avoid the determination of that Controversie, Whether Christ hath appointed Ecclesiasticall Elders, distinct in Office from Teaching-Elders, having no Authority to Preach, Baptize or Administer the Lords Supper, though they have Gifts? I confess my own private opinion is, that neither Scripture nor Antiquity did know any such Church-Officers."

    Baxter did not consider himself a presbyterian nor an independent with regards to polity, but was a proponent instead of what he called "parochial episcopacy," i.e. a bishop in every church, citing St. Cyprian and others in that regard. He did propose elders in each church besides the pastor, but they were to be considered "Assistant Elders," essentially assisting pastors who otherwise had secular employment (he specifically mentions physicians and schoolmasters as appropriately educated men to serve in that capacity) but who assisted the parish pastor in preaching and in pastoral care.

    For the sake of unity in his Worcestershire Association, which brought together presbyterian, independent, and even a few episcopalian parish ministers, he did allow this:

    "And observe further, that the Elders that we here speak of, are only Assistants to able Preachers: we do not say, that such may be allowed of alone, where there is no other to preach (though what might be done in case of necessity, I will not determin.) But if a great Church have one or two able men to Preach publikely, and will moreover appoint some sober, godly, orthodox men to help them in Private oversight, Instruction, admonition and reproof; and if one call these Lay-Elders or Ruling-Elders, and another take them to be inferior Ministers, as some sober Chappell Readers were, I would not quarrell about the notions or Titles while we agree about the work to be done. Nor would I dare to reproach them with the name of Dumbe doggs on one side, or Lay-Eldeers (as dumbe) on the other."

    Perhaps Bramhall is using Baxter as a stand-in for presbyterians generally?

    1. Todd, many thanks for your comment. Yes, there is no doubt that Bramhall was using Baxter as a stand-in for Presbyterianism in general. Considering the bitterness of the episcopalian-presbyterian controversy at that time, it is unsurprising that the various nuances on each side were missed.

      The 1689 Book, while it does have some weaknesses, does seem to me to stand in the mainstream of the Anglican tradition. What is particularly striking is how it anticipated later Anglican thinking. Not only PECUSA's 1789 Book but also the CofI's 1878 Book incorporated key parts of its revision. Its approach to non-episcopally ordained clergy anticipates later ecumenical discussion and provision (as well as echoing earlier Anglican practice).



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