Holy Trinity Cathedral - Ecclesiology

The Sacrament of Holy Orders

in the Orthodox Church

IT IS THE CONVICTION of the Orthodox that Christ is the only Priest, Pastor and Teacher of His Body, the Church. He alone guides and rules His people. He alone forgives sins and offers communion with God, His Father. The sacrament of holy orders in the Church is the objective guarantee of the perpetual presence of Christ with His people. The bishops, priests and deacons of the Church have no other function or service than to manifest the presence and action of Christ to His people. In this sense, the clergy do not act in behalf of Christ or instead of Christ as though He Himself were absent. Christ is present now, always, and forever in His Church. The sacramental ministers of the Church — the bishops, priests and deacons — receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to manifest Christ in the Spirit to mankind.

The sacrament of holy orders takes its name from the fact that the bishops, priests and deacons give order to the Church. They guarantee the continuity and unity of the Church from age to age and from place to place from the time of Christ and the Apostles until the establishment of God’s Kingdom in eternity.

Actually, in Greek the technical term for what we call ordination or consecration is cheirotonia (Church Slavic, rukopolozhenie), literally “the laying — or better, pressing — on of hands.” This action, on the part of the bishop and in the context of the eucharistic liturgy, is believed to impart the grace of the Holy Spirit, in particular the charisma (if it is a bishop or priest being ordained) to preside at the Eucharist and to teach the faith. It has been counted as a sacrament of the Orthodox Church since at least the time of Dionysius the Areopagite. The particular term, cheirotonia, is applied only in the case of an ordination to the three “major ranks” of episcopacy, presbyterate, and diaconate. The lesser orders of the clergy, readers, cantors, and subdeacons, are ordained by cheirothesia (the “placing on of [the bishop’s] hands”). The sacrament presupposes a candidate whose life presents no obstacle to the grace received.

As the Apostles received the special gift of God to go forth and make Christ present to mankind in all of the manifold aspects of His person and work, so the clergy of the Church receive the gift of God’s Spirit to maintain and to manifest Christ’s presence and action in the churches.

The Three Ranks of the Ordained Ministry


Our English word deacon comes from the Greek word diaconos, which means “one who serves.” The deacons of the Church originally assisted the bishops in good deeds and works of charity (cf. Acts 6:1-6). Today the deacon also assists the priest and bishop in liturgical services and will often head educational programs and youth groups, do hospital visitation and missionary work, and conduct projects of social welfare. Some deacons have an honorific title: e.g. protodeacon, which means a first deacon, or archdeacon, which means a leading deacon in a jurisdiction of a particular hierarch. Deacon-monk is called hierodeacon.


Our English word priest comes from the Greek word presbyteros, which means “an elder.” The priests exercise the function of pastors of the local parishes. The priests in the Church are assigned by the bishop and belong to the specific congregations, which they serve. Monk-priests are called hieromonks. A hieromonk in charge of a monastic community is called an abbot, or hegumen. Some priests have an honorific title: e.g. archpriest (reserved for married priests), which means a leading elder, or archimandrite (reserved for monkpriests), which means the leader of a flock. Some archpriests that occupy a position of certain promince in the Church (a Church chancellor or a dean of the theological school) may receive an honorific title of a protopresbyter, which means “the first among the presbyters.”


Our English word bishop comes from the Greek word episcopos, which means “one who oversees.” The bishops are the leading members of the clergy in the sense that they have the responsibility and the service of maintaining the unity of the Church throughout the world by insuring the truth and unity of the faith and practice of their respective churches with all of the others. A titular (or auxiliary, vicar) bishop is one who does not head a diocese, but rather serves as an assistant or auxiliary to a diocesan hierarch. While a diocesan bishop heads an actual see (e.g., Bishop Tikhon is the head of our Diocese of San Francisco and the West), a titular bishop has the title of a city within a diocese (e.g., Bishop Benjamin’s titular see will be the city of Berkeley, which was traditionally a title of vicar bishops in this diocese). Some bishops have an honorific title: e.g. archbishop, which means a leading bishop; metropolitan, which means the bishop of a metropolis (major city, capitol city) in a particular county, or patriarch, which means the bishop that presides at the council of all bishops (Synod) of a region or nation. The primate of an autocephalous Church bears the title of either a patriarch or, in the younger Churches, a metropolitan.

The Rite of Ordination

An ordination is always celebrated during the Divine Liturgy: a bishop is ordained after the Thrice-holy Hymn. The fellow bishops lay their hands upon the candidate’s head, and later hold the book of Holy Gospel over his head — because a bishop’s main mission in the world is “to rightly divide the word of [God’s] truth” (from a Divine Liturgy). A priest is ordained after the Great Entrance. His main ministry is in offering the gifts to God on behalf of the community of the faithful entrusted to his pastoral care. A deacon is ordained already after the Anaphora. His task is serving the community, distributing the God’s gifts to the faithful. In each instance, the candidate is first presented by his sponsors to the ordaining bishop. He is then led through the holy doors into the sanctuary and in procession thrice around the holy table, each time kissing the corners of the holy table. During these processions, three hymns are chanted (the same ones, which are chanted as the bride and groom thrice process around the table at a marriage service).

The candidate then kneels before the holy table and the bishop lays his hands upon the candidate’s head and prays. (In the case of the consecration of a bishop, several bishops must take part in the laying on of hands.) At the conclusion of the ordination prayers the candidate rises and is presented to the people so that they might voice their approval of his worthiness with their shouts of “He is worthy” (Axios in Greek). The candidate is then clothed in the vestments of his rank.

The primary vestment for all three ranks is called the sticharion; in fact it is one, which belongs to all baptized Orthodox Christians, being essentially the robe of our baptism by which we were all ordained to the “royal priesthood” (cf. I Peter 2:9).

The deacon is vested in the sticharion; the orarion (deacon’s stole) is placed over his left shoulder — this is the emblem of office by which he leads the people in prayer and directs other litugical actions (when he prepares to receive holy communion, the deacon will cross the orarion over his breast), and the epimanikia (cuffs) are placed around his wrists — both for convenience and for showing forth the power of the right hand of God.

The priest is vested in the sticharion, the epitrachelion (priest’s stole) is placed around his neck; the epitrachelion is similar to the deacon’s stole, but the ends are sewn parallel ending in a neck hole, and it is emblematic of the consecrating grace of the priesthood; the zone (belt) is tied around his waist representing the power and blamelessness that should be exercised in walking before the Lord; the cuffs are placed around his wrists, and then the phelonion is placed over all. It is the distinguishing garment of the priesthood and probably has its origin in Byzantine court dress. In the Russian tradition the square epigonation, or nabedrennik, is one of the first awards given a priest for distinguished service; it signifies the shield of faith. The palitza, or diamond-shaped epigonation, signifies the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, and is a senior award of the priesthood. At times in Greece this vestment has been employed to indicate the educated clergy who are capable of preaching and hearing confession. The priest’s cross (silver, then gold, and finally jeweled) is worn in recent Russian tradition by all priests, but historically it was a senior award of clergy as it still is in the Greek practice.

The bishop is vested in the sticharion, the epitrachelion is placed around his neck, the zone is tied around his waist, the epimanikia are placed around his wrists, the epigonation (sword of the Spirit) is hung at his right side, the sakkos or dalmatic, as symbolic of Christ’s coat without seam, woven from top to bottom, is placed over all; the omophorion, or pall, (bishop’s stole) is laid on his shoulders. The omophorion typifies the wandering sheep that the Good Shepherd takes upon his shoulders and carries to his Father. A pectoral cross and engolpion, or panagia (pectoral icon of the Mother of God with Child, representing the Church bearing the Lord in its heart) are placed around his neck; later in the Divine Liturgy the miter (crown), which serves as an emblem of the power bestowed upon the High Priest, is placed upon the head of the newly-consecrated bishop and he is presented the pastoral staff, or crosier, that indicates the spiritual authority of bishops and archimandrites over their flocks. The image of the Good Shepherd is one familiar to agricultural societies; and it is well known that a shepherd provides water, food, and safe haven for his flock — guiding, rescuing, and correcting with his staff. Another noticeable attribute of bishop’s liturgical actions is the presence of the eagle rug — a small, round rug with the representation of an eagle hovering over the bishop’s see. The bishop stands on it during the religious services, at each location as he moves to various places in the church during the Divine Liturgy — the center of the church, in front of the altar, behind the altar, etc. A bishop wears a mantle, or cape, usually multicolored purple and sewn with the “Tables of the Law,” representing the Old and New Testaments, and the “Fountains,” red and white ribbons encircling the mantle and signifying flowing streams of teaching and wisdom.

Borrowed and adapted.

Last modified: April 28, 2004 - webmaster@holy-trinity.org.