The sacrament of Priesthood includes three liturgical rites of ordination: to the episcopate, to the priesthood and to the diaconate.
According to the present tradition of the Orthodox Church, bishops are chosen from among the monks. In the early Church there were married bishops: St. Paul says a bishop must be ‘the husband of one wife’ (1 Tim.3;2). However, even in the early centuries, preference was given to monastic or celibate clergy. Thus among the holy bishops of the fourth century only St. Gregory of Nyssa was married, while St. Athanasius, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. John Chrysostom were celibate. Priests and deacons in the Orthodox Church can be either monastic or married. However, marriage is possible for clergy only before ordination and only once: those married a second time are not allowed to become priests or deacons.
The ordination into hierarchical ranks has from the apostolic times onwards been accomplished through the laying of hands (Greek cheirotonia). According to the Church’s rules, a priest and a deacon must be ordained by one bishop; a bishop, by several bishops (no less than three or two). Ordinations take place during the Liturgy. A bishop is ordained after the singing of ‘Holy God’ (during the Liturgy of the catechumens); a priest, after the Cherubic Hymn; and a deacon, after the consecration of the Holy Gifts.
Episcopal ordination are especially solemn. A priest who is to be ordained bishop enters the altar through the ‘royal doors’ and goes three times around the holy table, kissing its four corners; the clergy and the choir sing the troparia from the rite of Marriage. The one being ordained then bends his knees before the holy table, and the hierarchs lay their hands on his head, with the presiding celebrant reading the prayer of ordination: ‘The grace divine, which always healeth that which is infirm and completeth that which is wanting, through the laying-on of hands elevateth thee, the most God-loving Archimandrite, (name), duly elected, to be the Bishop of the God-saved cities, (names). Wherefore let us pray for him, that the grace of the All-holy Spirit may come upon him’. Following this, while Kyrie eleison (‘Lord, have mercy’) is sung by the clergy and the choir, the first hierarch reads other prayers. The newly-ordained bishop is then clothed in episcopal vestments, while the people (or the choir) exclaim Axios (‘He is worthy!’). This exclamation is the only trace of the ancient practice of the election of bishops by all the faithful.
Ordinations to the priesthood and to the diaconate follow the same order: the one who is being ordained enters the altar, goes around the holy table, kissing its corners, bends his knees (or only one knee, as in the case of a deacon); the bishop lays his hands and reads the prayers of consecration over the newly-ordained; and the latter is then clothed in his priestly (or diaconic) vestments with the Axios sung by people.
The singing of the troparia from the rite of Marriage has a special meaning in the ordination to the hierarchical ranks: it shows that the bishop (or priest, or deacon) is betrothed to his diocese (or parish). In the early Church it was very unusual either for a bishop to change his diocese, or for a priest, his parish. As a rule, an ecclesiastical appointment was for life. Even the Patriarch was chosen not from the bishops of a particular patriarchate, but from the lower clergy, in some cases even from the laity.
The Orthodox Church ascribes a very high significance to the sacrament of Priesthood, for with it the church community receives its new pastor. Despite everything that has been written and said about the ‘royal priesthood’ of all believers, the Church also recognizes the difference between lay people and an ordained priest, the latter being entrusted with the celebration of the Eucharist, and having the power of ‘binding and loosing’. Ordination into a hierarchical rank, be it of bishop, priest or deacon, is not only a change of status for someone, but also, to a certain extent, a transition to another level of existence.
In the Orthodox Church, priests and bishops are regarded as bearers of divine grace, as instruments through which God Himself acts. When receiving a priest’s blessing, the faithful kiss his hand as if it were Christ’s hand, because it is by Christ’s power that he gives the blessing. This sense of holiness and dignity in priestly ministry is weakened in some Christian denominations. In certain Protestant communities the only difference between the laity and the clergy is that the latter have a ‘license to preach’.