A priesthood is a body of priests, shamans, or oracles who have special religious authority or function. The term priest is derived from Latin presbyter, but is often used in the sense of sacerdos in particular, i.e., for clergy performing ritual within the sphere of the sacred or numinous (ἱερός) communicating with the gods on behalf of the community.
There is a significant difference between clergy and theologians; clergy have the above-mentioned duties while theologians are scholars of religion and theology, and are not necessarily clergy. A lay-person can be a theologian.
In Christianity there is a wide range of formal and informal clergy positions, including deacons, priests, bishops, and ministers. In Islam, religious leaders are usually known as imams or ayatollahs.
Historical polytheistic (pagan) religions typically combine religious authority and political power. The dual function of political leader and high priest in some instances is even sublimed in deification (imperial cult), as e.g. in the case of the Egyptian Pharaohs. The sacred king combines the offices of kingship and priesthood. Historical Vedic priesthood is an early example of a structured body of clergy organized as a separate and hereditary caste.
Types of clerics are distinguished from offices, even when the latter are commonly or exclusively occupied by clerics. A Roman Catholic cardinal, for instance, is almost without exception a cleric, but a cardinal is not a type of cleric. An archbishop is not a distinct type of cleric, but is simply a bishop who occupies a particular position with special authority. Conversely, a youth minister at a parish may or may not be a cleric.
Different churches have different systems of clergy, though churches with similar polity have similar systems.
Ordained Catholic clergymen are deacons, priests, or bishops, i.e., they belong to the diaconate, the presbyterate, or the episcopate. Among bishops, some are metropolitans, archbishops, or patriarchs, and the Pope is the Bishop of Rome. With rare exceptions, cardinals are bishops, although it was not always so; formerly, some cardinals were unordained laymen and not clergymen. The Holy See supports the activity of its clergy by the Congregation for the Clergy (), a dicastery of Roman curia.
Canon Law indicates (canon 107) that "by divine institution, there are in the Church [Latin: Ecclesia] clergy [Latin: clerices] distinguished from laics". This distinction of a separate class was formed in the early times of Christianity; one early source reflecting this distinction is the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch. The original clerics were the bishops (the Twelve Apostles) and the deacons (their seventy appointed assistants); the presbyterate actually developed as a sort of semi-bishop (cf. the disused chorepiskopos, "rural bishop"). In the Catholic Church, only men are allowed to be members of the clergy.
Catholic clerical organization is hierarchical in nature: before the reforms after the Second Vatican Council, the tonsure admitted a man to the clerical state, after which he could receive the four minor orders (ostiary, lectorate, order of exorcists, order of acolytes) and then the major orders of subdiaconate, diaconate, presbyterate, and finally the episcopate, which is defined in Catholic doctrine as "the fullness of Holy Orders". Today the minor orders and the subdiaconate have been replaced by lay ministries and the tonsure no longer takes place, the clerical state being tied to reception of Holy Orders rather than being symbolically part of a bishop's household.
The exceptions are certain papally-approved Indult Catholic societies as well as Eastern Catholic churches. In the Eastern Churches, clergy status is extended to all holders of minor orders (which are retained in these traditions) and seminarians. Thus, in eastern Churches, deacons, priests, bishops, etc... are all called "Father," while those not in Holy Orders are addressed most often as "Brother," despite the monastic implications of the title (in the Western or Latin Church, only priests are addressed as "Father," deacons usually being addressed as "deacon" or "mister," and bishops bay various titles such as "your excellency," "bishop," or "most reverend father in God"). This distinction can lead to some inter-Ritual issues, such as the wearing of clerical apparel and the signing of one's name, especially if attending, living, or working in a mostly Roman Rite institution.
Monks and other religious are not necessarily part of the clergy, unless they have received Holy Orders. Thus, The unordained monks, nuns, friars, and religious brothers and sisters should not be considered part of the clergy. Holy Orders is one of the Seven Sacraments considered to be of Divine institution in Catholic doctrine.
As many colleges at Medieval universities were restricted to members of the clergy, the term also survives in students' organizations at some ancient universities, such as Goliardia. These are echoes of the Medieval Goliards, the clerici vagantes. The term clerici vagantes , or "wandering clerics," comes from the Medieval phenomenon of clergy who had either abandoned their diocese or otherwise lost their incardination, and so sometimes took to wandering as bands of entertainers particularly through university towns. The Council of Trent tried to abolish this use, and only in recent times the rule was restored that a clericus has a perpetual and absolute obligation to serve the diocese or the Order to which he is assigned; only with a special authorization he can be accepted in the jurisdiction of another diocese or of another Order.
Current canon law prescribes that to be ordained a priest, an education is required of two years of scholastic philosophy study, and 4 years of theology; dogmatic and moral theology, the Holy Scriptures, and canon law have to be studied within a seminary or an ecclesiastical faculty at a university. This reflects the scholastic and intellectual traditions of the Latin Church.
Promises of celibacy and obedience are required as a condition for ordination to the diaconate and priesthood in the Latin Rite (celibacy is not required, however, for permanent deacons who are already married, but they are forbidden from marrying should their wife die); this is a disciplinary and administrative rule rather than a dogmatic and doctrinal one. Celibacy has taken many forms in different times and places. The Council in Trullo (Quinisextum Concilium) in 692 barred bishops from marrying, but did not prevent married men from becoming priests and excommunicated those deacons who divorced their spouses in order to become ordained. This rule is still followed for ordained deacons in the Latin Rite, as well as for priests in the Eastern Catholic Churches. Married men are not ordained priests in the Latin Rite, although some married priests do exist who were ordained in the Anglican church and later received into the Roman Catholic Church and re-ordained (as the Catholic Church does not recognize the validity of Holy Orders in the Anglican communion). See also Presbyterorum Ordinis for a modern statement of the nature of the Catholic priesthood.
Clergy have four classical rights:
The extent to which these rights are recognized under civil law varies dramatically from country to country, with traditionally Catholic countries being more inclined to respect these rights.
For the forms of address for Anglican clergy, see Forms of Address in the United Kingdom.
Before the ordination of women as deacons, priests and bishops began within Anglicanism they could be ordained as 'deaconesses'. Although they were usually considered having a ministry distinct from deacons they often had similar ministerial responsibilities.
In Anglican churches all clergy are permitted to marry. In most national churches women may become deacons or priests, but while fifteen out of 38 national churches allow for women bishops, only three have ordained any. Celebration of the Eucharist is reserved for priests and bishops.
National Anglican churches are presided over by one or more primates or metropolitans (archbishops or presiding bishops). The senior archbishop of the Anglican Communion is the Archbishop of Canterbury, who acts as leader of the Church of England and 'first among equals' of the primates of all Anglican churches.
Being a deacon, priest or bishop is considered a function of the person and not a job. When priests retire they are still priests even if they no longer have any active ministry.
The process of being designated as a member of the Protestant clergy, as well as that of being assigned to a particular office, varies with the denomination or faith group. Some Protestant denominations, such as Methodism, Presbyterianism, and Lutheranism, are hierarchical in nature; and ordination and assignment to individual pastorates or other ministries are made by the parent denominations. In other traditions, such as the Baptist and other Congregational groups, local churches are free to hire (and often ordain) their own clergy, although the parent denominations typically maintain lists of suitable candidates seeking appointment to local church ministries and encourage local churches to consider these individuals when filling available positions.
Some Protestant denominations require that candidates for ordination be "licensed" to the ministry for a period of time (typically one to three years) prior to being ordained. This period typically is spent performing the duties of ministry under the guidance, supervision, and evaluation of a more senior, ordained minister. In some denominations, however, licensure is a permanent, rather than a transitional state for ministers assigned to certain specialized ministries, such as music ministry or youth ministry.
All Protestant denominations reject the idea (following Luther) that the clergy are a separate category of people, but rather stress the priesthood of all believers. Based on this theological approach, Protestants do not have a sacrament of Ordination like the pre-Reformation Churches. Protestant ordination, therefore, can be viewed more as a public statement by the ordaining body that an individual possesses the theological knowledge, moral fitness, and practical skills required for service in that faith group's ministry.
Some Protestant denominations dislike the word clergy and do not use it of their own leaders. Often they refer to their leaders as pastors or ministers, titles that, if used, sometimes apply to the person only as long as he or she holds a particular office.
Jesus Christ stands at the head of the church and leads the church through revelation given to a living Prophet and Twelve Apostles. The Prophet and Apostles lead over the quorums of the seventy which are assigned geographically over several "stakes" within the church. Each stake has a stake president who has two counselors and a high council which preside over the stake. The stake is made up of several congregations called "wards" or "branches." Individual congregations ("wards") are led by a Bishop or Branch President who was called to their position by the Church's hierarchical leadership, and they serve until released from the position.
Generally, all worthy males above the age of 12 are ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood, authorizing them to perform certain ordinances and sacraments, and adult males are ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood, which is concerned with spiritual leadership of the church.
Judaism does not have clergy as such, although in ancient Judaism there was a formal priestly tribe known as the Kohanim; each member of the tribe, a Kohen had priestly duties, many of which centered around the Temple in Jerusalem. Since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 BC, their role has been significantly reduced. Today, Kohanim know their status only by family tradition, and they still offer the priestly blessing during certain services in the synagogue and perform the Pidyon Ha-ben (redemption of the first-born son) ceremony. Otherwise, they exercise no particular leadership role.
Since the time of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, the religious leaders of Judaism have been the rabbis, who are technically scholars in Jewish law empowered to act as judges in a rabbinical court. The leadership of a Jewish congregation is, in fact, in the hands of the laity: the president of a synagogue is its actual leader and any adult Jew (or at least any male in Orthodox congregations) can lead prayer services. Rabbis are not intermediaries between God and man: the word "rabbi" means "teacher", and the rabbi functions as advisor to the congregation and counselor. The rabbi is not an occupation found in the Torah (Five books of Moses); the first time this word is mentioned is in the Mishnah. The modern form of the rabbi developed in the Talmudic era. Rabbis are given authority to make interpretations of Jewish law and custom. Traditionally, a man obtains one of three levels of Semicha (rabbinic ordination) after the completion of an arduous learning program in Torah, Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), Mishnah and Talmud, Midrash, Jewish ethics and lore, the codes of Jewish law and responsa, theology and philosophy.
Since the early medieval era an additional communal role, the Hazzan (cantor) has existed as well. Cantors have sometimes been the only functionaries of a synagogue, empowered to undertake religio-civil functions like witnessing marriages. Cantors do provide leadership of actual services, primarily because of their training and expertise in the music and prayer rituals pertaining to them, rather than because of any spiritual or "sacramental" distinction between them and the laity. Cantors as much as rabbis have been recognized by civil authorities in the United States as clergy for legal purposes, mostly for awarding education degrees and their ability to perform weddings, and certify births and deaths.
Additionally, Jewish authorities license mohels, men specially trained by experts in Jewish law and usually also by medical professionals to perform the ritual of circumcision. In many places, mohels are also licensed by civil authorities, as circumcision is technically a surgical procedure. Kohanim, who must avoid contact with blood for ritual purity, cannot act as mohels, but some mohels are also either rabbis or cantors.
Only Orthodox Judaism maintains all of these traditional, fundamental requirements. Women are forbidden from becoming rabbis or cantors in the Orthodox world largely for halakhic reasons, primarily because this would affect many aspects of communal observances and practices. Most Orthodox rabbinical seminaries or Yeshiva's also require dedication of many years to education, but few require a formal degree from a civil education institutions that often define Christian clergy. The training in Jewish Law can be rigorous and extensive depending on the Teacher and School quality which varies widely, but critical thinking is encouraged. Some Orthodox Yeshiva's forbid secular education diue to the perceived negative influence on the individual, though professional education is not discouraged. However, there are many schools (yeshivas) that call themselves "modern" that function as colleges or universities, and which do offer formal, accredited degrees, including master's degrees in Music, Mathematics, Science, History in Religious Education, in Hebrew Letters and similar studies for cantors and rabbis. An example of this would be the Yeshiva University.
Conservative Judaism maintains all of these traditional requirements. Yet, women are allowed to become rabbis and cantors in the Conservative movement, and, as of late, homosexuals if they are celibate. Conservative Judaism differs with Orthodoxy in that it believes in Halakha Jewish Law as evolving with History and binding. However, the academic requirements are rigorous, as Conservative Judaism adds the following subjects as requirements for rabbinic ordination: one must first earn a bachelor's degree before entering the rabbinate. In addition studies are mandated in pastoral care and psychology, the historical development of Judaism and most importantly the academic study of Bible, Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, Philosphy and Theology, Liturgy, Jewish History, and Hebrew Literature of all periods.
Reconstructionist Judaism and Reform Judaism do not maintain the traditional requirements for study as rooted in Jewish Law and traditionalist text. Both men and women may be rabbis or cantors. The level of Jewish law, Talmud and responsa studied in five years of these denominations is similar to that learned in the first year of the more traditional Jewish seminaries. The rabbinical seminaries of these movements hold that one must first earn a bachelor's degree before entering the rabbinate. In addition studies are mandated in pastoral care and psychology, the historical development of Judaism; and academic biblical criticism. Emphasis is placed not on Jewish law, but rather on sociology, modern Jewish philosophy, Theology and Pastoral Care.
While female monastic (bhikkhuni) lineages existed in most Buddhist countries at one time, the Theravada lineages of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka died out during the 14th-15th Century AD. The status and future of female Buddhist clergy in these countries continues to be a subject of debate. In countries without a formal female monastic lineage, women may take other religious roles, but they are generally not granted the same rights and privileges as recognized male monastics.
The diversity of Buddhist traditions makes it difficult to generalize about Buddhist clergy. In the United States, Pure Land priests of the Japanese diaspora serve a role very similar to Protestant ministers of the Christian tradition. Meanwhile, reclusive Theravada forest monks in Thailand live a life devoted to meditation and the practice of austerities in small communities in rural Thailand- a very different life from even their city-dwelling counterparts, who may be involved primarily in teaching, the study of scripture, and the administration of the nationally organized (and government sponsored) Sangha. In the Zen tradition, manual labor is an important part of religious discipline; meanwhile, in the Theravada tradition, prohibitions against monks working as laborers and farmers continue to be generally observed.
Sunni Islam is non-clerical. The term "imam" is generically used to refer to various forms of religious leadership, ranging from the leader of a small group prayer to a scholar of religion, none of which involve any sort of religious ordination. In Shia Islam, the term "imam" has more specific meanings. The word literally means "in front of" in Arabic and harkens to the Imam's role of leading prayer by standing in front of the congregation. The Ulema are the class of Muslim scholars primarily devoted to the study of and, in some governments, the implementation of the Shari'a, or Islamic Law.
Sikhism strongly recognizes the Guru of Sikhism as its Supreme Authority on Earth. But in events of a need of a more of physical authority then the five Jathedars of the five holy Takhts are to be approached. As they are considered as the Supreme Temporal authority of Sikhism.