The ministry of the Church traces its origins to the Lord's commissioning of the Twelve (Mt. 10: 1–5 etc.) and the Seventy (Lk. 10: 1) to the work of the kingdom. It received a new power and wider responsibility after Pentecost (Acts 2: 1–13). In the newly founded Churches patterns of local ministry varied, but the charismatic ministry of prophets and teachers recognized by St Paul (1 Cor. 12: 28) soon gave way to ‘elders’, i.e. presbyters. Acts represents Paul as himself appointing them (14: 23) and at 20: 28 takes bishops to be broadly equivalent. A monarchical episcopate is advocated and represented at Antioch by St Ignatius (d. c.103). However, the gradual transition from apostolic leadership and a variety of charismatic and non-charismatic ministries to the stronger Church order that provides a focus of unity is only partially visible to the historian. 1 Tim. 3–4 is the first evidence of a definite order of bishops and deacons. It also adumbrates or envisages ordination: the local presbyters lay hands on Timothy and the Spirit is understood to be conveyed by the rite. The account in Acts 6: 1–6 of the appointment of the Seven echoes this situation. All these hints of later practice preserve the sense of God's choosing ministers, expressed also in the story of the election by lot of St Matthias (Acts i: 23–6). By the mid-3rd cent. considerable evolution of the system is evident. At Rome under Cornelius (251–3) there were, besides the bishop, 46 presbyters, seven deacons, seven subdeacons, 42 acolytes and 52 exorcists, readers, and doorkeepers. By the later Middle Ages the prevalent view was that there were seven Orders, and in the W. a distinction was made between the three Major and four Minor Orders (qq.v.). According to Catholic theology the gift of Order is a sacrament, and it is held to impart an indelible character. In the Middle Ages the Minor Orders were commonly regarded as included within the sacrament of Orders, but RC theologians now reject this view.
It is traditionally held that only a baptized and confirmed male person can be validly ordained. However, in modern times many provinces in the Anglican Communion have admitted women to the deaconate and priesthood and some to the episcopate also. The candidate must be of good moral character and nowadays convinced of having a Divine call (‘vocation’) to the office. Ordinands must be of due age (see age, canonical) and generally need a ‘title’ to the cure of souls. Traditional theology also holds that the sacrament of Orders can validly be conferred only by a duly consecrated bishop.
Ordination has always taken place in the context of the Eucharist. The rite, which long remained simple in the E., had become elaborate in the W. by the end of the Middle Ages. In the RC Church much simplified rites of Ordination were introduced in 1968. The bishop now lays hands on each candidate for the diaconate in silence and then says the Ordination prayer over them all. After each candidate has been vested in dalmatic and stole, the bishop gives him the book of the Gospels with a charge to proclaim and live by it. In the case of candidates for the priesthood the bishop is joined by other clergy in the laying-on of hands, and a different formula is used in the Ordination prayer. The bishop then anoints the hands of each candidate with chrism and delivers to him the paten and chalice with bread and wine offered by the people. In the ordering of bishops, the co-consecrators join with the consecrating bishop in saying that part of the consecratory prayer held to be necessary for validity; while this prayer is being said, the book of the Gospels is held over the head of the candidate. The consecrating bishop then anoints his head, delivers the Gospels to him, puts a ring on his finger and a mitre on his head, and gives him a pastoral staff or crosier. In the C of E, the CW Ordination Services (2007) succeeded an earlier (1978) alternative to the Ordinal. In them the Liturgy of Ordination consists of an introduction, declarations, the people's assent to the ordination, and extended prayer culminating in the Ordination Prayer, during which the bishop lays hands on each candidate. In the ordination of priests and bishops, the ordaining bishop is joined by members of these orders. The newly ordained are given the Bible (either after the Ordination Prayer or in the final part of the service, called the ‘Sending Out’) as a sign of the authority that has been conferred. A rite of washing of deacons' feet, anointing of priests and bishops, vesting (of all orders), and the presentation of bread and wine to priests are optional. Bishops are given a pastoral staff or crosier at the ‘Sending Out’.