Ian Paul summarises a section of Colin Buchanan’s recent Grove Booklet on ‘Worship in the Letter to the Hebrews’ (The following quote is slightly reformatted):-
The New Testament never uses the hiereus stem, which is translated as ‘priest’ in the English versions, to denote ordained ministers of the church. However, the English word ‘priest,’ which is used to translate hiereus in the Scriptures, is itself etymologically a corruption of the Greek presbuteros, which the Bible translates as elder. The distinction is clear in Greek—the elders are Christian leaders, and the ‘priest’ stem comes only with Old Testament priests, with Jesus as our high priest, and with the whole church as a ‘priesthood’ (as, for example, in 1 Pet 2.9), but not with Christian ministers or leaders.
Ministers have many titles (elders, bishops, pastors, teachers and so on), but the one they do not have is ‘priests’ (hiereis).
Ministers hardly appear in this letter, and, when they do, they have no distinctive connection as ministers to the priesthood of Christ.
So it is impossible to derive a supposed ‘priesthood’ they hold from the well-defined (and inalienable) priesthood he alone holds.
The Anglican Reformers served us ill in retaining ‘priests’ in the liturgy, and we are well served now by the step-by-step return of ‘presbyters,’ which Anglican believers ought to encourage.
Finally the New Testament makes no connection whatsoever between priesthood and presiding at the eucharist.
That’s clear enough, I think. The only vaguely plausible reasons I have heard for referring to Christian ministers as ‘priests’ are (a) the etymological reason, viz. that in English the word ‘priest’ is derived from ‘presbyter’ (‘elder’); and (b) the theological reasons, viz. that, given the ‘priesthood of all believers’, the minister can be called a ‘priest’ in the sense that she is a representative of that collective priesthood. But the first reason exploits an accident of language, and the second opportunistically imagines that a special sub-class of ‘priests’ exists where none actually does.
I have long thought that the Church of England (within which I myself serve as a Licensed Reader) suffers – like some other sections of the Christian church – from living too much in the Old Testament. A good dose of the Letter to the Hebrews would go far to correcting this anachronism.