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11. Of Archdeacons

Antiquities of the Christian Church
CHAPTER III. Of the Ministers of the Church

11. Of Archdeacons

The policy of the bishop, in attaching to himself the interests of the deacons in opposition to the presbyters, was peculiarly manifested in respect to the archdeacon, who was the firm adherent of the bishop, and the hitler opponent of the archpresbyters.

Contrary to the general usage of antiquity, qualifications for office had more influence in his election than seniority of age and ordination. Alhanasius of Alexandria, while yet a young man, was invested with the office of archdeacon. Jerome also gives us to understand that the deacons chose from among themselves indiscriminately the most suitable candidate for the office; according to the same author, there was one archdeacon for each church.

The office was in certain churches elective; in others it was filled by appointment of the bishop. Indeed, he might very naturally be expected to guard with peculiar jealousy the appointment of this officer who, according to the antiquated phraseology of the day, was to be his own right hand, his mouth, his ear, his eye. Accordingly, when the rule of seniority prevailed, he retained the right of overruling it at pleasure, leaving to the candidate elect his rank and title, but substituting in his place another better qualified to transact the business of the office. 

The leading historical facts relating to this office are briefly as follows.

  1. The office occurs as early as the fourth or fifth century, but without any distinct title; such were Athanasius of Alexandria, Caecilianus of Carthage, and the famous Leo the Great of Rome.
  2. The arrogance and ambition of the archdeacons became, as early as the fifth century, the subject of bitter complaint. 
  3. They usually had the address to become the successors of the bishop; they claimed to take precedence of the presbyters, and to be second in rank only to the bishop. 
  4. Their power became greatly extended through the period reaching from the seventh to the ninth centuries, when they were not only authorized to remove deacons, and subordinate officers, but the honors shared by them were in some instances eagerly sought by the presbyters themselves ; even the jurisdiction of the bishop was disowned by them,, with whom they became, in a measure, partners in office. 
  5. From the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, the bishops were engaged in a fruitless endeavor to curtail the grasping ambition of the archdeacons, who still had the address to ally themselves more and more with the secular power, and finally, not only became independent of the bishops, but subjected them, in a degree, to their own control. The establishment and the increase of their power was favored at Rome, as the means of weakening the hands of the bishops, and extending the influence of the Romish see. So that the very order of men that the bishops employed to assist them in gaining ascendency over the presbyters, was now employed by a more aspiring power against themselves.
  6. In the thirteenth century, the archbishops succeeded in putting an effectual check upon the immoderate power of the archdeacons; a decree in council having been finally obtained which prohibited the archdeacon from employing any substitute whatever in the discharge of his office, or passing any judicial sentence for grave offences without the permission of the bishop. The archbishops also required of the bishops that they should employ in the discharge of their duties, a new class of officers, who should be entirely distinct from the archdeacons. These were first appointed by Innocent IV, A. D. 1250, and were called vicarii, officialese officials, vicars, and also vicar generals, because they were intrusted with judicial authority and adjudicated in the name of the bishop. This measure had the desired effect to reduce the power of the archdeacon, which in consequence became an inconsiderable office. In the East it became extinct as early as the eighth century.

The office itself may be compared both with that of bishop and deacon, for it partook in part of the nature of both. The principal complaint against the archdeacon arose from the abuse of his power in assuming as his right what was only delegated to him, as has been already related. His various offices are specified by Bingham in the following summary,

  1. To attend the bishop at the altar;
  2. to assist him in managing the church revenues;
  3. in preaching;
  4. in ordaining the inferior clergy;
  5. he also had power to censure deacons, and the inferior clergy, but not presbyters.

Theodoret. h. e. lib. i. c. 26.

Concil. Agath. c. 23.

Hier. Comment. Ezek. 48. Opp. torn. v. 479.

Photii Bibl. cod. 182. tom. i. p. 127: cod. 225, 226.

Concil. Aurel. IV. c. 26: Chalced. act. JO.

Hincmar. Rhem. Capit. ad Gunthar et Odelph.

Decret. Gratiani. 25. c. 1: Gregor. Decret. lib. i. tit. xxiv. c. 1: Concil. Tolet. VIII.

Vgl. Lampert. Hist. Metens. lib. iv. c.95: Concil Lateran. P. xxiv. c. 4: Harduin. tom. vi. P. ii. p. 1798.

Concil. Turon. c. 8: Concil. Salman, c. 7: Pellicia. tom. i. p. 41.
(No tag #9 appears in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)


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