1. Of Subdeacons
Antiquities of the Christian Church
CHAPTER IV. Inferior officers of the church
1. Of Subdeacons
The servants* of the New Testament are the same as the subdeacons of whom mention is so frequently made, both by the early fathers and by later ecclesiastical writers. This appellation was first used by Athanasius, but earlier traces of it occur in the epistles. of Cyprian, 8. 20. 29. 34. 35, etc., as a term in use in the Latin church, from whom it was afterwards adopted by the Greek church. The office became common to both the Eastern and Western churches in the fourth century.
The specific duty of the subdeacons was to assist the deacons in their duties. The number of these was so limited that it was quite impracticable for them personally to discharge all the duties of their office. For this reason they were provided with the assistance of the subdeacons. Like the deacons they were usually seven in number. To this number the church of Rome adhered with singular pertinacity. But in order that they might retain their sacred number seven, and still have the aid of a sufficient number of assistants, they created three several orders of these officers, consisting of seven each, and called palatini, stationarii, and regionarii. In the church at Constantinople there were at one time ninety, and at another, seventy subdeacons.
Authorities are not agreed respecting the consecration of the subdeacons. Some affirm that they were, and others that they were not, ordained by the imposition of hands. In the East they were uniformly regarded as of a subordinate rank, and classed with the readers. In the West they ranked the first in the lower order of the priesthood, and about the twelfth or thirteenth centuries they were transferred to the superior order. The reason for this promotion was that on the elevation of the episcopal order the three orders might still retain their original number and relative rank. The Eastern church adhered more closely to the original design for which they were appointed.
Before their promotion in the Western church, their duties were the following: – to convey the bishop's letters or messages to foreign churches, and to execute other commissions of the superior ministers; to fit and prepare the sacred vessels of the altar, and to deliver them to the deacon in time of divine service; to attend the door of the church during the communion service, taking care that no one went in or out during the time of oblation; and, perhaps, to conduct those who came into church to their proper places.
After their promotion in the Western church, they were permitted to assist in celebrating mass. An empty chalice and patine was delivered to them at their ordination; but they were not allowed either to consecrate, or distribute the sacred elements. As it was customary to deliver to the deacons a copy of the gospels, so to the subdeacons was delivered a copy of the epistles also, at their ordination. In a word the strife was to elevate their office as much as possible above that of the reader, and to attach to it all possible honors. Contrary to all the authority of the primitive church, they were often promoted to the highest honors and offices of the priesthood.
Canon Apost. c. 42, 43: Constit. Apost. lib. viii. c. 21: Ignatius ep. ad Act. c. 2. p. 96: Habert. Archierat. p. 49.
Baumgaiten Erlaut. d. ch. Allerth. S. 123: Constit. Apost. lib. viii. c. 21.
Basil M. ep. can. 51: Concil. Carth. IV. c. 5.
Concil. Trident. Sess. xxiii. c. 2.
Const. Apost. viii. c. 11: Concil. Laodic. 21, 22, 25: Euseb. h. e. lib. Ixxx. c. 4: Cyprian, ep. 24. (29.)
(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)