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An archdeacon is a senior clergy position in Anglicanism, Chaldean Catholic, Syrian Malabar Nasrani, and some other Christian denominations, above that of most clergy and below a bishop. In the High Middle Ages it was the most senior diocesan position below a bishop in the Roman Catholic Church. An archdeacon is often responsible for administration within an archdeaconry, which is the principal subdivision of the diocese. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church has defined an archdeacon as, "A cleric having a defined administrative authority delegated to him by the bishop in the whole or part of the diocese." The office has often been described metaphorically as that of oculus episcopi, the bishop's eye.
In the Catholic Church, the post of archdeacon, generally a priest, was once one of great importance as a senior official of a diocese. It has fallen into disuse, and its duties are now part of the work of such officials as the auxiliary and/or coadjutor bishops, the vicar general, the episcopal vicar, and the vicar forane, dean or archpriest.
In 11th-century England, a diocese was meant to be about 3,000 square miles (8,000 km²). This would have implied that every part was reachable within a single day's ride. In practice, some dioceses were much larger, taking up to five days in some cases to go end to end. Additionally, some had topographical considerations that greatly limited travel within them (meaning that much shorter distances could be covered in a single day than in other areas). The response to the demands of such distances and terrain, and the increasing demands of church business, was territorial subdivision. The primary unit of subdivision of a diocese was the archdeaconry. An ecclesiastical council held at Windsor in 1070 ordered "that bishops should appoint archdeacons in their churches".
An archdeacon, generally an ordained priest, acted as the bishop's representative with the duty of supervising parish priests and churches, for example ensuring they had proper training in how to celebrate Mass and use the proper equipment.
The office of archdeacon is currently in disuse in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, although there are still members of the clergy who hold the title of archdeacon as an honorary title, such as Archdeacon Michael O'Brien of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cork and Ross in Ireland. Similarities to the office of vicar general have been noted.
Archdeacons serve the church within a diocese by taking particular responsibility for buildings, including church buildings, the welfare of clergy and their families and the implementation of diocesan policy for the sake of the Gospel within an archdeaconry. An archdeaconry is a territorial division of a diocese; these vary in number according to the size of the diocese and in a few cases an assistant bishop in a diocese will also fulfil the duties of an archdeacon in part of it, as in the Archdeaconry of Bodmin 1953–62 (the Archdeaconry of Bodmin is one of two archdeaconries in the Diocese of Truro). An archdeacon is usually styled The Venerable instead of the usual clerical style of The Reverend. In the Church of England the position of an archdeacon can only be held by a priest who has been ordained for at least six years. (This rule was introduced in 1840; the requirement that an archdeacon be in priest's orders was enacted in 1662.) In some other Anglican churches archdeacons can be deacons instead of priests. The Anglican Ordinal presupposes that the functions of archdeacons include those of examining candidates for ordination and then presenting them to the ordaining bishop.
In some parts of the Anglican Communion where women cannot be consecrated as bishops, the position of archdeacon is effectively the most senior office a female cleric can hold: this being the current situation, for example, in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. Very rarely, "lay archdeacons" have been appointed, most notably in the case of the former Anglican Communion Observer to the United Nations, Archdeacon Taimalelagi Fagamalama Tuatagoloa-Leota, who retained her title having served as Archdeacon of Samoa.
Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches
In the Eastern Christian churches (Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Churches), an archdeacon is the senior deacon within a diocese and has responsibility for serving at hierarchical services (those at which the bishop is present and presiding). He has responsibility for ensuring the smooth running of the service by directing the clergy and servers as appropriate. As such, he usually travels with the ruling bishop to various parts of the diocese, and will sometimes act as his secretary and cell attendant, ensuring that he is able to balance his monastic life with his hierarchical duties. The archdeacon wears the double orarion, which is twice the length of the usual orarion, and wraps under the right arm as well as hanging from the left shoulder. An archdeacon may come from either the monastic or married clergy.
A protodeacon also wears the double orarion, although he is distinguished from the archdeacon in that he is the senior deacon at a cathedral or other principal church within a diocese and serves as the principal deacon when a number of deacons serve together.
Saint Thomas Christians
An archdeacon was the “prince and head of the Christians of Saint Thomas” and had such titles as “Archdeacon and Gate of All India, Governor of India.” Portuguese colonists stopped this practice among the Catholic Syrian Christians and Pulikkottil Mar Dionysias stopped this amongst the Orthodox Syrian Christians in 1816.
According to the traditional structure, the Indian diocese of the Church of the East was governed by a metropolitan sent by the Catholicos Patriarch, from Seleucia-Ctesiphon. At the same time, on the local level, in India, church affairs were governed by the Malabar Assembly. There was also an indigenous head of the Church of Malabar, which, according to historians, means the “head of the caste”, that is the head of the St Thomas Christians but also the “Archdeacon of All India”. Apparently, in his person an indigenous function, characteristic of the St Thomas Christian community, was combined with an existing function of the Church of the East. Patriarch Timothy (780–826) of Persia called him the head of the faithful in India.
According to the canons of the Eastern churches, an archdeacon is the highest priestly rank: he is the head of all the clerics belonging to a bishopric; he is responsible for the whole worship of the cathedral church and represents the will of the bishop in his absence. One clearly understands how the appointment of an indigenous Archdeacon of All India served the needs of the ecclesiastical organisation of the Church of the East. While the Catholicos Patriarch of Seleucia-Ctesiphon reserved for himself the right to send his own prelates originating from Iraq to the Indian diocese, the continuous governance of his Indian flock was secured by the indigenous Archdeacon serving as the head of all the priests in Malabar and representing the bishop’s will.
However, from the local point of view, the rank of an archdeacon was more important than this; not only was he the most important priest of the community, but he also fulfilled the role of an Ethnarch. He was the “prince and head of the Christians of Saint Thomas” and had such titles as “Archdeacon and Gate of All India, Governor of India.” The origin and the meaning of the term “gate” is mysterious. One might suppose that it is a Christological title: “I am the Gate of the sheep” (Gospel of John 10:7).
While originally an archdeacon in the Church of the East was elected by the bishop according to merit, the office of the Archdeacon of India seems to have been hereditary. It was the privilege of the Pakalomattam family, at least from the sixteenth century onwards. Indeed, we know about a number of Pakalomattam Archdeacons, beginning with 1502, when Metropolitan John of India appointed George Pakalomattam. The name of the family varies, and the family seems to be identical with the Parambil family, translated into Portuguese as ‘de Campo’.
An archdeacon had all the attributes of a secular leader and was normally escorted by a number, sometimes several thousands, of soldiers. It is important to note that while there could be several bishops appointed for the Malabar Diocese, there was always only one archdeacon, a custom contrary to the canons of the Church of the East. This situation is best explained by the fact that from the point of view of the East Syrian Church structure the archdeacon was an ecclesiastical function, but from that of the St Thomas Christian community it was also a socio-political, princely function, representing the unity of the Christian nation, or caste(s), of Hendo (India).
- Cross, FL, ed. (1957), The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, London: Oxford University Press, p. 79.
- "VI. Church", Medieval History I, Third millennium library[dead link]
- "The chapter". Gloucester cathedral. Retrieved 2012-03-30.
- "Archdeacon Narelle Jarrett" (profile). Anglican Diocese of Sydney. Retrieved 8 June 2012.
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