Subdeacon (or sub-deacon) is a title used in various branches of Christianity.
Subdeacons in the Orthodox Church
Like the reader, the clerical street-dress of the subdeacon is the cassock, which is usually black but only need be so if he is a monk. This is symbolic of his suppression of his own tastes, will, and desires, and his canonical obedience to God, his bishop, and the liturgical and canonical norms of the Church. As a concession in countries where Orthodoxy is little known, many only wear the cassock when attending services or when moving about the faithful on church business. In some jurisdictions in the United States, a clergy-shirt will sometimes be worn instead of a cassock, and is commonly worn buttoned but with no collar or collar-tab to indicate a rank lower than deacon.
There is a special service for the tonsuring of a subdeacon, although in contemporary practice an acolyte or a reader may receive the bishop's blessing to vest and act as a subdeacon generally or for a particular occasion if there is no subdeacon available. This situation often arises if there is a need for a subdeacon and a likely candidate has stated an intention to marry but has not yet done so, causing a delay in his ordination. The reason for this lies in the fact that the canons prohibit subdeacons to marry after their ordination (just like deacons and priests). This latter stipulation has led, in some places, to the reservation of the formal ordination service as a stepping-stone for candidates for the priesthood, although this is by no means universal. It also means that, while teenagers who show particular fervour may be ordained as acolytes and readers, the subdiaconate is usually reserved for those of more mature years; the canonical minimum age for subdiaconal ordination is twenty years.
A custom in some jurisdictions is that former seminarians who have discerned not to have a calling to the priesthood or diaconate, are, if they wish (and provided that they are married, or being unmarried, do not intend to marry), ordained subdeacons as a sign of investment, faith, and to award their service.
Function, Vesture, and Ordination
The Eastern Rite
In the Byzantine Rite, (followed by the majority of Orthodox churches), the subdeacon's liturgical role is primarily that of servant to the bishop. He assists the bishop during hierarchical services, (services at which a hierarch/bishop is present and presiding) by vesting him, by looking after and presenting the trikiridikiri, placing the orletzi, operating the veil and Royal Doors, and handing the bishop and relieving him of all that he needs so as to enable him to perform his role of prayer undistracted. Outside of hierarchical services, the subdeacon serves in the altar as any other server but, as highest-ranking of the minor clergy, is responsible for co-ordinating and leading the serving team. In addition to the above duties, the subdeacon may read the reading from the Apostle at the Divine Liturgy if there is only one deacon. The subdeacon also has practical responsibilities in the care of the altar, by cleaning it, looking after the clergy vestments and the cloths of the Holy Table, cleaning and mending them, and changing them according to the feasts, fasts, and seasons. For this reason, he has a general blessing to touch the Holy Table and the Table of Oblation, which Readers and other servers may not do. He is also responsible for the training of new servers.
The clerical street-wear of a subdeacon is the inner-cassock (podryasnik) and outer cassock (ryasa). Many wear the cassock only when present among the church community or attending to church business.
For services, the subdeacon is vested in a sticharion with an orar tied around his waist, up over his shoulders (forming a cross in back), and with the ends crossed over, and tucked under the section around the waist. This distinguishes them from acolytes in those jurisdictions where acolytes are ordained and blessed to wear the orar, as the latter do not wear the orar crossed in front but simply hanging straight down.
The ordination to the subdiaconate is performed outside of the altar and in a context other than the Divine Liturgy. The reader who is to be tonsured subdeacon is presented to the bishop by two other subdeacons, who first lead him to the nave. There he faces east and makes a prostration before turning to make three prostrations towards the bishop, moving further west after each one. He is then led to stand immediately before the bishop. The subdeacons present the orar to the bishop, who blesses it. The ordinand then kisses the orar and the bishop's hand, and the subdeacons vest the ordinand in the orar.
The bishop blesses the ordinand three times with the sign of the Cross upon his head, then lays his right hand upon the ordinand's head and prays the prayer of ordination. The new subdeacon kisses the bishop's right hand and makes a prostration before the bishop, after which the more senior subdeacons drape a towel over his shoulders and present him with a ewer and basin, with which he washes the bishop's hands after the usual manner. The bishop dries his hands and the three subdeacons receive the bishop's blessing and kiss his hands.
The senior subdeacons return to the altar while the new subdeacon, still holding the ewer and basin, stands on the solea, facing the icon of the Mother of God and saying particular prayers quietly. The Sixth Hour is completed and the Divine Liturgy continues as usual. The subdeacon remains on the solea until the Cherubikon, when he and two senior subdeacons wash the bishop's hands as usual.
At the Great Entrance, the new subdeacon joins on the very end of the procession, carrying the ewer and basin and, after the commemorations, takes the blessed water to the people so that they may bless themselves with it.
On occasions when there is a shortage of altar servers, the newly ordained subdeacon may be required to serve at the Liturgy, in which case the taking of the blessed water to the people may be omitted, and he may be asked not to stay on the solea but rather to assist with serving duties in the altar and at the entrances.
The Western Rites
In the Western Rite, the subdeacon's role is essentially as an assistant to the deacon in performing his diaconal role. This perhaps more clearly reflects the origins of the subdiaconate than in the Byzantine Rite, where, rather than the subdeacon assisting the deacon, many formerly diaconal functions have, over time, come to be seen as properly belonging to the subdeacon in his own right. In the Western Rite, the subdeacon is charged with reading the Epistle at a High Mass (the most solemn and elaborate form of the western Eucharist) - a role that may be performed by a priest or reader at a simpler form of the Mass, and with assisting the deacon with the preparation of the oblations and with carrying them to the Altar, (in those western rites that retain the Offertory Procession). He also assists the deacon during the reading of the Gospel by carrying the Gospel Book to and/or from (depending on the rite used) the place of proclamation, and by acting as a support for the book while the Gospel is read. At pontifical services (services at which a pontiff/bishop is present and presiding), the subdeacon also assists the deacon in the vesting of the bishop.
The usual street-wear of the subdeacon is the cassock. (There is no distinction between an inner and outer cassock in the Western Rite, and all clergy wear one cassock only).
During services, the subdeacon vests in an alb, over which he wears the maniple, the cincture, and the tunicle. Unlike his brother subdeacons in the Byzantine Rite who wear the orar, the Western Rite subdeacon does not wear its western equivalent - the stole - which is reserved for deacons, priests, and bishops.
Subdeacons in the Catholic Church
The subdiaconate was the lowest of the major orders of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. An ordained subdeacon was styled as The Rev. Mr. _____." The subdiaconate remains the highest of the minor orders in Eastern Catholic churches.
The Latin Church
In the Latin Church, the other major orders — those of the deacon, priest, and bishop — are considered of divine institution and part of the sacrament of Holy Orders, whereas the subdiaconate and the four minor orders of porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte were considered of ecclesiastical institution (commonly referred to as sacramentals) created by the Church to perform specific ordinal functions. The subdiaconate was only generally considered a major order in the Latin church from the late 12th century. Thus, a subdeacon did not receive the laying on of hands at his ordination. Instead, the bishop handed to him an empty chalice and paten, his vestments, cruets of wine and water, and the Book of the Epistles and gave an audible blessing. But, as the recipient of a minor order, a subdeacon could not contract marriage, and any breach by him of the obligation to observe celibacy was classified as a sacrilege (cf. canon 132 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law). Canon 135 of the same Code of Canon Law obliged him to say all the canonical hours of the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours or Breviary).
The roles of a subdeacon at Solemn High Mass included those of crucifer (only on certain occasions such as Palm Sunday, requiems and Holy Saturday), singing the Epistle, carrying the Book of Gospels back to the celebrant after the deacon has sung the gospel (the deacon carries the book in the Gospel procession to the place where the gospel is proclaimed) and holding it while the deacon sang the Gospel, and assisting the priest or deacon in setting the altar. The subdeacon's specific vestment was the tunicle, in practice almost indistinguishable in form from the deacon's dalmatic (the tunicle was sometimes somewhat longer than the dalmatic or had slightly less elaborate decoration, but this was often unnoticeable by the casual churchgoer). He wore a maniple, until this vestment was made optional by Pope Paul VI with the instruction Tres abhinc annos. Unlike the deacon, priest, and bishop, the subdeacon never wore a stole. He also wore a humeral veil while holding the paten during a large part of Solemn High Mass, from the offertory to the Our Father; and, if the chalice and paten with host were not already on the altar, he also used the humeral veil when bringing these to the altar at the offertory.
With effect from 1 January 1973, the apostolic letter Ministeria quaedam of 15 August 1972 decreed that the functions that in the Latin Church had been assigned to the subdeacon should from then on be carried out by the instituted ministers (not members of the clergy) known as lectors and acolytes:
- 3. Ministries may be assigned to lay Christians; hence they are no longer to be considered as reserved to candidates for the sacrament of orders.
- 4. Two ministries, adapted to present-day needs, are to be preserved in the whole Latin Church, namely, those of reader and acolyte. The functions heretofore assigned to the subdeacon are entrusted to the reader and the acolyte; consequently, the major order of subdiaconate no longer exists in the Latin Church. There is, however, no reason why the acolyte cannot be called a subdeacon in some places, at the discretion of the conference of bishops.
Traditionalist Catholic organizations such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest and the Personal Apostolic Administration of Saint John Mary Vianney have been permitted to retain the subdiaconate, as well as other pre-1970 forms of the Roman Rite liturgy. The Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) and other traditionalist Catholic bodies in dispute with the Holy See, such as sedevacantists, have also retained the subdiaconate, without seeking authorization to do so.
Thus, within the Latin Church, the term subdeacon now applies only to those ordained to that rank within one of these groups and to acolytes in countries where the Episcopal Conference has chosen to give them the name of subdeacon. Otherwise, it is a historical reference to persons and events of the pre-1973 period.
The Eastern Rites
The entrusting to readers and acolytes of all the functions that in the Latin Rite once belonged to subdeacons does not affect the Eastern Catholic Churches, where the functions of the subdeacon are similar to those of Eastern Orthodox subdeacons.
Subdeacons in the Anglican Church
While the office of subdeacon was abolished in the Anglican Church at the time of the Reformation, certain churches and communities in the Anglican Communion and within the Anglican Continuing Churches assign a layperson to act as subdeacon in the celebration of the liturgy of the mass or Holy Eucharist (especially Solemn High Mass). However, this is considered a liturgical function one fulfills and not an order to which one is ordained. In some dioceses and provinces, laypersons who act as subdeacons in this manner may be required to be specifically authorised by the respective bishop or archbishop. In practice, an Anglican subdeacon performs similar roles to those performed in Latin Rite Catholic or Western Rite Orthodox churches. The proper garments of the subdeacon are the alb and tunicle.
- Apostolic Canon 26, Canons 3 and 6 of the 6th Ecumenical Council
- Canon 15 of the 6th Ecumenical Council
- The Great Book of Needs, Volume II, (St Tikhon's Seminary Press MM)
- A Subdeacon's Manual (Archdeacon Kirill Sokolov MMIV)
- The Hierarchical Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (New Sarov Press, MCMXCV)
- The 1917 edition of the Catholic Encyclopaedia
- The Byzantine rite of Ordination of a Subdeacon
- Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest
- Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter
- History of Subdeacons
- Ministeria quaedam, Apostolic Letter on First Tonsure, Minor Orders, and the Subdiaconate