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Subdeacon (or sub-deacon) is a title used in various branches of Christianity.


Subdeacons in the Orthodox Church

Russian Orthodox subdeacons (red stoles) surrounding a bishop. Cross Procession in Novosibirsk 05.jpg
Russian Orthodox subdeacons (red stoles) surrounding a bishop.

A subdeacon or hypodeacon is the highest of the minor orders of clergy in the Orthodox Church. This order is higher than the reader and lower than the deacon.

Canonical Discipline

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). [1] 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. [2]

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

Subdeacons holding the episcopal candles while deacon reads the Gospel 4 Sanok, trikirion and dikirion, being held by subdeacons during the blessing of holy water.jpg
Subdeacons holding the episcopal candles while deacon reads the Gospel

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 Epistle 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. [3] 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. [4] [5] [6]

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 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 or 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

A Catholic subdeacon holding the Gospel. IMG 6920 - Gerard Deighan.jpg
A Catholic subdeacon holding the Gospel.

Latin Church

Prior to the reform instituted by Pope Paul VI with his motu proprio Ministeria quaedam of 15 August 1972, the subdiaconate was regarded as the lowest of the three major orders of the Latin Church. He decreed that "the major order of subdiaconate no longer exists in the Latin Church" and that the functions previously assigned to the subdeacon are now entrusted to the acolyte and the reader; he also decreed that, where the local episcopal conference so desired, the acolyte could be called a subdeacon. [7]

The traditional rites of ordination to the subdiaconate and the minor orders (those of acolyte, exorcist, reader and porter) are still employed for members of certain Catholic religious institutes and societies of apostolic life authorized to use the 1962 form of the Roman Rite.

As men in major orders, subdeacons as well as deacons, were styled in English-speaking countries as "The Rev. Mr.". In French the title of "Abbé" was often given to them and even to those in minor orders, as in the case of Franz Liszt.

The subdiaconate was only generally considered a major order in the Latin church from the late 12th century. [8] Even after that, ordination of a subdeacon does not include the laying on of hands. Instead, the bishop hands to him an empty chalice and paten, his vestments, cruets of wine and water, and the Book of the Epistles and pronounces a prayer of blessing for him. As a recipient of a major 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 other major orders were those of the deacon and priest, that of bishop not being then considered an order distinct from that of priesthood. Thus, in speaking of orders, the Catechism of the Council of Trent declares : "Their number, according to the uniform and universal doctrine of the Catholic Church, is seven, Porter, Reader, Exorcist, Acolyte, Sub-deacon, Deacon and Priest. [...] Of these, some are greater, which are called 'Holy', some lesser, which are called 'Minor Orders'. The great or Holy Orders are Sub-deaconship, Deaconship and Priesthood; the lesser or Minor Orders are Porter, Reader, Exorcist, and Acolyte". [9]

Today the Latin Church, as stated in the Code of Canon Law in force since 1983 ("The orders are the episcopate, the presbyterate, and the diaconate"), [10] recognizes only three orders, those of bishop, priest (presbyter) and deacon, also referred to as "sacred orders" or "holy orders". [11] [12] In line with Pope Paul VI's Ministeria quaedam, what were called minor orders are now called ministries. [13]

In the Solemn High Mass form of Tridentine Mass, the duties of a subdeacon include those of crucifer, singing the Epistle, holding the Book of Gospels while the deacon sings the Gospel, carrying it back to the celebrant afterwards and assisting the priest or deacon in setting the altar. The subdeacon's specific vestment is the tunicle, in practice almost indistinguishable in form from the deacon's dalmatic (the tunicle is sometimes somewhat longer than the dalmatic or had slightly less elaborate decoration, but this is often unnoticeable by the casual church-goer). He wears a maniple. Unlike deacon and priest, he never wears a stole. He also wears a humeral veil while holding the paten from the Offertory to the Our Father; and, if the chalice and paten with host are not already on the altar, he also uses the humeral veil when bringing these to the altar at the Offertory. In practice, the roles of deacon and subdeacon in Solemn High Mass have generally been performed by men already ordained as priests, wearing the subdiaconal or diaconal vestments.

Eastern Catholic Churches

In the Eastern Catholic Churches, the order of subdeacon is the highest of the minor orders and its functions are equivalent to those of Orthodox subdeacons.

Subdeacons in the Anglican Church

Whilst the office of subdeacon was not included in the Orders of Clergy when the Church of England was reformed during the 16th century, 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.

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Acolyte profession

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Vestment clothing prescribed for Christian clergy performing specific roles

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Altar server profession

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Stole (vestment) long narrow cloth band worn around the neck and falling from the shoulders as part of ecclesiastical dress

The stole is a liturgical vestment of various Christian denominations. It consists of a band of colored cloth, formerly usually of silk, about seven and a half to nine feet long and three to four inches wide, whose ends may be straight or may broaden out. The center of the stole is worn around the back of the neck and the two ends hang down parallel to each other in front, either attached to each other or hanging loose. The stole is almost always decorated in some way, usually with a cross or some other significant religious design. It is often decorated with contrasting galloons and fringe is usually applied to the ends of the stole following Numbers 15:38-39. A piece of white linen or lace may be stitched onto the back of the collar as a sweat guard, which can be replaced more cheaply than the stole itself.

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Minor orders are ranks of church ministry lower than major orders.

Clerical marriage is a term used to described the practice of allowing Christian clergy to marry. This practice is distinct from allowing married persons to become clergy. Clerical marriage is admitted among Protestants, including both Anglicans and Lutherans.

Major orders

The term major orders or greater orders was for some centuries applied in the Roman Catholic Church to distinguish what the Council of Trent also called holy orders from what at that time were termed "minor orders" or "lesser orders". The Catechism of the Council of Trent spoke of the "several distinct orders of ministers, intended by their office to serve the priesthood, and so disposed, as that, beginning with the clerical tonsure, they may ascend gradually through the lesser to the greater orders", and stated:


A crucifer or cross-bearer is, in some Christian churches, a person appointed to carry the church's processional cross, a cross or crucifix with a long staff, during processions at the beginning and end of the service.

Orarion long, narrow stole decorated with crosses worn by deacons and subdeacons of the Eastern Orthodox church

The Orarion is the distinguishing vestment of the deacon and subdeacon in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodox Churches and Eastern Catholic Churches. It is a narrow stole, usually four to five inches (127 mm) wide and of various lengths, made of brocade, often decorated with crosses embroidered or appliquéd along its length. It is usually trimmed with decorative banding around the edges and fringe at the two ends.

Reader (liturgy) a person who can read aloud the bible during catholic liturgy

In some Christian churches, a reader is responsible for reading aloud excerpts of scripture at a liturgy. In early Christian times the reader was of particular value due to the rarity of literacy.

Hierarchy of the Catholic Church Organization of the Catholic Church

The hierarchy of the Catholic Church consists of its bishops, priests, and deacons. In the ecclesiological sense of the term, "hierarchy" strictly means the "holy ordering" of the Church, the Body of Christ, so to respect the diversity of gifts and ministries necessary for genuine unity.

Choir dress a traditional costume of clerics, seminarians and religious of Christian churches

Choir dress is the traditional vesture of the clerics, seminarians and religious of Christian churches worn for public prayer and the administration of the sacraments except when celebrating or concelebrating the Eucharist. It differs from the vestments worn by the celebrants of the Eucharist, being normally made of fabrics such as wool, cotton or silk, as opposed to the fine brocades used in vestments. It may also be worn by lay assistants such as acolytes and choirs. It was abandoned by most of the Churches which originated in the sixteenth-century Reformation.

Solemn Mass Full ceremonial form of the Tridentine Mass

Solemn Mass is the full ceremonial form of the Tridentine Mass, celebrated by a priest with a deacon and a subdeacon, requiring most of the parts of the Mass to be sung, and the use of incense. It is also called High Mass or Solemn High Mass. However, in the United States the term "High Mass" is also used to describe the less elaborate Missa Cantata, which lacks deacon and subdeacon and some of the ceremonies connected with them.

A lay reader or licensed lay minister (LLM) is a person authorized by a bishop in the Anglican Communion to lead certain services of worship, to preach, and to carry out pastoral and teaching functions. They are formally trained and admitted to office, but they remain part of the laity, not of the clergy.

Anglican ministry

The Anglican ministry is both the leadership and agency of Christian service in the Anglican Communion. "Ministry" commonly refers to the office of ordained clergy: the threefold order of bishops, priests and deacons. More accurately, Anglican ministry includes many laypeople who devote themselves to the ministry of the church, either individually or in lower/assisting offices such as lector, acolyte, sub-deacon, Eucharistic minister, cantor, musicians, parish secretary or assistant, warden, vestry member, etc. Ultimately, all baptized members of the church are considered to partake in the ministry of the Body of Christ. "...[I]t might be useful if Anglicans dropped the word minister when referring to the clergy...In our tradition, ordained persons are either bishops, priests, or deacons, and should be referred to as such."

Pontifical vestments, also referred to as episcopal vestments or pontificals, are the liturgical vestments worn by bishops in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Eastern Catholic, Anglican, and some Lutheran churches, in addition to the usual priestly vestments for the celebration of the Mass and the other sacraments. The pontifical vestments are only worn when celebrating or presiding over liturgical functions. As such, the garments should not be confused with choir dress, which are worn when attending liturgical functions but not celebrating or presiding.

Entrance prayers

The entrance prayers are the prayers recited by the deacon and priest upon entering the temple before celebrating the Divine Liturgy in the Eastern Orthodox Church and those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite.

In the Catholic Church the term minister enjoys a variety of usages. It most commonly refers to the person, whether lay or ordained, who is commissioned to perform some act on behalf of the Church. It is not a particular office or rank of clergy, as is the case in some other churches, but minister may be used as a collective term for vocational or professional pastoral leaders including clergy and non-clergy. It is also used in reference to the canonical and liturgical administration of sacraments, as part of some offices, and with reference to the exercise of the lay apostolate.


  1. Apostolic Canon 26, Canons 3 and 6 of the 6th Ecumenical Council
  2. Canon 15 of the 6th Ecumenical Council
  3. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2006-09-12. Retrieved 2006-01-12.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  4. The Great Book of Needs, Volume II, (St Tikhon's Seminary Press MM)
  5. A Subdeacon's Manual (Archdeacon Kirill Sokolov MMIV)
  6. The Hierarchical Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (New Sarov Press, MCMXCV)
  7. Pope Paul VI, Ministeria quaedam
  8. The 1917 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia
  9. Catechism of the Council of Trent (New York 1829), p. 216
  10. Code of Canon Law, canon 1009 §1
  11. Concordance of use of the term "orders" in the Code of Canon Law
  12. Catechism of the Catholic Church, The Three Degrees of the Sacrament of Holy Orders
  13. Ministeria quaedam, II