(chief of the deacons), an ecclesiastical officer whose duty originally consisted chiefly in superintending the temporal affairs of the church.
1. The office was one of great honor in the early church; but how it grew into such importance is matter of dispute. "The antiquity of this office is held to be so high by many Roman Catholic writers that they derive its origin from the appointment of the seven deacons, and suppose that St. Stephen was the first archdeacon; but there is no authority to warrant this conclusion. Mention is also made of Laurentius, archdeacon of Rome, who suffered A.D. 260; but, although he was called archdeacon (according to Prudentius), he was no more than the principal man of the seven deacons who stood at the altar. 'Hic primus e septem viris qui stant ad aram proximi' (Prudent. Hymnn. de St. Steph.). Jerome says 'that the archdeacon was chosen out of the deacons, and was the principal deacon in every church, just as the archpresbyter was the principal presbyter.' But even in Jerome's time the office of archdeacon had certainly grown to great importance" (Hook, s.v.). It was usual for one of the deacons to stand by the bishop at the altar, while the other deacons discharged their duty in the assembly. This deacon was called primus, primicerius diaconumn, the first or chief deacon; and he was usually the bishop's man of business. Jerome speaks of the archdeacon as necessary to ecclesiastical order in his epistle ad Rusticum; and Optatus, bishop of Milevi, says that it was the rebuke of the archdeacon Cecilianus to Lucilla which caused eventually the Donatist schism. It is probable that, at first, the deacon senior both in years and office was elevated to the rank of archdeacon; but as the office increased in importance, it became necessary to elect the most able and proper person to discharge the duties. Athanasius was made archdeacon while he was yet a young man. This mode of election to office did not, however, prevail universally; for in some places the choice rested solely with the bishop; and when the relation of bishop and archdeacon became very intimate, and the latter was of special importance to his superior in the discharge of his episcopal functions, it was natural that the bishop should have considerable influence in his appointment. The powers of the archdeacons were extensive and influential. They had charge of the instruction and education of the younger clerks, were overseers over the deacons, superintended the support of the poor, and assisted the bishops in matters of administration and jurisdiction. Without his certificate no one was admitted to the orders, and frequently he represented the bishop at synods. Still greater became his powers in the sixth century, when he even received punitive power over the priests, and a rank above all the priests, even the archpriest. This is clearly stated by Isidor of Sevilla, who, in his Epistola ad Evagrium, plainly says: The archpriest must know that he is subordinate to the archdeacon, and must obey his orders, as well as those of his bishop (archipresbyter vero se esse sub archidiacono, ejus praeseptis sicut episcopi sui sciat obedere). Until the eighth century every diocese had only one archdeacon, but in 774, Bishop Heddo, of Strasburg, divided his diocese into seven archdiaconates (archidiaconatus rurales), and most of the other bishops imitated this institution, with the exception of Italy, where the smallness of the diocese seemed to make a division of the dioceses superfluous. The "rural archdeacons," to whom the deans (archipresbyteri rurales) were subordinate, were mostly priests, while the archdeacon of the cathedral church (archidiaconus magnus) was usually only a deacon. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the powers of the archdeacons reached their climax. They received a jurisdiction of their own (jurisdictio propria), suspended and excommunicated priests, held synods, and in many ways tried to enlarge their rights at the expense of the bishops.
As the position had now become a very lucrative one, many members of noble, princely, and even royal families intruded themselves into it, even without having received the ordination of deacons. In many instances their powers even became dangerous to the bishops, and thus a reaction was called forth. Many of the synods of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, as those of Tours (1239), Liege (1287), Mentz (1310), took from them some of their powers, reserving them to the bishop and his vicar-general. This limitation of their powers was confirmed by the Council of Trent. Many of the archidiaconates had already disappeared before the latter synod, and in many others this was the case in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At some cathedral churches the office of archdeacon still exists, but the former rights are no longer connected with it.
In the Greek Church the office of rural archdeacon never existed; the office of cathedral archdeacon was early displaced by the chartophylax, and even the title of archdeacon early disappeared. In Constantinople the title was retained, but the archdeacon was an officer of the court, not of the cathedral church.
In some of the Protestant state churches of Germany the title archdeacon has been retained for the head ministers of ecclesiastical districts.
See Thomassin, Vet. et Nov. Eccles. Disciplina, 1, 1. 2, c. 17; Herzog, Real-Encyklopadie, s.v.; Eadie, Eccles. Cyclopedia, s.v. SEE DEACON.
2. In the Church of England there are 71 archdeaconries — several in each diocese. The archdeacon is a clergyman of the cathedral, and as the income of the office is limited, he generally holds a benefice besides. He is appointed by the bishop, and is himself a sort of vice-bishop. He has the right of visitation every two years in three, to inquire into the reparations and movables belonging to churches; to reform abuses; to suspend; excommunicate; in some places to prove wills; and to induct all clerks into benefices within his Jurisdictions. He has power to keep a court, which is called the Court of the Archdeacon, or his commissary, and this he may hold in any place within his archdeaconry. In this court the church- warden's business is generally decided. The revenue of the archdeacon arises chiefly from pensions paid by the incumbents. These pensions originally bore no contemptible ratio to the whole value of the benefice, and formed a sufficient income for an active and useful officer of the church; but now, by the great change which has taken place in the value of money, the payments are little more than nominal, and the whole income of the archdeacons is very inconsiderable. The office, therefore, is generally held by persons who have also benefices or other preferment in the church. See Cripps, Law Pelating to the Church and Clergy (Edinb. 1859). — Bingham, Oriq. Eccles. bk. 2, ch. 21;. Marsden, Churches and Sects, 1, 330.