An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church

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Major Orders

The term traditionally refers to the holy orders of bishop, priest, and deacon. The major orders were distinguished from minor orders such as porter (doorkeeper), lector, exorcist, and acolyte. The subdiaconate was considered a minor order until it was included among the major orders by Pope Innocent III in 1207. The subdiaconate was suppressed in the Roman Catholic Church in 1972. A few Episcopal churches continue to allow a liturgical role for a "subdeacon" at the eucharist. The minor orders were transitory steps that led to the major orders. This hierarchical understanding of ministry is also reflected in the requirement that all candidates for the priesthood must first be ordained as deacons before ordination as priests. This requirement dates from the ninth century. It led to decreased appreciation for the significance of the diaconate. Since all Christian ministry is "major" and rooted in baptism and the promises of the baptismal covenant, the term "major orders" can be misleading. The Catechism states that "the ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons" (BCP, p. 855). However, the Preface to the Ordination Rites does acknowledge the ancient origin of the "three distinct orders of ordained ministers" of bishops, priests, and deacons which "have been characteristic of Christ's holy catholic church." This Preface adds that it is "the intention and purpose" of the Episcopal Church to "maintain and continue" the three orders. Candidates for these ordained ministries are "admitted to these sacred orders by solemn prayer and the laying on of episcopal hands" (BCP, p. 510). See Minor Orders.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from "An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians," Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.