ARCHDEACON (Lat. archidiaconus, Gr. ἀρχιδιάκονος), a high official of the Christian Church. The office of archdeacon is of great antiquity. So early as the 4th century it is mentioned as an established office, and it is probable that it was in existence in the 3rd. Originally the archdeacon was, as the name implies, the chief of the deacons attached to the bishop’s cathedral, his duty being, besides preaching, to supervise the deacons and their work, i.e. more especially the care of the sick and the arrangement of the externals of divine worship. Even thus early their close relation to the bishop and their employment in matters of episcopal administration gave them, though only in deacons’ orders, great importance, which continually developed. In the East, in the 5th century, the archdeacons were already charged with the proof of the qualifications of candidates for ordination; they attended the bishops at ecclesiastical synods, and sometimes acted as their representatives; they shared in the administration of sees during a vacancy. In the West, in the 6th and 7th centuries, besides the original functions of their office, archdeacons had certain well-defined rights of visitation and supervision, being responsible for the good order of the lower clergy, the upkeep of ecclesiastical buildings and the safe-guarding of the church furniture—functions which involved a considerable disciplinary power. During the 8th and 9th centuries the office tended to become more and more exclusively purely administrative, the archdeacon by his visitations relieving the bishop of the minutiae of government and keeping him informed in detail of the condition of his diocese. The archdeacon had thus become, on the one hand, the oculus episcopi, but on the other hand, armed as he was with powers of imposing penance and, in case of stubborn disobedience, of excommunicating offenders, his power tended more and more to grow at the bishop’s expense. This process received a great impulse from the erection in the 11th and 12th centuries of defined territorial jurisdictions for the archdeacons, who had hitherto been itinerant representatives of the central power of the diocese. The dioceses were now mapped out into several archdeaconries (archidiaconatus), which corresponded with the political divisions of the countries; and these defined spheres, in accordance with the prevailing feudal tendencies of the age, gradually came to be regarded as independent centres of jurisdiction.[1] The bishops, now increasingly absorbed in secular affairs, were content with a somewhat theoretical power of control, while the archdeacons rigorously asserted an independent position which implied great power and possibilities of wealth. The custom, moreover, had grown up of bestowing the coveted office of archdeacon on the provosts, deans and canons of the cathedral churches, and the archdeacons were thus involved in the struggle of the chapters against the episcopal authority. By the 12th century the archdeacon had become practically independent of the bishop, whose consent was only required in certain specified cases.

The power of the archdeacon reached its zenith at the outset of the 13th century. Innocent III. describes him as judex ordinarius, and he possesses in his own right the powers of visitation, of holding courts and imposing penalties, of deciding in matrimonial causes and cases of disputed jurisdiction, of testing candidates for orders, of inducting into benefices. He has the right to certain procurations, and to appoint and depose archpriests and rural deans. And these powers he may exercise through delegated officiales. His jurisdiction has become, in fact, not subordinate to, but co-ordinate with that of the bishop. Yet, so far as orders were concerned, he remained a deacon; and if archdeacons were often priests, this was because priests who were members of chapters were appointed to the office.

From the 13th century onward a reaction set in. The power of the archdeacons rested upon custom and prescription, not upon the canon law; and though the bishops could not break, they could circumvent it. This they did by appointing new officials to exercise in their name the rights still reserved to them, or to which they laid claim. These were the officiales: the officiales foranei, whose jurisdiction was parallel with that of the archdeacons, and the officiales principales and vicars-general, who presided over the courts of appeal. The clergy having thus another authority, and one moreover more canonical, to appeal to, the power of the archdeacons gradually declined; and, so far as the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, it received its death-blow from the council of Trent (1564), which withdrew all matrimonial and criminal causes from the competence of the archdeacons, forbade them to pronounce excommunications, and allowed them only to hold visitations in connexion with those of the bishop and with his consent. These decrees were not, indeed, at once universally enforced; but the convulsions of the Revolutionary epoch and the religious reorganization that followed completed the work. In the Roman Church to-day the office of archdeacon is merely titular, his sole function being to present the candidates for ordination to the bishop. The title, indeed, hardly exists save in Italy, where the archdeacon is no more than a dignified member of a chapter, who takes rank after the bishop. The ancient functions of the archdeacon are exercised by the vicar-general. In the Lutheran church the title Archidiakonus is given in some places to the senior assistant pastor of a church.

In the Church of England, on the other hand, the office of archdeacon, which was first introduced at the Norman conquest, survives, with many of its ancient duties and prerogatives. Since 1836 there have been at least two archdeaconries in each diocese, and in some dioceses there are four archdeacons. The archdeacons are appointed by their respective bishops, and they are, by an act of 1840, required to have been six full years in priest’s orders. The functions of the archdeacon are in the present day ancillary in a general way to those of the bishop of the diocese. It is his especial duty to inspect the churches within his archdeaconry, to see that the fabrics are kept in repair, and to hold annual visitations of the clergy and churchwardens of each parish, for the purpose of ascertaining that the clergy are in residence, of admitting the newly elected churchwardens into office, and of receiving the presentments of the outgoing churchwardens. It is his privilege to present all candidates for ordination to the bishop of the diocese. It is his duty also to induct the clergy of his archdeaconry into the temporalities of their benefices after they have been instituted into the spiritualities by the bishop or his vicar-general. Every archdeacon is entitled to appoint an official to preside over his archidiaconal court, from which there is an appeal to the consistory court of the bishop. The archdeacons are ex officio members of the convocations of their respective provinces.

It is the privilege of the archdeacon of Canterbury to induct the archbishop and all the bishops of the province of Canterbury into their respective bishoprics, and this he does in the case of a bishop under a mandate from the archbishop of Canterbury, directing him to induct the bishop into the real, actual, and corporal possession of the bishopric, and to install and to enthrone him; and in the case of the archbishop, under an analogous mandate from the dean and chapter of Canterbury, as being guardians of the spiritualities during the vacancy of the archiepiscopal see. In the colonies there are two or more archdeacons in each diocese, and their functions correspond to those of English archdeacons. In the Episcopal church of America the office of archdeacon exists in only one or two dioceses.

See Hinschius, Kirchenrecht, ii., §§ 86. 87; Schröder, Die Entwicklung des Archdiakonats bis zum 11. Jahrhundert (Munich, 1890); Wetzer and Welte, Kirchenlexikon (Freiburg-im-Breisgau, 1882–1901); Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopädie (ed. 1896); Phillimore, Ecclesiastical Law, part ii. chap. v. (London, 1895).  (W. A. P.) 

  1. Archdeaconries were, indeed, sometimes treated as ordinary fiefs and were held as such by laymen. Thus Ordericus Vitalis says that “(Fulk) granted to the monks the archdeaconry which he and his predecessors held in fee of the archbishop of Rouen” (Hist. Eccl. iii. 12).