Archdeacon (Lat. archidiaconus; Gr. archidiakonos), the incumbent of an ecclesiastical office dating back to antiquity, and up to the fifteenth century of great importance in diocesan administration, particularly in the West. The term does not appear before the fourth century, and is then first met with in the history of the Donatist schism, written about 370 by Optatus of Mileve (I; xvi, ed. Corp. Script. Eccl. Lat., XXVI, 18). However, as he here bestows the title on Caecilian, a deacon of Carthage early in the fourth century, it would appear that since that period there was an occasional use of the name. Towards the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth century, the term begins to appear more frequently both among Latin and Greek authors.
We also occasionally find other names used to indicate the office, e.g. o ton chorou ton diakonon egoumenos (Theodoret, Hist. Eccl., I, xxvi, in P.G., LXXXII, 981). The term soon acquired fixity, all the more rapidly as the archidiaconal office became more prominent and its duties were more sharply defined. The beginnings of the archidiaconate are found in the first three centuries of the Christian era. The immediate predecessor of the archdeacon is the diaconus episcopi of primitive Christian times, the deacon whom the bishop selected from the diaconal college (see Deacons) for his personal service. He was made an assistant in the work of ecclesiastical administration, was charged with the care of the poor, and was supervisor of the other deacons in their administration of church property. He thus became the special procurator, or oeconomus, of the Christian community, and was also entrusted with the surveillance of the subordinate clergy. In this early period the duties of the diaconus episcopi were not juridically defined, but were performed under the direction of the bishop and for the time specified by him. Beginning with the fourth century this specialized activity of the diaconus episcopi takes on gradually the character of a juridical ecclesiastical office. In the round of ecclesiastical administration certain duties appear attached by the law to the office of the archdeacon. Thus, in the period from the fourth to the eighth century the archdeacon is the official supervisor of the subordinate clergy, has disciplinary authority over them in all cases of wrongdoing, and exercises a certain surveillance over their discharge of the duties assigned them. It was also within the archdeacon’s province to examine candidates for the priesthood; he had also the right of making visitations among the rural clergy. It was even his duty, in exceptional cases of episcopal neglect, to safeguard the interests of the Church; to his hands were entrusted the preservation of the Faith in its primitive purity, the custody of ecclesiastical discipline, and the prevention of damage to the property of the Church. The archdeacon was, moreover, the bishop’s chief confidant, his assistant, and when it was necessary, his representative in the exercise of the manifold duties of the episcopal office. This was especially the case in the administration of ecclesiastical property, the care of the sick, the visitation of prisoners, and the training of the clergy. In the East there was no further development of the archidiaconate; but in the West a new stage was inaugurated with the eighth century. By virtue of his office the archdeacon became, next to the bishop, the regular organ of supervision and discipline in the diocese. In this respect he was assigned a proper and independent jurisdiction (jurisdictio propria) and even as late as the twelfth century there was a constant effort to increase the scope of this authority. The great amount of business to be transacted necessitated in large dioceses the appointment of several archdeacons. The first bishop to introduce this innovation was Heddo of Strasburg, who in 774 divided his diocese into seven archidiaconates (archidiaconatus rurales). His example was quickly followed throughout Western Christendom, except in Italy where the majority of the dioceses were so small as to need no such division of authority. Henceforth the archidiaconus magnus of the cathedral (usually the provost, or proepositus of the chapter), whose duties chiefly concerned the city clergy, is offset by the archidiaconi rurales placed over the deans (archipresbyteri rurales). These archdeacons were generally priests, either canons of the cathedral or provosts of the principal (collegiate) churches in small towns. The authority of the archdeacons culminated in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. At that time they exercised within the province of their archidiaconates a quasiepiscopal jurisdiction. They made visitations, during which they were empowered to levy certain assessments on the clergy; they conducted courts of first instance, and had the right to punish clerics guilty of lapses; they could also hold synodal courts. But the archdeacon was not only a judge; he was also prominent in ecclesiastical administration. He saw that the archpriests performed their duties, gave canonical investiture to the holders of prebends, and authorized incorporation of the same; he supervised the administration of church revenues, and kept in repair the places of worship. He could also draw up the legal documents called for in the exercise of the duties of his office and the performance of the juridical acts that it entailed. It came about frequently that the archdeacons were not appointed by the bishop, but were chosen by the cathedral chapter; sometimes they received their office from the king. After the twelfth century, on account of the vast extent of their duties, they were aided by various officials and vicars appointed by themselves. This great authority proved in time very burdensome to the clergy and brought with it too great a limitation of the episcopal authority. In the thirteenth century numerous synods began to restrict the jurisdiction of the archdeacons. They were forbidden to employ their own special officiales and were prohibited from exercising their authority when the bishop was present in their territory. They were also deprived of the right of freely visiting the parishes of their archidiaconate, of deciding important points in matrimonial causes, and of passing sentence on clerics guilty of grave crimes. Moreover, by the creation of the diocesan office of vicar-general, there was opened a court of higher resort than that of the archdeacon, and to it reverted the greater part of the business once transacted in the court of the archdeacon. When finally the Council of Trent (1553) provided that all matrimonial and criminal causes should be henceforth brought before the bishop (Secs. XIV, xx, De reform.); that the archdeacon should no longer have the power to excommunicate (Secs. XXV, iii, De ref.); that proceedings against ecclesiastics unfaithful to their vow of celibacy should no longer be carried on before the archdeacon (Sees. XXV, xiv, De ref.); and that archdeacons should make visitations only when authorized by the bishop, and then render to him an account of them (Secs. XXIV, iii, De ref.), the archidiaconate was completely bereft of its independent character. From this time the archidiaconatus rurales gradually disappeared from the places where they still existed. The archidiaconate of the cathedral, where the office was still retained, soon became practically an empty title; the chief duties of the incumbent were to assist the bishop in his pontifical duties and to vouch for the moral worthiness of candidates for ordination. Among Protestants, the Anglicans preserved, along with the primitive ecclesiastical organization, the office of archdeacon with its own special jurisdiction. In German Protestant parishes, with less congruity, the title of archdeacon was conferred on the first Unterpfarrer, or assistant pastor.
J. P. KIRSCH