Minor Orders? Secular Clergy?

I was looking through one of my dictionaries this week in an effort to find definitions of some of the terms I used in last week’s post. Instead, I stumbled across something far more interesting, to me at least.

I have always been confused by the terms minor orders and secular clergy. When I came across both in the same article I thought it was time to clear up the mystery for myself.

We’ll look at secular clergy first. I’ve always thought of secular being the opposite to religious, so the idea of secular clergy made no sense. It does, however, when you realise that secular means ‘in the world’ in Latin. There were two types of clergy: the regular clergy (so called because they lived according to a rule (regula in Latin)) who lived in monasteries and secular clergy who did not. The latter included archbishops, bishops, archdeacons, deans and parish priests. Friars, although living mostly in the world, were included among the regular clergy.

All of these regular clergy and secular clergy were part of the major orders, of which there were three: deacons, priests and bishops. This last included archbishops.

Like members of the major orders, members of the minor orders had to receive the tonsure from a bishop. This meant that their heads were shaved to leave a bare circular patch on the top and their hair was cut short. This shape was symbolic of the crown of thorns inflicted on Jesus on Good Friday.

There were four types of minor orders:  acolyte, exorcist, lector, and porter. An acolyte was an assistant to a priest who mostly helped with tasks connected to the altar. An exorcist assisted at and performed exorcisms, but also poured the water during mass. A lector, as the name suggests, was a reader who read aloud in church. I can’t find a definition of porter, so must assume that he had something to do with the door of the church, possibly unlocking and locking it each day. If anyone knows what a porter did, please put something in the comments.

Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under The Medieval Church

23 responses to “Minor Orders? Secular Clergy?

  1. It can be very confusing understanding the major and minor orders. I’d politely suggest that though broadly the term cleric was used to mean educated men, the ecclesiastical minor orders were limited to four: acolyte, exorcist, lector, and porter, with subdeacon being given minor order status at the council of Trent (1545). I don’t think, therefore, the likes of lawyers, and the others you mention, would have been tonsured. You might find the Catholic Encyclopedia helpful on this (though it’s still quite confusing 😫): https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07322c.htm

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In Ellis Peters’ “Brother Cadfael” series, the Brother who was Porter, was in charge of gate/portal, but also worked with others within the monastery for the Guest House and also held the keys to the ‘penitent cells’ – i.e. locked cells that those within, could sit in solitude and ‘read, learn, pray about it’ but also, in one book, was used for keeping a young man who sought sanctuary, safe from the town mob, while the civilian authorities (sheriff) figured out if the young man was, indeed, guilty of murder.

    While her books were of fiction, they were introduced to me by one who had a life long education/interest in the era of the time of King Stephen v. Queen Maud civil war – and to me, they always read as if the one who wrote them had indeed, done their research – 😀

    Liked by 3 people

    • She had done her research. I loved those books when they first came out. She did, however, give Cadfael quite a 20th-century outlook on many things, which spoiled them for me in the end.

      My problem here is that the porter is one of the secular orders. He’s in a parish church, not a monastery.

      As an aside, I’ve been to Shrewsbury many times and seen what’s left of the abbey. It’s a town worth visitng and I suspect that, had Cadfael been a real person, he would recognise much of it today.

      Liked by 2 people

      • To this point, the Cadfael books were my best source regarding monastic life in the 12th-13th centuries. Hadn’t given much thought to the monk’s political ideology. Guess I need to keep the salt handy next time I read them. Thank you for the heads-up.

        Time I paid better attention to the details. Thank you! ☺

        Liked by 2 people

      • I follow a retired teacher/gardener who lives nearby there and posts pictures and names of things I recognize, or refers to history I learned either reading her books or through purchasing the series “monarchy’ with David Starkey – 😀 Doesn’t mean I know anything, really – my long ago bloggy pal (whom I still miss) passed away – the gal who heard my heart and said, “Well shoot! Just get across the great blue, you can stay here, or in the garden shed, or I’ll find ya a local place and we can visit here, there and yonder what you wish – it’s only [x] amount of minutes away – to which, my ‘world’ view of knowing I must drive 4-6 hours at least! just to visit another corner of my state, in USA, here? Seemed, miraculous, even when I can, on some fronts, read a map and know what the mileage legend means and can quickly look up what the conversion to kilometers, looks like….. 😀

        I don’t know anything, really, overall – I’m not much traveled other than reading the adventures/works/shares of others – and yet – often, in my world? I think, over and over “Thank you for sharing! I recognize ‘this or that’ from long ago/a work I love/things I’ve taken the time to learn because I’m so very intrigued about it’ –

        Because I can read….because of internet, because of where I live and the time/space I live within? I’m able to do all this, without ever leaving home – for that? I’m grateful, and I appreciate YOU, and you asked, and well – – I just spoke up to be the ‘stupidest’ person in the room, LOL – It’s okay! How will I know unless I share what I think I know or say, “I love this! May be wrong, but still love the lore, tale, etc.” – 😀 Thank you for your gifts to the world AND for never making me feel bad that I commented with what first came to mind – right or wrong! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  3. It all sounds quite confusing!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Those terms would have confused me, too, if not for your elucidating post, April!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Cara Hogarth

    I love the fact that the ‘exorcist’ was a member of the minor orders! Demon banishing obviously wasn’t a super important role in the church 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

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