Tag Archives: Minor Orders

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