By Matthew George
The order of the deaconate forms one side of the triangle of priesthood, which is made up of:
- The order of deacons
- The order of priests
- The order of bishops
Within the order of deacons exist five discrete ranks, to each of which is traditionally assigned specific duties to perform in the church. This article will discuss the five ranks in detail and clarify the roles expected of each rank of deacon.
1) Epsaltos – The Hymnist
The Epsaltos (Psalter) is the very first rank of the deaconate. The word epsaltos is derived from the Coptic word for psalm, which is translated as a sacred song or hymn.
The Psalter wears only the white tunic (tonya), representing light and purity, a characteristic that is essential for serving God.
The Psalter’s responsibilities are fairly self-evident from his title; he must study and learn the hymns and tunes of the church in order to be able to lead the church in prayer. This involves a serious commitment on the part of the Psalter and he must be taught and fully encouraged to learn by the senior deacons. They must also be frequently reminded of the great blessings bestowed upon them, as exemplified by the prayers recited at his ordination by the bishop.
In many cases, children can be ordained as Psalters. This allows God’s seeds to be planted in the heart of the child, encouraging them to grow up with love for the church and to learn her rituals and theology from a young age. This is seen in various passages of scripture, including,
Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants, You have ordained strength (Psalm 8:2)
The heart of a young child is innocent and free of evil intent, making it a fertile soil for God’s word. The Bible also encourages us to learn from a young age as this is the optimal time in one’s earthly life to do so,
Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth, before the difficult days come(Ecclesiastes 12:1)
Although the child may not fully comprehend the blessings of the responsibilities given to him, the bishop ordaining him does so on the understanding that his parents will fully support him in his new role, fulfilling the commandment to learn.
2) Anaghnostos – The Reader
The word anaghnostos has its origins in the Greek word for one who reads. This is the second rank of the deaconate.
The Reader wears the white tunic with the red patrasheel (stole) over both shoulders, forming a cross shape over his back and a belt around the front. This is symbolic of both the cross that the deacon must now carry with Christ and also the towel with which Jesus girded himself to wash the feet of his disciples. Thus, the stole is not an accessory signifying a higher rank but rather a very real reminder of the patience and humility required of the Reader.
In addition to his previous duties as a Psalter, the Reader has a number of new responsibilities, which are fairly apparent from his title. Within the church, he must read the daily readings of the Liturgy and other services, as well as providing explanations on those readings. The Reader therefore has a limited duty to teach and preach to the congregation with the blessing of the priest or bishop. The Reader is also responsible for reading the names of the reposed patriarchs after the Commemoration of the Saints in the Liturgy.
In order to be granted this rank, the deacon must meet several criteria;
a) He must be of sufficient age and understanding to be able to read, comprehend and explain the Holy Bible. The minimum age is usually no lower than 18 years.
b) He must display good reading skills in order to convey God’s word to the congregation.
c) He must display good knowledge and understanding of the Holy Bible to be able to fulfil his teaching duties. This may be tested by the bishop ordaining him.
d) He must be seen by his congregation, priest and peers as being of good nature. Objections to his ordination by any member of the congregation are taken very seriously.
e) He must have a good relationship with his father of confession, displaying understanding and reverence for the sacraments.
f) He must demonstrate all the attributes of a humble servant, not being boastful in his knowledge or in his singing voice.
At his ordination, after ensuring that there are no objections, the bishop cuts five small strands of hair from the deacon’s head. This symbolises the removal of all evil thoughts with each cut symbolising one of the five wounds of Jesus on the cross.
3) Epideacon – The Subdeacon
The Subdeacon, as his name implies, is the assistant to the deacon. His role is therefore mostly one of helping the deacon in practical and administrative matters pertaining to the church. This rank is given to a Reader, having demonstrated a good understanding of the Bible and conveying God’s teachings in his daily life.
Although the Subdeacon wears the tunic and stole in the same way as the Reader, his responsibilities become greater in number. In addition to his previous responsibilities as a Reader, the Subdeacon is also expected to:
a) Guard the doors of the church. Although traditionally this responsibility was to prevent animals and heretics from entering the church, it has changed alongside the needs of the church. Symbolically, this guarding of the church doors can represent preventing evil taking root among the congregation by serving faithfully and setting a good example for others. Practically, the Subdeacon’s role is more to ensure the smooth-running of the church on a daily (or weekly) basis. This can include practicalities such as directing newcomers and guests to their seating.
b) Care for the books and other equipment of the church, including the vestments of the priest and other deacons.
c) Care for the censor and candles, ensuring that they are lit when required.
Achieving this rank requires the Subdeacon to be knowledgeable in Biblical and theological matters as well as displaying wisdom and generosity in his deeds. In order to devote so much of his time to the smooth running of the church, he must be charitable and willing to sacrifice his own time for the needs of others. It is therefore required that the Subdeacon be no younger than 20 years of age, although this can be overlooked in exceptional circumstances. It is usually the case that the Subdeacon being ordained is much older than 20 years.
4) The Deacon
The rank above that of Subdeacon is simply known as Deacon but often referred to as the “full” Deacon. The word “deacon” comes from a Greek word meaning “servant”. The simplicity of the title given to this rank, however, does not reflect the degree of seriousness and responsibility attached to it.
The Deacon wears the white tunic with the red stole draped over the left shoulder, signifying the carrying of the cross and the cleansing through the Blood of Christ. The hem of the stole draped over the shoulder symbolises the wings of the angel, as mentioned by St John Chrysostom in his sermons. The Deacon may also wear a head covering adorned with crosses as a crown.
The Apostolic Constitutions of the early church refer to the Deacon as the eyes, ears and hands of the bishops and priests. The Deacon therefore works extremely closely with the clergy in running and serving the church, a role requiring a great degree of knowledge, wisdom and purity. He must display all of the attributes and virtues outlined in the Holy Bible, exemplifying love, humility, purity, charity, patience and wisdom. All of these qualities must be mirrored in his actions as well as his words as an example to be reproduced by others. In order for this to happen, the Deacon must have a genuine and enduring relationship with God, able to weather even the most difficult of tribulations. As well as displaying all of the attributes becoming of a faithful Christian, the Deacon must also be extremely diligent in his study of the Holy Bible. He must also be knowledgeable in matters pertaining to faith, theology and church dogma. Although this is expected of all ranks of the deaconate, the Deacon in particular has a responsibility to teach the more junior ranks.
Having been tested for these qualities by his father of confession and provided that he is deemed to be of sufficient age (usually no younger than 25), the Subdeacon may be ordained a Deacon with the recommendation of the bishop and congregation.
The roles of the Deacon are considerable. He is expected to:
a) Care for the altar, its coverings and ensure it is adequately prepared for the priest.
b) Assist the priest in visiting members of the congregation, such as those who are sick.
c) Chant the altar responses during the Liturgy and other church services. It should be noted that although this is frequently done by other ranks of the deaconate, it was traditionally the Deacon and Archdeacon who carried this responsibility. Any rank junior to that of deacon was not permitted to enter the altar.
d) Read the Holy Gospel during the Liturgy and other church services. Again, although it is commonplace for all ranks of deaconate to read the Gospel, this responsibility was originally intended for the Deacon or Archdeacon as recited in the prayers recited at his ordination.
e) Dispense the Holy Blood from the chalice during communion. This is done only when necessary and with the permission of the priest or bishop. It should be noted that only the priest or bishop offers the sacrifice; the Deacon merely dispenses it when necessary.
f) Maintain general order and peace in the church.
g) Teach the other deacons and members of the congregation, with the permission of the priest or bishop.
If the Deacon is unmarried when he is ordained to this position, he is not permitted to marry thereafter. If he is married at the time of ordination, he may not remarry in the event of his wife’s passing. This is in keeping with the degree of commitment the Deacon has to his church.
5) The Archdeacon
The Archdeacon is the highest rank in the order of deacons. As the title implies, he is first among the deacons and he is therefore considered the head of the deaconate. His attire is the same as that of the Deacon, including the head covering.
The Archdeacon’s role is very similar to that of the Deacon but he is charged with several additional tasks, most of which are administrative in nature. As well as his duty to the spiritual wellbeing of those whom he serves, the Archdeacon also liaises very closely with the priest and bishop to ensure the smooth running of the church. He is responsible for assigning the specific duties to the other ranks of the deaconate to ensure nothing in the church is left undone. The Archdeacon is also able to recommend members of the deaconate for ordination to higher ranks. In addition to this, he also has a part to play in the ordination prayers of other ranks.
In order to be ordained an Archdeacon, one must have the utmost reverence and love for God. He must be knowledgeable in church ritual, theology and all aspects of the Bible. He must demonstrate all of the qualities befitting of a child of God and have excelled in his role in his previous ranks. A great degree of wisdom is required for the leadership role encompassed in this rank. Although a minimum age of 28 years is specified, it is incredibly rare for a person of this age to be ordained an Archdeacon. The Archdeacon is usually much older, reflecting the time and degree of experience required to build such a firm relationship with God. The same rules concerning marriage and remarriage apply to the Archdeacon as they do to the Deacon.
To serve in the deaconate carries many responsibilities but also many blessings. In order to serve faithfully, one must pay close attention to his own spiritual wellbeing, taking care to learn as much as possible about the church; her rituals, hymnology, theology and dogma. The deacon should never lust after the glory of a higher rank but rather serve the needs of the church as faithfully as possible in his own rank, taking advice from his father of confession and his senior deacons, to whom he must be obedient. The deacon, regardless of rank, must follow the example set by our Lord who came to serve us rather than to be served. He must also constantly remind himself of the importance of his service; because of his position, the deacon will receive a stricter judgement. It is therefore crucial that deacons serve with the utmost love and reverence for God, remembering always to show love to those we serve and praying meticulously that God work through us despite our many shortcomings.
- “The Rank of the Deaconate” by Amgad Salama [Also available online at: http://www.suscopts.org/deacons/ranks_of_deaconate.shtml]
- “The Deaconate” by His Grace Bishop Mettaous
- Letters of Isidore of Pelusium, PG 78:272C
- Apostolic Constitutions Book II, Section 6. Translated by James Donaldson. From: Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co.1886.)
- “Sacramental Rites in the Coptic Orthodox Church” (2nd edition) by His Grace Bishop Mettaous
- James 3:1.