Christianity Knowledge Base

Clergy is the generic term used to describe the formal religious leadership within a given religion. The term comes from Greek κληρος (a lot, that which is assigned by lot (allotment) or metaphorically, heritage).

Depending on the religion, clergy usually take care of the ritual aspects of the religious life, teach or otherwise help in spreading the religion's doctrine and practices. They often deal with life-cycle events such as childbirth, circumcision, coming of age ceremonies, marriage, and death. Clergy of most faiths work both inside and outside formal houses of worship, and can be found working in hospitals, nursing homes, missions, armies, etc.

There is a significant difference between clergy and theologians; clergy have the above-mentioned duties while theologians are scholars of religion and theology, and are not necessarily clergy. A lay-person can be a theologian. The two fields, of course, often overlap. In some denominations clergy status is reserved for males. In other denominations both men and women serve as clergy. Clergy are protected by special laws in many countries. In some cases clergy are financed (or co-financed) by the state, but usually they are financially supported by the donations of individual members of their religion.

In Christianity there is a wide range of formal and informal clergy positions, including priests, deacons, bishops, and ministers.

Christian clergy[]

Catholic clergy[]

Ordained Catholic clergymen are deacons, priests, or bishops, i.e., they belong to the diaconate, the presbyterate, or the episcopate. Among bishops, some are metropolitans, archbishops, or patriarchs, and the Pope is the Bishop of Rome. With rare exceptions, cardinals are bishops, although it was not always so; formerly, some cardinals were unordained laymen and not clergymen. The Holy See supports the activity of its clergy by the Congregation for the Clergy ([1]), a dicastery of Roman curia.

Canon law indicates (canon 107) that "by divine institution, there are in the Church [Latin: Ecclesia] clergy [Latin: clerices] distinguished from laics". This distinction of a separate class was formed in the early times of Christianity; one early source reflecting this distinction is the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch. The original clerics were the bishops (the Twelve Apostles) and the deacons (their seventy appointed assistants); the presbyterate actually developed as a sort of semi-bishop (cf. the disused chorepiskopos, "rural bishop"). In the Catholic Church, only men can be members of the clergy.

Catholic clerical organisation is hierarchical in nature: before the reforms after the Second Vatican Council, the tonsure admitted a man to the clerical state, after which he could receive the four minor orders (ostiary, lectorate, order of exorcists, order of acolytes) and then the major orders of subdiaconate, diaconate, presbyterate, and finally the episcopate, which is defined in Catholic doctrine as "the fullness of Holy Orders". Today the minor orders and the subdiaconate have been replaced by lay ministries and the tonsure no longer takes place, the clerical state being tied to reception of the diaconate.

Monks and other religious are not necessarily part of the clergy, unless they have received the diaconate. The administration of sacraments seems to be the real distinguishing element between laity and clergy, and in this sense unordained monks, nuns, friars, and religious brothers and sisters should not be considered part of the clergy. Ordination to Holy Orders is considered one of the Seven Sacraments of Divine institution by Catholic doctrine, in many ways directly comparable to Holy Matrimony (i.e., marriage).

During the Middle Ages however, the term was used to indicate all the people with an education (having an education had been the exclusive privilege of clergy for epochs). The term also survives in students' organisations at some ancient universities (such as Goliardia, where they are often called clerici vagantes).

The term clerici vagantes comes indeed from the clerics that before 12th century were commanded at the service of a determined church (incardinatio); after that time, they were not forced any more to reside in the church (if they had no privileges or other related rights), and they could go living and residing wherever they liked (then vagantes, wandering). The Council of Trent vainly tried to abolish this use, and only in recent times the rule was restored that a clericus has a perpetual and absolute obligation to serve the diocese or the Order to which he is assigned; only with a special authorisation he can be accepted in the jurisdiction of another diocese or of another Order.

Current canon law prescribes that to be ordained a priest, an education is required of two years of scholastic philosophy study, and 4 years of theology; dogmatic and moral theology, the Holy Scriptures, and canon law have to be studied inside a seminary. This reflects the scholastic and intellectual traditions of the Latin Church.

Oaths of celibacy and obedience are required as a condition for admittance (and persistence) for Latin Rite Catholic priests; this is a disciplinary and administrative rule rather than a dogmatic and doctrinal one. Celibacy has taken many forms in different times and places. The Council in Trullo (Quinisextum Concilium) in 692 barred bishops from marrying, but did not prevent married men from becoming priests and excommunicated those deacons who would have divorced because ordained. This rule is still followed for ordained deacons in the Latin Rite, as well as for priests in the Eastern Rites. Married men are not ordained priests in the Latin Rite, although some married priests do exist who were ordained in the Anglican church and later received into the Roman Catholic Church. See also Presbyterorum Ordinis for a modern statement of the nature of the Catholic priesthood.

Clergy have four classical rights:

  1. Right of Canon: whoever commits real violence on the person of a clergyman, commits a sacrilege. This decree was issued in a Lateran Council of 1097 (requested by Pope Urban II), then renewed in the Lateran Council II (1139).
  2. Right of Forum: by this right clergy may be judged by ecclesiastical tribunals only. Emperor Constantine I granted this right for bishops, which was subsequently extended to the rest of the clergy by Imperial Decree.
  3. Right of Immunity: clergy cannot be called for military service or for duties or charges not compatible with his role.
  4. Right of Competence: a certain part of the income of clergy, necessary for sustenance, cannot be sequestered by any action of creditors.

The extent to which these rights are recognised at law varies dramatically from country to country, with traditionally Catholic countries being more inclined to respect these rights.

Orthodox clergy[]

The clergy of the Orthodox Church are the bishops, priests, and deacons, the same offices identified in the New Testament and found in the early church. Bishops include archbishops, metropolitans, and patriarchs. Priests (also called presbyters or elders) include archpriests, protopresbyters, hieromonks (priest-monks) and archimandrites (senior hieromonks). Deacons also include hierodeacons (deacon-monks) archdeacons and protodeacons; subdeacons, however, are not deacons, and comprise a separate office that is not to be major clergy, as do readers, acolytes and others. Bishops are usually drawn from the ranks of the monks, and are required to be celibate; however, a non-monastic priest may be ordained to the episcopate if he no longer lives with his wife (following Canon XII of the Quinisext Council)[2]. Priests and deacons may be married, provided that they are married prior to their ordination to the diaconate.In contemporary usage such a non-monastic priest is usually tonsured to the monastic state at some point prior to his consecration to the episcopacy. If they are later divorced or remarried, they are not permitted to remarry unless they first leave the clergy and return to lay status. All Orthodox clergy must be male. There are records of deaconesses in the New Testament and in the early church; the consensus today is that this office was never equivalent to that of deacon, but had separate responsibilities. The ancient office of deaconess was subsumed by the office of abbess.

The typical progression of ordination is: reader, subdeacon, deacon, priest, bishop. Each ordination must take place in order, although it is possible to ordain a layman to all five offices in the course of a weekend. The organization of the Orthodox Church is both hierarchical and conciliar (or synodal). It is hierarchical in that priests, deacons, and laymen are expected to follow their bishop and to do nothing without their bishop, and in that Jesus Christ is the head of every bishop. It is conciliar or synodal in that there is no single Pope whom all the bishops follow (the Pope of Alexandria functions as a patriarch), but rather the bishops meet together in synods or councils and reach binding agreements through consensus. A bishop, even the patriarch, is bound to obey the decisions of his synod. A council with representatives from all the churches is an ecumenical council.

Although Orthodox clergy are given considerable honor by the Orthodox Church, each ordination is also viewed as a kind of martyrdom. The Orthodox cleric agrees to be a servant of both Jesus Christ and of the people of the church; many of the vestments are intended to remind him of this. Much is expected of the clergy, both practically and spiritually; consequently, they also have a special place in the litanies that are prayed, asking God to have mercy on them.

Anglican clergy[]

In the Anglican churches clergy is comprised of deacons, priests (presbyters) and bishops, in ascending order of seniority. Canon, Archdeacon, Archbishop, and the like are specific titles within these divisions. Bishops are typically overseers, presiding over a diocese composed of many parishes, with Archbishops presiding over an province, which is a group of dioceses. A parish (generally a single church) is looked after by one or more priests, although one priest may be responsible for several small parishes. New clergy are ordained deacons. Those seeking to become priests are usually ordained priest after a year of satisfactory service. During the 1960s, some Anglican churches reinstituted the diaconate as a permanent, rather than transitional, order of ministry focused on ministry that bridges the church and the world, especially ministry to those on the margins of society.

For the forms of address to be used with Anglican clergy, see Forms of Address in the United Kingdom.

During the 1980s, before the acceptance of women as equal members of the clergy, women could be ordained as 'deaconesses', who were technically distinct from deacons but carried approximately the same privileges and responsibilities. This title has now been abolished.

In the Anglican church all clergy are permitted to marry. In most branches women may become deacons or priests, but very few allow women bishops. Celebration of the Eucharist is reserved for priests and bishops.

Each branch of the Anglican church is presided over by one or more archbishops. The senior archbishop of the Anglican Communion is the Archbishop of Canterbury, who acts as leader of the Church of England and 'first among equals' of the archbishops of all Anglican churches.

The status of deacon, priest or bishop is a function of the person and not the job. A priest who retires is still a priest, even if they no longer have any role of religious leadership.

Protestant clergy[]

Clergy in Protestantism fill a wide variety of roles and functions. In many denominations, such as Methodism, Presbyterianism, and Lutheranism, clergy are very similar to Roman Catholic or Anglican clergy, in that they hold an ordained pastoral or priestly office, administer the sacraments, proclaim the word, lead a local church or parish, and so forth.

Some Protestant denominations reject the idea that church leaders are a separate category of people. Some dislike the word clergy and do not use it of their own leaders. Often they refer to their leaders as pastors or ministers, titles that, if used, sometimes apply to the person only as long as he or she holds a particular office.

Judaic Clergy[]

Main article: Rabbi

In ancient Judaism there was a formal priestly clan known as the Kohanim, who were decendants of Moses' brother Aaron and thus of the tribe of Levi. Each member of the tribe, a Kohen had priestly duties, many of which centered around the Temple in Jerusalem. Since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70, their role has largely been rendered superfluous.

Since that time the religious leaders and clergy of Judaism have been the rabbis. Rabbis are not an intermediary between God and man: the word "rabbi" means "teacher". The rabbi is not an occupation found in the Torah (Five books of Moses); the first time this word is mentioned is in the Mishnah. The modern form of the rabbi developed in the Talmudic era. Rabbis are given authority to make interpretations of Jewish law and custom. Traditionally, a man obtains smicha (rabbinic ordination) after the completion of an arduous learning program in Torah, Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), Mishnah and Talmud, Midrash, Jewish ethics and lore, the codes of Jewish law and responsa, theology and philosophy.

Since the early medieval era an additional form of clergy, the Hazzan (cantor) has existed as well.

Orthodox Judaism maintains all of these traditional requirements. Women are forbidden from becoming rabbis or cantors in Orthodoxy. One does not need a bachelor's degree to enter most Orthodox rabbinical seminaries.

Conservative Judaism maintains all of these traditional requirements. Women are allowed to become rabbis and cantors in the Conservative movement. Conservative Judaism differs with Orthodoxy in that it has somewhat less stringent study requirements for Talmud and responsa as compared to Orthodoxy. However, the academic requirements are just as rigorous, as Conservative Judaism adds the following subjects as requirements for rabbinic ordination: one must first earn a bachelor's degree before entering the rabbinate. In addition studies are mandated in pastoral care and psychology, the historical development of Judaism; and academic biblical criticism.

Reconstructionist Judaism and Reform Judaism do not maintain the traditional requirements for study. Both men and women may be rabbis or cantors. The level of Jewish law, Talmud and responsa studied in five years of these denominations is similar to that learned in the first year of Orthodox Jewish seminaries. The rabbinical seminaries of these movements hold that one must first earn a bachelor's degree before entering the rabbinate. In addition studies are mandated in pastoral care and psychology, the historical development of Judaism; and academic biblical criticism. Emphasis is placed not on Jewish law, but rather on sociology and modern Jewish philosophy.

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