When one thinks of minor orders, such as the Subdeacon, a common question arises: “Is the subdeacon a glorified altar boy?” In other circles and in a time gone by, one would also think of the minor orders as “stepping stones” on the road to priesthood. This type of thinking was particularly prevalent among the Western scholastics, who taught that in the ranks of Holy Orders, there are seven degrees, modeled after the ancient Roman cursus honorum, which were a series of honors that male citizens could ascribe to. To schoolmen such as Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas, the priesthood was considered the highest point of the ranks of Holy Orders, with the other orders as waypoints of ministry that a man could aspire to in his formation journey for the priesthood. (It should be noted that in the days of the medieval scholastics, the episcopacy was not seen as a holy order but rather as an office of governance which priests did not ordinarily hold. This view was NOT held by early Church Fathers, who thought that the bishop was the apex of orders, surrounded by his priests with the deacons ministering to the bishop and the people. The Second Vatican council has since returned the Western Church to the earlier patristic view of Holy Orders.)
Despite of these developments, the minor orders did indeed play an important role in the ministry of the early church. Saint Paul talks at length in his First Letter to the Corinthians about the various spiritual gifts that belong to individuals in the Christian community and how they are to be put to use (1 Cor 14:1-40). Saint Luke talks about the assignment of different tasks to members of the Christian community in the Acts of the Apostles, especially with regard to the institution of the seven when the problem of distributing alms to both the Gentile and Hebrew members of the Church arose (Acts 6:1-7). Now Scripture does not give us a detailed list of minor or major orders (descriptions of the qualities of men for certain orders, such as bishop and/or deacon, occurs in 1 Timothy and in Titus), but it could be inferred that there were people with different “gifts” to offer in support of the fledgling Christian community. As the Church grew, there were definite tasks to be done, and one man could not do it all. Just as Moses’s father-in-law Jethro told him to appoint lesser judges over the Israelites to help in the administration of the 12 tribes in the desert (Ex 18:13-27), so too it would seem natural that the ancient Church would divide up tasks among the faithful to facilitate administration of various ministries in the ancient Church.
The minor orders today unfortunately do not see much use. Very often, they seem to be used for seminarians who are in priestly formation or for men who are in formation for the diaconate. Their use today would seem superfluous and contentious – especially since now we have women who serve in our churches as cantors and readers of the Epistle.
Yet there is a great need for men to take part in active life of the Church. The Church is not a mere “social club” for people to get together for one hour once per week. The minor orders certainly can play a role in a revitalized church. Some men may not be called to service as a priest or deacon, but they can certainly partake in the duties that the minor orders provide. Now the Ukrainian Catholic Church, unlike the Roman Church, has four minor orders (we do not have the Order of Porter and the Order of Exorcist). The order of Subdeacons is important for they assist the Bishop in his liturgical celebrations. Yet, the subdeacon is not a mere “glorified altar boy”; he is an example to the people of service in Christ’s church, for the subdeacon is entrusted with the care of the altar area and all liturgical items in the church. The subdeacon also knows how to sing the responses, assisting people as necessary in singing the Divine Praises, reading the Epistle if a reader is not present, and assisting and training acolytes for service at the altar. Because of his importance, he is entitled to wear a cassock and wears the crossed orarion on his vestments to distinguish himself from other acolytes.
The order of Cantor is an important one; it is he who leads the congregation in singing the Church’s praises in worship to God Almighty. The Cantor holds an important role since in our Church Tradition, we do not have musical accompaniment in our worship as we believe the best and truest musical instrument in worshiping God is the human voice. Liturgies were never meant to be merely recited – this was something that was introduced due to the lack of cantors and unfortunately, became common practice to hurry up the liturgy and get everyone out in time for various reasons. Saint John Chrysostom has a LOT to say about this practice, especially in his sermons where he excoriates the people for leaving Church early to attend races in the Hippodrome. The Reader is an important minor office for he proclaims the letters of the Apostles to the people. Just as the Letters of Paul, Peter, James and John were loudly proclaimed to the people by one who could read eloquently, so too does the reader continue on this hallowed tradition, reciting to the people lessons for all of us to take heart in. Finally, we have the Order of Acolyte (or candle bearer), whom we all know as “Altar Boys”, who are holy men given the responsibility of assisting the priest and bishop in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.
It must be noted that there are issues that are being discussed among theologians regarding the re-institution of the minor orders - for example, a question arises regarding the eligibility for women’s ordination to minor orders as they currently serve as cantors and lectors in our church. While our Holy Church does not admit the ordination of women to any of the orders, the service of women does not diminish their importance in the ministry of the Church. However, minor orders serve an important place in our Church, and can be a potential motivator for men to come “step up to the plate,” and help out in a service of love and humility. The Church needs capable men to help out in the daily liturgical life, and for those who want to serve, but do not feel called to the diaconate or priesthood, the minor orders are a way for men to help out and serve our God and our Church. Perhaps you are being called to service in our Church as a subdeacon, cantor, lector, or acolyte!