WHAT IS AN ARCHDEACON?
What is an archdeacon? To explain is roughly the equivalent of describing the rules of cricket to a foreigner. And generally he will not be much wiser, except in the knowledge that here and there in the C of E is to be found the ecclesiastical equivalent of the coelacanth, long thought extinct.
The Legatine Canons, made at London 1126-1127 AD, limited the office, naturally enough, to deacons. But since 1662 only a priest may hold this office, and by an Act of Parliament of 1840, only one who has served at least six years as a priest.
His office is nowadays very largely taken up with administrative duties, and those principally in the exercise of the Faculty Jurisdiction, under which he now issues Faculties in his own right. Without his involvement in the Faculty system he would have a much greater freedom to exercise a pastoral role in his archdeaconry, the role for which he was (presumably) ordained. These modern accretions to his office spring out of his historical responsibility to survey the churches, churchyards and chancels of his archdeaconry at least once every three years.
Originally the archdeacon’s duty was to supervise the clergy, and all holding ecclesiastical office in his archdeaconry, to ensure that they were carrying out their ministry with diligence. He was given an ordinary jurisdiction of his own, to hold a court and to carry out visitations within the archdeaconry. He no longer has a court, following the provision of a statutory disciplinary system under the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure of 1963, but he is still required to hold an annual visitation, at which churchwardens are admitted to office. Only the clergy and the new wardens can be compelled to attend.
The archdeacon still has a (largely ceremonial) function at the induction of new incumbents, and in the presentation of candidates for ordination. He is an ex-officio member of various statutory bodies. Few archdeacons these days are called upon to examine candidates for Holy Orders.
The archdeacon’s powers are limited by law and custom. This does not prevent some from attempting to impose a quasi-papal, immediate and ordinary jurisdiction wherever they go. They have no power to intervene, except in the most unusual circumstances, in the work of an incumbent or of a PCC, and should be politely reminded where necessary.