John Gayford explores the evolution of the minor orders in Patristic times 

With the growth of the early Church in Patristic times (usually taken as from the end of the first to the beginning of the eighth century) liturgy was developing, expanding the work of the deacon so that he needed assistance. Usually the number of deacons was limited to seven for each region with the senior deacon being the archdeacon. The creation of Sub deacon was the obvious answer, with no limit placed on the number, but other minor orders were also created. These were usually the Ostiarii (door keepers or porters), Lectori (readers), Exorcisti (exorcists) and Acolythi (Acolytes).  Until the 13th century Sub-deacons hovered between major and minor orders. As a minor order the sub-deacon was senior to the other minor orders, but as a major order he was junior to deacons, priests and bishops. It was only when sub-deacons became a major order that they took the tonsure, the recitation of the divine office and an obligation to the celibate state and were usually on their way to priesthood. 

There is patristic evidence of minor orders from Tertullion (c.155-c.220) who  mentions lectors or readers, Hippolytus (c.170-235) knew of sub-deacons and lectors, making a distinction between their appointment and the ordination of bishops, priests (presbyters) and deacons; while Cyprian (c.200-248) records acolytes and exorcists. There were various censuses of the clergy. (eg: Cornelius of Rome ca.250; Justine of Constantinople 535; and Isidore of Seville ca. 560-636). Cornelius records: one bishop, 46 presbyters, 7 deacons, 7 sub-deacons, 42 acolytes and 52 others that included exorcists, readers and doorkeepers, (the source for this is usually attributed to Eusebius of Caesarea in his Historia ecclesiastica VI, 43, 11). 

Not more than two minor orders may be conferred at any time on the same candidate. Institution through selection and liturgical rite followed the same format for all the minor orders.

The Call. The candidates after selection present themselves and are called by name by the Archdeacon with them answering “Adsum” (present). 

The Instruction on how to carry out their office.

The Bestowal of the Order. Ostiariis kneel and touch the key they are then led to the door which they lock and unlock, following which they are led to the bell which they ring. Lectors kneel and touch the book of readings. Exorcists kneel and touch the book of exorcisms. Acolytes kneel and touch the candlestick, with unlit candle and vessel for the Eucharist. 

The Prayer. Each is blessed and told to perform his office so that he is an example to others and is presented with the instrument of his ordination.

Door keeper (ostiarius) (Sometimes called porter) is considered the lowest of the minor orders as they assumed the role of “church bouncers”. Many of the doorkeepers’ functions were similar to those of a verger, but they assumed importance in troubled times when they were required to keep out the undesirable and those not permitted to attend Mass. As you open and shut with material keys the visible church, let it also be your endeavour by word and example to be shut to the Devil and to open to the invisible God.             

At his institution the doorkeeper was given the keys to the Church by the archdeacon and he locked and unlocked then opened the door and rang the bell.  This rite still exists in the Anglican Church, but taken over by the incumbent, at his induction.   

Lectors main functions were to read the Old Testament lessons and the Epistle at Mass. They are chosen to be readers in the House of God and instructed to read the word of God so that the sacred lessons may be distinct and intelligible without mistake or falsification so that the faithful may understand and be edified. The suggested age of appointment was 13 but well educated boys could be appointed earlier, and because the clarity of the voice suggested a possible good singing voice, some went on to become cantors. There were two other types of reader: the Lector Mensae (the reader at table) which was a de facto office in monasteries or religious houses, and the Lector Dignitarius who was appointed to read lessons in cathedrals, and to give lectures (origin of the term lecturer).   A bishop might be illiterate, but the lector must be educated, able to read and write: this gave him power if he became (not uncommonly) a bishop’s secretary. Bishops did not have to be well educated, though most were. So the lector could draft the bishop’s letter and even deliver it with an element of “the bishop thinks and I agree”.  They were usually younger than the doorkeepers and their role may be regarded as a further step towards priesthood.

Singers have been important to the Church almost throughout its history. By the 4th Century a cantor was a minor order of the Church and trained from a young age. Learning first the whole Psalter (in Latin), this was like a trainee taxi-driver learning the A-Z, (the Knowledge). In 604 Pope St Gregory the Great set up a Roman Schola Cantorum, (school for singers) with many towns, cities and monasteries following suit. The term Schola is often used for a group of expert singers especially in a monastery. The lead singer of the Chant is called a cantor/cantrix.

Exorcists expel evil spirits and were common among Jews and other religions in Biblical times, indeed the Gospels record numerous instances of Christ and his Apostles expelling evil spirits.  In the preparation of catechumens for baptism the exorcist played an important part and was also given responsibility for those who were excommunicated. Pope Cornelius (c.251-253) speaks of Exorcists as a special order of the clergy. The Council of Laodicea (c.345) forbade those who were not ordained to the order of exorcist to exorcise, either in Church or in private houses.  He is told it is his duty to cast out evil spirits and is warned of the dangers of his office: to be careful to live a clean life so that unclean spirits do not make a home in him. The exorcist was handed a book with the prescribed order which grew over time, forbidden to learn it by heart and only permitted to use it with the express permission of the bishop. All priests act as exorcist in the sacramental rite of baptism. This had more meaning when people delayed baptism, wanting to be forgiven their many sins before they die. Rapidly the role of exorcist was taken over by priests and could even accrue in the context of the Mass or immediately after with the priest still in alb and stole.

Acolyte (from the Greek akolouthos, meaning an attendant). He is told to carry the lighted candlestick; to light the Church, to minister wine and water at the Eucharistic sacrifice and to endeavour to discharge worthily the office received. For you cannot be pleasing to God if in your hand you carry the light for God and in your heart are slave to darkness and thus give to your fellow men the example of your faithlessness. Their special duties were to serve at the altar, assisting priest and deacon and even assisting in administration of the Blessed Sacrament and for this they were given a linen purse.

Some acolytes like lectors became secretaries and messengers to popes and bishops. Cyprian Bishop of Carthage 248-258 mentions Nicephorus the acolyte who not only acted as messenger but it is recorded also brought back his own opinion to the Bishop. St Tarcisius was a third century boy martyr and acolyte who was entrusted to take the sacrament to prisoners but was attacked by a mob and killed. He has become the patron saint of acolytes and of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament with his saint’s day now 26th August. Pope St. Damasus describes him in a 4th century poem. Cardinal Wiseman embellishes his story in his novel Fabiola of 1854. Small churches may not have had an acolyte, larger churches may have had several. There were arch-acolytes who were considered dignitaries of the church. The carrying of lights was a most important function especially in the dark catacombs. No procession could see where it was going without acolytes. They were essential if the liturgy moved from the altar with its candles; thus they would accompany the deacon for the reading of the Gospel. The faithful departed were buried in the catacombs; being escorted by six acolytes. Senior experienced acolytes were much valued and honoured for their knowledge of liturgy and how it was to be conducted and could be given the title of arch-acolyte. They were very much the master of ceremonies or ceremonius.

There was no bar to one person becoming a reader as well as an acolyte provided he has been trained and there is a reasonable interval between receiving each ministry. Up to 20% of the male population were in minor orders. It meant they could appeal to an ecclesial court, rather than secular courts, for alleged offences with lesser potential penalties.

 Subdeacons are in evidence from the middle of the third century.  The First Synod of Toledo (400) allowed them to marry once but if they married a second time they were reduced to the rank of ostiarius or Lector. The ritual of conferring the order of Subdeacon varied through time especially when it was more universally accepted as a major order in the 12th century. As a minor order he was presented with the symbols of his office (an empty chalice with paten, cruets of wine and water, a bowl and towel not forgetting the book of epistles). He was charged with assisting the deacon in the preparation of the altar for the Mass at the offertory. The subdeacon was responsible for the altar linen including keeping it washed and clean. It was his function to read the epistle and to hold the book of gospels for the deacon to read. As a minor order there was no laying on of hands by the bishop but instead a blessing. While still in minor orders the subdeacon did not receive the tonsure or to accept the celibate state. This all changed when the subdeacon became a major order. At this stage it is correct to say he was ordained by the bishop with laying on of hands, vesting in alb, maniple and tunicle (symbol of joy and gladness). The canonical age for progression to ordination to the subdiaconate was 20 or 21 but this was not strictly observed. This was considered as a major step as he had to be celibate and was warned to think carefully before taking this step.  As a major order there was usually progression to the diaconate and priesthood. Even in minor orders the subdeacon was the senior of the minor orders indicated by him standing on a platform. Like lectors and acolytes he could be part of the bishop’s household and act as his secretary.

In the more Modern times all minor orders were suppressed at the Reformation in the Church of England. The Second Vatican Council called for a revision of the system and Pope Paul VI in 1972 with the decree Motu propria abolished the minor orders and replaced them with ministries.