I’ve been reading a few texts recently from the English church in the Middle Ages and was interested in how one Anglo-Saxon Bishop of York believed there are seven ‘degrees’ or offices in the church. I’d heard about this in a general sense but I’ll quote the section I read so you can see it for yourself:

10. Seven degrees are established in the church: one is ostiarius, the second is lector, the third exorcista, the fourth acoluthus, the fifth subdiaconus, the sixth diaconus, the seventh presbyter. 

11. Ostiarius is the church door-keeper, whose duty it is to announce the hours with bells, and unlock the church to believing men, and to shut the unbelieving without.

12. Lector is the reader, who reads in God’s church, and is ordained for the purpose of preaching of God’s word. 

13. Exorcista is in English, he who with oath conjures, in the Saviour’s name, the accursed spirits, which torment men, that they forsake those men. 

14. Acoluthus he is called who bears the candle or taper, in God’s ministries, when the gospel is read, or when the housel is hallowed at the altar; not to dispel, as it were, the dim darkness, but, with that light, to announce bliss, in honour of Christ, who is our light.

15. Subdiaconus is truly underdeacon, who bears forth the vessels to the deacon, and humbly ministers under the deacon, at the holy altar, with the housel vessels. 

16. Diaconus is the minister who ministers to the mass priest, and sets the offerings upon the altar, and also reads the gospels at God’s ministries. He may baptize children, and housel the people. They shall minister to the Saviour in white albs, and lead a spiritual life in chastity, and all be efficient persons, so as is befitting the order. 

The priest, who continues without a deacon, has the name, but has not the services. 

17. Presbyter is the mass-priest, or old ‘wita;’ not that every one is old, but that he is old in wisdom. He hallows God’s housel, as the Saviour commanded. He has to instruct the people in belief with preaching, and with pure morals give example to Christians, and his life should not be as that of laymen. There is no difference betwixt a mass-priest and a bishop, save that the bishop is appointed for the ordaining of priests and confirming of children, and hallowing of churches, and to take care of God’s dues; for it would be too multifarious if every mass-priest so did: but they have one order, though the latter have precedence. 

Aelfric Puttoc, The Canons of Aelfric, taken from Thorpe, Benjamin. Ancient Laws and Institutes of England: Comprising Laws Enacted Under the Anglo-Saxon Kings … with an English Translation of the Saxon; the Laws Called Edward the Confessor’s; the Laws of William the Conqueror, and Those Ascribed to Henry the First: Also, Monumenta Ecclesiastica Anglicana, from the Seventh to the Tenth Century; and the Ancient Latin Version of the Anglo-Saxon Laws : With a … Glossary, Etc. United Kingdom: G. E. Eyre and A. Spottiswoode, printers to the Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty, 1840.

Each of these offices is interesting and what I take from it is that everyone who participated in the service is someone who was considered to occupy one of these ‘degrees’. Which I think is really holistic in a way. Nowadays we tend to think of many of these as ‘functions’ needed to be done for the Church but not an office.

The other thing I wondered about was that in many churches today there are highly technical roles that are seen to be needed but are never really considered ‘ministry’ in that sense. The poor souls who get roped into doing something like sound, projection, or the like who occupy a position not in a ‘degree’ but not merely a member of the congregation. These are often treated as utilitarian necessities but I’ve always found that contrast jarring. Especially when those individuals in many ways don’t participate in the service themselves there seems something messed up about that.

Yet the role that really stood out to me was the first, the Ostiarius, who functioned as a sort of doorman or even (arguably) bouncer of sorts. It stood out because I couldn’t imagine such a function really existing today. Particularly in the Church of England. In a way the Ostiarius is linked, to me, to what Protestants have traditionally called the 3rd Mark of the Church. That of Discipline, or what I prefer to think of as Discipleship. When we read that they are to ‘shut the unbelieving without’ this would include either the unbaptised or the baptised who are unrepentant in sin. 

The mere existence of the Ostiarius is predicated on an ability and willingness in the church to discern, however falteringly, the righteous from the unrighteous. In order to do this the people coming in need to be known. Yet in my experience often anyone can turn up, and anyone can simply just go up and take communion. Little regard is paid, except in extreme circumstances, as to how those attending actually conduct themselves. Despite being raised in a ‘magisterial’ tradition I cannot think of time within one when I’ve seen that sort of discernment on display within it, contrasted to what I’ve seen in the free church. In that sense mainline churches can be rather anonymous or uncaring. 

This is me unashamedly reading into the figure of the Ostiarius now but to me he’s a symptom of a church that is:

  • Interested in the state of its members before the face of God
  • Takes responsibility for its members, discipling and building them up over time
  • Interested in the state of its churches before the face of God
  • Practically demonstrating its guarding of the three marks of the church
  • Doesn’t conflate the Christian community with the surrounding population
  • Confessional

That’s attractive, to me, partly because these are things I perceive as running the risk of being lacking in many churches today.

We don’t need to see these offices as apostolic to perceive some value in them. In a time of open communion concepts like church membership seem to have gone out the window and I can’t help but wonder if the drifting of so many churches with regard to doctrine and conduct is not linked to this. A figure like the Ostiarius doesn’t just perform a function but by his very existence says something of where the priorities of the Church to which he belongs.

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