Forthcoming book: Inferior Office


I have just signed a contract with James Clarke and Co. for a new book on the history of deacons, entitled Inferior Office: A History of Deacons in the Church of England. This book begins with the Ordinal of 1550, explaining how the reformed Church of England reduced the number of orders to three (bishop, priest and deacon), resulting in deacons becoming the lowest order of the clergy. In the centuries that followed, the diaconate was for many clergy a brief period before they proceeded to the higher order of priesthood, but for a significant minority the diaconate was as far as they would ever progress. Men who were deemed less educated than their colleagues remained in deacon’s orders, as did those who lacked the connections to obtain a ‘title’ to priest’s ordination. These deacons formed a clerical underclass of chaplains, perpetual curates, schoolmasters and other functionaries until well into the eighteenth century. By the beginning of the nineteenth century such deacons had all but disappeared, but in 1839 Thomas Arnold began what would become a noisy movement in the Victorian church for the restoration of a meaningful diaconate, as a way of allowing less educated men to participate in mission and receive holy orders. The campaign ultimately achieved little in England, but it raised awareness of the idea of deacons in the colonial churches. In the end, the Church of England only came back to the idea of lifelong deacons for political reasons in the 1980s, when it became clear that the church needed to do something to allow women to join the clergy. Between 1987 and 1994, women in holy orders were permitted to be deacons but not priests. Finally, the book takes the story of deacons right up to the present day, charting the development of the ‘distinctive diaconate’ in the contemporary Church of England.

I expect the book to be published early in 2015.

5 replies on “Forthcoming book: Inferior Office

Dear Dr Young,

I look forward to the publication of your forthcoming book, ‘Inferior Office: a history of deacons in the Church of England’.

It occurred to me that you may be interested in my PhD thesis, ‘Derwent Coleridge (1800-83) and the deacon schoolmaster’ (2008, Institute of Education, University of London). I have used documentary evidence to explore how, from the early 1840s, the first principal (Revd Derwent Coleridge) and others promoted the training of schoolmasters at St Mark’s College, Chelsea, with a view to their being ordained as deacon schoolmasters in the Church of England. I have also touched upon the ordination of deacon schoolmasters in various colonial dioceses. The final chapter includes an account of historical continuities from the 1840s to the early twenty-first century.

The thesis is most readily accessed through the British Library EThOS electronic theses online service.

Please do let me know if I can be of help.

Yours sincerely,

David Nicholas (Dr)

Dear Dr Nicholas,

Thank you for your interest and for alerting me to your thesis, of which I was not aware. I have downloaded it from EThOS and look forward to reading it. There will be a good deal of material in my book on deacon-schoolmasters in the 16-18th centuries but there is less on the 19th century. I am heartened to hear that others have done work on deacons.

Best wishes,

Francis Young

You say that these deacons formed a clerical underclass of … perpetual curates. A Perpetual Curate was a category of clergyman who did not receive any tithes, unlike a Rector who received the great tithes and a Vicar who received the small tithes. Surely such a clergyman would have to ordained as a Priest and not just as a Deacon in order to carry out his duties.

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? After 1661, deacons could still be perpetual curates and even vicars; however, perpetual curates tended to be less well-connected and educated so were more likely to be deacons. Communion was celebrated so rarely in the 18th century that it was considered acceptable for deacons to be perpetual curates and vicars. More details in the book…

Thank you for your reply. I was aware that Deacons were unable to celebrate communion but had not realised that it was rarely celebrated in the 18th century.

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