Subdeacon (or sub-deacon) is a title used in various branches of Christianity.
In the Orthodox Church (as well as those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Rite of Constantinople), the subdeacon's liturgical role is primarily that of servant to the bishop. He assists the bishop during hierarchical services, (services at which a hierarch/bishop is present and presiding) by vesting him, by looking after and presenting the trikiri and dikiri, placing orletzi, operating the veil and Royal Doors, and handing the bishop and relieving him of all that he needs so as to enable him to perform his role of prayer undistracted. Outside of hierarchical services, the subdeacon serves in the altar as any other server but, as highest-ranking of the minor clergy, is responsible for co-ordinating and leading the serving team. The subdeacon also has practical responsibilities in the care of the altar, by cleaning it, looking after the clergy vestments and the cloths of the Holy Table, cleaning and mending them, and changing them according to the feasts, fasts, and seasons. For this reason, he has a general blessing to touch the Holy Table and the Table of Oblation, which Readers and other servers may not do. He is also responsible for the training of new servers.
The subdeacon is vested in a stikhar with an orar tied around his waist, up over his shoulders (forming a cross in back), and with the ends crossed over, and tucked under the section around the waist. . This distinguishes them from acolytes in those jurisdictions where acolytes are ordained and blessed to wear the orar, as the latter do not wear the orar crossed in front but simply hanging straight down.
In the Western Rite, the subdeacon's role is essentially as an assistant to the deacon in performing his diaconal role. This perhaps more clearly reflects the origins of the subdiaconate than in the Byzantine Rite, where, rather than the subdeacon assisting the deacon, many formerly diaconal functions have, over time, come to be seen as properly belonging to the subdeacon in his own right. In the Western Rite, the subdeacon is charged with reading the Epistle at a High Mass (the most solemn and elaborate form of the western Eucharist) - a role that may be performed by a priest or reader at a simpler form of the Mass, and with assisting the deacon with the preparation of the oblations and with carrying them to the Altar, (in those western rites that retain the Offertory Procession). He also assists the deacon during the reading of the Gospel by carrying the Gospel Book to and/or from (depending on the rite used) the place of proclamation, and by acting as a support for the book while the Gospel is read. At pontifical services (services at which a pontiff/bishop is present and presiding), the subdeacon also assists the deacon in the vesting of the bishop.
Over his alb, the subdeacon is vested in the maniple, the cincture, and the tunicle. Unlike his brother subdeacons in the Byzantine Rite who wear the orar, the Western Rite subdeacon does not wear its western equivalent - the stole - which is reserved for deacons, priests, and bishops.
Like the reader, the normal street-dress of the subdeacon is the cassock, which is usually black but need only be so if he is a monk. This is symbolic of his suppression of his own tastes, will, and desires, and his canonical obedience to God, his bishop, and the liturgical and canonical norms of the Church. As a concession in countries where Orthodoxy is little known, many only wear the cassock when attending services or when moving about the faithful on church business. In some jurisdictions in the United States, a clergy-shirt will sometimes be worn instead of a cassock, and is commonly worn buttoned but with no collar or collar-tab to indicate a rank lower than deacon.
There is a special service for the ordination of a subdeacon, although in contemporary practice an acolyte or a reader may receive the bishop's blessing to vest and act as a subdeacon for a particular occasion if there is no subdeacon available. This situation often arises if a man who might otherwise be ordained a subdeacon has stated an intention to marry but has not yet done so, causing a delay in his ordination. The reason for this lies in the fact that the canons prohibit subdeacons to marry after their ordination (just like deacons and priests). This latter stipulation has sometimes led to the reservation of the formal ordination service as a stepping-stone for candidates for the priesthood, although this is by no means universal. It also means that, while teenagers who show particular fervour may be ordained as acolytes and readers, the subdiaconate is usually reserved for those of more mature years; (there is no canonical requirement for this but most bishops observe it in practice).
A custom in some jurisdictions is that former seminarians who have discerned not to have a calling to the priesthood or diaconate, are, if they wish (and provided that they are married), ordained subdeacons as a sign on investment, faith, and to award their service.
Until abolished by Pope Paul VI's apostolic letter Ministeria quædam of 15 August 1972, the subdiaconate was the lowest of the major orders of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. An ordained subdeacon was styled as The Rev. Mr. _____." The subdiaconate remains the highest of the minor orders in Eastern Catholic churches.
In the Latin Rite, the other major orders — those of deacon, priest, and bishop — are considered of divine institution and part of the sacrament of Holy Orders, whereas the subdiaconate and the minor orders were considered of ecclesiastical institution, created by the Church. Thus, a subdeacon did not receive the laying on of hands at his ordination. Instead, the bishop handed to him an empty chalice and paten, his vestments, cruets of wine and water, and the Book of the Epistles. But, as the recipient of a major order, a subdeacon could not contract marriage, and any breach by him of the obligation to observe celibacy was classified as a sacrilege (cf. canon 132 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law). Canon 135 of the same Code of Canon Law obliged him to say all the canonical hours of the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours or Breviary).
The roles of a subdeacon at Solemn High Mass included those of crucifer (only on certain occasions such as Palm Sunday, requiems and Holy Saturday), singing the Epistle, carrying the Book of Gospels back to the celebrant after the deacon has sung the gospel (the deacon carries the book in the Gospel procession to the place where the gospel is proclaimed) and holding it while the deacon sang the Gospel, and assisting the priest or deacon in setting the altar. The subdeacon's specific vestment was the tunicle, in practice almost indistinguishable in form from the deacon's dalmatic (the tunicle was sometimes somewhat longer than the dalmatic or had slightly less elaborate decoration, but this was often unnoticeable by the casual churchgoer). He wore a maniple, until this vestment was made optional by Pope Paul VI with the instruction Tres annos abhinc. Unlike the deacon, priest and bishop, the subdeacon never wore a stole. He also wore a humeral veil while holding the paten during a large part of Solemn High Mass, from the offertory to the Our Father; and, if the chalice and paten with host were not already on the altar, he also used the humeral veil when bringing these to the altar at the offertory.
With effect from 1 January 1973, the apostolic letter Ministeria quaedam of 15 August 1972 decreed that the functions that in the Latin Church had been assigned to the subdeacon should from then on be carried out by the instituted ministers (not members of the clergy) known as lectors and acolytes:
Traditionalist Catholic organizations such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest and the Personal Apostolic Administration of Saint John Mary Vianney have been permitted to retain the subdiaconate, as well as other pre-1970 forms of the Roman Rite liturgy. The controversial Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) and other traditionalist Catholic bodies in dispute with the Holy See, such as sedevacantists, have also retained the subdiaconate, without seeking authorization to do so.
Thus, within the Latin-Rite Catholic Church, the term subdeacon now applies only to those ordained to that rank within one of these groups and to acolytes in countries where the Episcopal Conference has chosen to give them the name of subdeacon. Otherwise, it is a historical reference to persons and events of the pre-1973 period.
The entrusting to readers and acolytes of all the functions that in the Latin Rite once belonged to subdeacons does not affect the Eastern Catholic Churches, where the functions of the subdeacon are similar to those of Eastern Orthodox subdeacons.
While the office of subdeacon was abolished in the Anglican Church at the time of the Reformation, certain churches and communities in the Anglican Communion and within the Anglican Continuing Churches assign a layperson to act as subdeacon in the celebration of the liturgy of the mass or Holy Eucharist (especially Solemn High Mass). However, this is considered a liturgical function one fulfills and not an order to which one is ordained. In some dioceses and provinces, laypersons who act as subdeacons in this manner may be required to be specifically authorised by the respective bishop or archbishop. In practice, an Anglican subdeacon performs similar roles to those performed in Latin Rite Catholic or Western Rite Orthodox churches. The proper garments of the subdeacon are the alb and tunicle.