Clergy (Gr. kλήρoς, lot, portion, heritage), a collective term commonly applied to all persons consecrated to the service of the church, because they are metaphorically said to be the portion or heritage of the Lord, as was the tribe of Levi under the Mosaic dispensation. Some, however, suppose that the term relates to the lot by which Matthias was selected to be an apostle; and others suppose it to be used as a technical term, simply denoting rank or degree. Among the Hebrews, Egyptians, and other ancient nations, a certain class of persons were set aside for the celebration of religious worship, and the Christian church from its very birth had its appointed pastors, or even, as the Roman Catholics and other episcopal denominations hold, its three clerical orders of bishops, priests, and deacons. Although the distinction between clergy and laity was perhaps not so strongly marked at first as it afterward became, the separation of ecclesiastics from ordinary secular affairs, and the appropriation of means for their support, dates from a very early period.
A practice of living in community, like the monks of the present day, appears, from the narrative of St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, to have originated with the clergy of Jerusalem; and though interrupted by persecution, it was not entirely abandoned until the distinction was made between secular and regular clergy, when the former ceased to live in communities. It was introduced into various parts of Christendom, and is mentioned by Bede as having been enforced in England by St. Augustin, acting under the orders of Gregory the Great. As the church emerged from poverty, the influence of the clergy became more and more palpable. They were reverenced not only as spiritual guides and ministers of the sacraments, but as the depositaries of nearly all the learning of the age, so that by the 12th century the term cleri-cus became the common designation of every person of education. Civil rulers granted them numerous privileges and exemptions. No bishop could be compelled to appear before a secular court, no presbyter could be interrogated by the torture, no lay tribunal could take cognizance of ecclesiastical matters, nor were the clergy under the Roman empire subject to many of the taxes laid upon the people, or called upon to fill certain public offices.
They obtained temporal jurisdiction not only over their own body, but over the laity, and in the German empire the sovereignty of many of the states was vested in them. They thus acquired in the process of time a preponderating influence in European politics, which, however much it may have been at times abused, was unquestionably the only barrier between popular rights and the encroachments of despotic princes, just as in former generations their spiritual influence over the barbarian invaders had saved Europe from slavery. During the middle ages, when the clergy formed a vast, disciplined, and wealthy body, dispersed throughout the known world, each member recognizing his proper superior, and all bowing before the supremacy of the bishop of Rome, this power reached its meridian, though from the days of the first Christian emperors to the most modern times the respective boundaries of secular and ecclesiastical authority have been a subject of contention in nearly every country of the old world.
The clergy were anciently subjected to many disciplinary regulations, the chief of which are still in force in the Roman Catholic church, and some of them are observed among Protestant denominations. - In the Roman Catholic church, the ecclesiastical body embraces a hierarchy, which claims to have been instituted by Christ himself, and of which the visible head is the pope. According to the creed of this church, the government of the faithful was committed to St. Peter as the chief of the apostles, from whose successors in the see of Rome all other bishops derive their power to rule. Besides the orders of bishops, priests, deacons, and subdeacons, there are inferior officers who fulfil various functions connected with the sanctuary; these are acolytes, lectors, exorcists, and os-tiaries, forming degrees by which candidates must ascend to the priesthood. Subdeacons are obliged to take a vow of perpetual celibacy, according to an ancient regulation founded upon a still older custom of the church. It is held that at the introduction of Christianity married men were permitted to take orders on condition of separating from their wives. - In the Greek church there are six orders of clergy, namely: bishop, deacon, subdeacon, lector, cantor, and liturgist.
Every secular priest is required to marry a virgin before ordination, but is not allowed to marry a second time; and should his wife die he ceases to exercise the functions of his office, and enters a monastic order. Both Greek and Roman clergy are divided into regular and secular, the former comprising members of religious orders, and the latter all other ecclesiastics. The monks of the first ages were not necessarily connected with the clerical state; but subsequently monks were commonly ordained priests, though partially exempt from episcopal jurisdiction, while their abbots, even if not consecrated bishops, were clothed with episcopal authority, and wore episcopal insignia. The monks of the Greek church are under the same obligation of celibacy as their western brethren. - The church of England recognizes three orders of clergymen, bishops, priests, and deacons, who are comprised in the two provinces of Canterbury and York, each having its archbishop. Each bishopric is divided into archdeaconries, and each archdeaconry into parishes.
The last are filled by incumbents who, when possessing the entire tithes of the parish, are styled rectors; when sharing them with lay patrons or cathedral chapters, are termed vicars; and when receiving a stipend from the impropriators of the tithes, bear the title of perpetual curates. Many of the livings are in the gift of laymen. The bishoprics are in the gift of the crown, which nominates a person to be elected by the cathedral chapter, and confirmed by the archbishop. The clergy meet by delegates in convocation at the beginning of every new parliament; though for a long period this practice was disused, the assemblage being regularly dissolved by the archbishop before it could proceed to business. A clergyman is exempt from jury duty, from attendance at a court leet, from arrest in civil suits while celebrating divine service, from filling the office of bailiff, constable, or the like; but, on the other hand, he cannot sit in the house of commons, engage in trade, or farm lands to the extent of more than 80 acres, or for the term of more than seven years. The clerical system of the Protestant Episcopal church in America resembles that of the parent establishment, except in local regulations, and in that it has no archbishops.
Some other Protestant communions recognize degrees of clerical dignity, and lay claim to an apostolic succession, but the majority believe in the ministry of only one order.