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Charles Buck Theological Dictionary [1]

(from the Greek word meaning heritage, ) in the general sense of the word, as used by us, signifies the body of ecclesiastics of the Christian church, in contradistinction to the laity: but strictly speaking, and according to Scripture, it means the church.

"When Joshua, " as one observes, "divided the Holy Land by lot among the Israelites, it pleased God to provide for a thirteenth part of them, called Levites, by assigning them a personal estate equivalent to that provision made by real estate, which was allotted to each of the other twelve parts. In conformity to the style of the transaction, the Levites were called God's lot, inheritance, or clergy. This style, however, is not always used by the Old Testament writers. Sometimes they call all the nations God's lot,  Deuteronomy 32:9 .  Psalms 78:71 .  Psalms 28:9 , &c. The New Testament writers adopt this term, and apply it to the whole Christian church,  1 Peter 5:3 . Thus it is the church distinguished from the world, and not one part of the church as distinguished from another part." The word clergy, however, among us, always refers to ecclesiastics. The clergy originally consisted of bishops, priests, and deacons; but in the third century many inferior orders were appointed; such as sub-deacons, acoluthists, readers, &c. The clergy of the church of Rome are divided into regular and secular.

The regular consists of those monks or religious who have taken upon them holy orders of the priesthood in their respective monasteries. The secular clergy are those who are not of any religious order, and have the care and direction of parishes. The Protestant clergy are all secular. for archbishops, bishops, dean, &c.&c. see those articles. The clergy have large privileges allowed them by our municipal laws, and had formerly much greater, which were abridged at the reformation, on account of the ill use which the popish clergy had endeavoured to make of them; for the laws having exempted them from almost every personal duty, they attempted a total exemption from every secular tie. The personal exemptions, indeed, for the most part, continue. A clergyman cannot be compelled to serve on a jury, nor to appear at a court leet, which almost every other person is obliged to do; but is a layman be summoned on a jury, and before the trial takes orders, he shall notwithstanding appear, and be sworn. Neither can he be chosen to any temporal office; as bailiff, reeve, constable, or the like, in regard to his own continual attendance on the sacred function.

During his attendance on divine service, he is privileged from arrests in civil suits. In cases of felony also, a clerk in orders shall have the benefit of clergy, without being branded in the hand, and may likewise have it more than once; in both which cases he is distinguished from a layman. Benefit of Clergy was a privilege whereby a clergyman claimed to be delivered to his ordinary to purge himself of felony, and which anciently was allowed only to those who were in orders; but, by the statute of 18th Eliz., every man to whom the benefit of clergy is granted, though not in orders, is put to read at the bar, after he is found guilty, and convicted of felony, and so burnt in the hand; and set free for the first time, if the ordinary or deputy standing by do say, Legit ut clericus: otherwise he shall suffer death. As the clergy have their privileges, so they have also their disabilities on account of their spiritual avocations.

Clergymen are incapable of sitting in the house of commons; and by statute 21 Henry VIII. 100: 13, are not in general allowed to take any lands or tenements to farm, upon pain of 10l. per month, and total avoidance of the lease; nor upon like pain to keep any tap-house or brewhouse; nor engage in any trade, nor sell any merchandise, under forfeiture of the treble value; which prohibition is consonant to the canon law. The number of clergy in England and Wales amount, according to the best calculation, to 18, 000. The revenues of the clergy were formerly considerable, but since the reformation they are comparatively small, at least those of the inferior clergy.

See the Bishop of Landaff's Valuation of the Church and University Revenues; or, Cove on the Revenues of the Church, 1797, 2d edition; Burnett's Hist. of his own times, conclusion.

See article Minister

King James Dictionary [2]


1. The body of men set apart, and consecrated, by due ordination, to the service of God, in the christian church the body of ecclesiastics, in distinction from the laity. 2. The privilege or benefit of clergy.

If convicted of a clergyable felony, he is entitled equally to his clergy after as before conviction.

Benefit of clergy, in English law, originally the exemption of the persons of clergymen from criminal process before a secular judge or a privilege by which a clerk or person in orders claimed to be delivered to his ordinary to purge himself of felony. But this privilege has been abridged and modified by various statutes. In the United States, no benefit of clergy exists.

Webster's Dictionary [3]

(1): (n.) The privilege or benefit of clergy.

(2): (n.) Learning; also, a learned profession.

(3): (n.) The body of men set apart, by due ordination, to the service of God, in the Christian church, in distinction from the laity; in England, usually restricted to the ministers of the Established Church.

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [4]

the general name given to those who are set apart by ordination (q.v.) for the performance of Christian worship and teaching, and who are therefore said to be in orders (q.v.).

1. Origin And Meaning Of The Word. The word is by some supposed to be derived from Κλῆρος (Lot ) , as if the minister were, in a special sense, Κλῆρος Τοῦ Θεοῦ , specially consecrated to God. Others (Augustine, Expos. In Psalms 67 ; Isidor, De Off. Ecclesiastes 2 , c. 1) maintain that it indicates that the lot by which Matthias was chosen apostle gave the first general name for the chiefs of the Church as a class. Jerome says they were called clergy, either because they were chosen by lot to be the Lord's, or because the Lord is their lot or heritage ( Deuteronomy 18:2). More recently both these derivations have been abandoned, and one proposed by Baur ( Ursprung Des Episcopats, p. 93 sq.; D. Christenthum V. Die Christl. Kirche Der Drei Ersten Jahrhund. p. 245) and by Ritschl ( Entstek. Der Altcath. Kirche, p. 245) has met with general favor. According to it, the word Κλῆρος is in the N.T. ( Acts 1:17;  Acts 1:25;  1 Peter 5:3), as well as in the language of the ancient Church, commonly used in the signification of "rank," "degree." The "faithful" (fideles) and catechumens were called Κλῆροι (ordines, ranks), just as well as bishops, presbyters, deacons. Gradually the exact point of time cannot be fixed the ecclesiastical officers were exclusively called "the rank," Κλῆρος , a transition which was very natural when the difference between the officers of the Church and the bulk-of the people was emphasized. The earliest writer in which the name "clergy" ( Κλῆρος ) in the restricted sense occurs is Clement of Alexandria.

"It is clear from the N.T. that there were men separated to the work of the Christian ministry. Some of these appear to have been Extraordinary, such as Apostles, who had been selected by Christ himself without any intermediate authority; Evangelists, such as Timothy and Titus; Prophets. See  1 Corinthians 14:3;  1 Corinthians 14:22-24. These probably continued only during the lifetime of the apostles and those on whom they laid hands. Others were ordinary ministers, denominated elders or presbyters, pastors; bishops, and teachers. See  1 Peter 5:1-4;  Acts 14:23;  Acts 15:6;  Titus 1:5. These were divinely called and appointed to their work ( Acts 20:28); they were solemnly set apart; they were entitled to be supported by the churches to whom they ministered; their duties were to feed the flock, to take care of and govern the Church of God, and to watch for souls ( 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13;  Hebrews 13:7;  Hebrews 13:17)" (Coleman, Christian Antiquities, ch. 3).

2. Distinction Of Clergy And Laity. In the apostolical Church no abstract distinction of clergy and laity, as to privilege or sanctity, was known; all believers were called to the prophetic, priestly, and kingly offices in Christ ( 1 Peter 5:3). The Jewish antithesis of clergy and laity was at first unknown among Christians; and it was "only as men fell back from the evangelical to the Jewish point of view" that the idea of the general Christian priesthood of all believers gave place, more or less completely, to that of the special priesthood or clergy (Neander, Church History, Torrey's ed., 1, 194 sq.; Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 1, ch. 5; Gieseler, Church History, 1, § 52). So Tertullian, even (De Baptismo, c. 17, before he became a Montanist): "The laity have also the right to administer the sacraments and to teach in the community. The Word of God and the sacraments were by the grace of God communicated to all, and may therefore be communicated by all Christians as instruments of the divine grace. But the question here relates not barely to what is permitted in general, but also to what is expedient under existing circumstances. We may here use the words of St. Paul, All things are lawful for men, but all things are not expedient.' If we look at the order necessary to be maintained in the Church, the laity are therefore to exercise their priestly right of administering the sacraments only when the time and circumstances require it." From the time of Cyprian ( 258), the father of the hierarchical system, the distinction of clergy and laity became prominent, and very soon was universally admitted. Indeed, from the third century onward, the term clerus ( Κλῆρος , ordo) was almost exclusively applied to the ministry to distinguish it from the laity. As the Roman hierarchy was developed, the clergy came to be not merely a distinct order (which might consist with all the apostolical regulations and doctrines), but also to be recognized as the only priesthood, and the essential means of communication between man and God (Vinet. Past. Theol. Introd.).

3. Classification. Simultaneously with the introduction into the Church of a distinction between clergy and laity, a division of the clergy into classes of different rank was gradually developed. The earliest and most important of those distinctions was that between bishop and presbyter, (See Bishop).

To. these were added, in the course of time, deacon, subdeacon, archbishop, primate, patriarch, pope, and a number of officers preceding the subdiaconate. Each class was initiated into office by a special ordination, (See Orders).

In general, the various classes, according to the higher and lower dignity of the orders, were divided into the Higher and Lower clergy, the latter embracing the Ostiarii, Lectores, Exorcistae, and Acolythi, the former the subdeacons, deacons, priests, bishops. Up to the 13th century the subdeacons were counted among the lower clergy. The canon law very frequently applies the name clerici exclusively to the lower classes of the clergy, designating each higher class (subdeacons, deacons, priests, bishops),by its special name. Higher (or high) clergy is commonly understood to, mean bishops or prelates (q.v.), and lower (or low) clergy the others.

In those churches which have monastic institutions, the clergy are also divided into regular and secular clergy, regular being members of orders - and congregations who bind themselves to common rules and secular those who have charge of parishes. In the Church of Russia the common name of the regular clergy is the black clergy, out of which the higher ecclesiastical dignitaries are chosen, while the secular clergy (priests, deacons, readers, and sacristans) are called white clergy.

4. Exemptions And Privileges. "By laws made by Constantine, and confirmed by Valentinian IV, Gratian, and Theodosius the Great, the clergy were exempted,

(1.) From all civil and municipal offices, that they might give themselves to their religious duties.

(2.) From contributions to public works.

(3.) From a variety of taxes and imposts.

(4.) From military service, though this is not stated in so many words.

(5.) From appearance in civil courts. A bishop could not be forced to give public testimony; but it might be taken in private, though the bishop was not obliged to take formal oath, but only had the Gospels before him. Scourging and torture, which might be applied to other witnesses, could not be inflicted on the clergy. Nor could the civil courts take cognizance of purely ecclesiastical causes (Theodos. Cod., lib. 16, Titus 2, leg. 23; Justinian, Novel. 83), though they could interfere in criminal matters, and in cases between a clergyman and a layman; for the layman was not bound to obey an ecclesiastical tribunal. Bishops were often arbiters in disputes, but only when both parties agreed to lay the matter before them, and then the episcopal sentence could be put in force by the civil power. In cases of life and death, clerical intervention was strictly prohibited."

The privileges which the clergy enjoyed under the ancient municipal laws of England were numerous; but being much abused by the popish clergy, they were greatly curtailed at the Reformation. "Those which now remain are personal, such as clergymen not being compelled to serve on juries, 6r to appear at the sheriffs, or consequently at the court-leet, or view of frankpledge. Clergymen are exempt also from temporal offices, in regard to their continual attendance on their sacred functions. While attending divine service they are privileged from arrest in civil suit, stat. 50 Edward III, chap. 5, and I Richard II, ch. 15. It has been adjudged that this extends to the going to, continuing at, and returning from celebrating divine service. The ecclesiastical goods of a clergyman cannot be levied by the sheriff; but on his making his return to the writ fieri facias, that the party is a clergyman beneficed, having no lay-fee, then the subsequent process must be directed to the bishop of the diocese, who, by virtue thereof, sequesters the same. So in an action against a person in holy orders, wherein a capias lies to take his person, on the sheriffs making the same return, further process must issue to the bishop, to compel him to appear; it is otherwise, however, unless the clergyman is beneficed. In cases of felony, benefit of clergy is extended to them without being branded, and they are entitled to it more than once. Clergymen labor also under certain disabilities, such as not being capable of sitting as members in the House of Commons. This, however, though a received opinion, was not restricted by law till so late as the 41 George III, chap. 63, which was passed in consequence of John Horne Tooke, then in deacon's orders, being returned, and sitting in Parliament for Old Sarum. It was then enacted that no priest, nor deacon, nor minister of the Scotch Church, shall be capable of serving in Parliament; that their election shall be void, and themselves liable to a penalty of £ 500 a day in the event of their either sitting or voting. It would seem, therefore, as in the case of the bishop of Exeter against Shore, that no one can denude himself of holy orders. Various acts of Parliament have also, from the time of Henry VIII, been passed to prevent clergymen from engaging in trade, holding farms, keeping tan or brew houses, all of which are: stated, explained, and coinsolidated by the 57 George III, ch. 99" (Eadie, Eccles.Dict. s.v.). For a peculiar privilege, (See Benefit Of Clergy).

In the 4th century it became a law that clergymen were to bring suits only in ecclesiastical courts (i.e. before bishops or synods). Justinian ordained that even laymen should bring suit against clergymen, monks, and nuns only before the bishop of the diocese, and against a bishop only before his metropolitan. Thus the privileged jurisdiction of the clergy came to be a general law, which was sanctioned and more fully defined by many imperial and canonical decrees, and which no individual member had a right to renounce. The privileged jurisdiction referred, however, to personal suits only, not to real and feudal (see Wetzer u. Welte, Kirchen-Lexikon, 4, 460, s.v. Gerichtsbarkeit, Geistliche).

A peculiar privilege of the clergy of the Roman Church is the one called privilegium canonis. It consists in a canonical provision that every one who inflicts upon a clergyman (including monks and nuns) a bodily injury (embracing spitting, kicking, etc.), incurs by the fact itself excommunication. It was first enacted by the Council of Rheims in 1131 (in the canon which begins Siquis suadente diabolo clericum percusserit; if any one, at the instigation of the devil, shall strike a clergyman"), and was made a general Church law in 1139 by Innocent II It provided that absolution from the excommunication thus incurred should only be given in the hour of death, or if the culprit shall personally go to Rome. The law still exists, but if the injury be a small one, the bishop may dispense from the Roman journey (see Wetzer u. Welte, Kirchen-Lex. 8, 782, s.v. Privilegium Canonis).

5 . Special Discipline, Duties, Disabilities. "In the early Church the clergy were placed under strict discipline. The crimes leading to punishment were simony, heresy, apostasy, neglect of duty, immorality, and violation of clerical etiquette. Punishments were various:

(1.) Corporeal Castigation, which Augustine speaks of as not unfrequent, the delinquent being first deprived of his clerical rank, and then scourged as a layman. Decanica, or prisons, were attached to many churches.

(2.) Degradation that is, the offender was put down to a lower rank or grade of office, and that to all appearance permanently.

(3.) Suspension- either A Beneficio, from his income, or Ab Officio, from his office.

(4.) Deprivation - either forbidden from the Lord's Supper altogether, and treated as a stranger (Communio Peregrina ) , or allowed to communicate only with the laity (Communio Laica ) .

(5.) Excomiznunication the final cutting off of the offender from clerical office, and the denial of all hope of restoration to it, even though he should be restored to the fellowship of the Church. We subjoin a few of the more characteristic of the ancient canons concerning the clergy, as showing the spirit of the age, and revealing some of its tendencies and usages: Thus, in the Apostolical Canons, 5. Let not a bishop, presbyter, or deacon turn away his wife, under pretense of religion; if he do, let him be suspended from the communion ( Ἀφοριζέσθω ), and deposed ( Καθαιρείσθω ) if he persist.

6. Let not a bishop, presbyter, or deacon undertake any secular employ, upon pain of deposition.

7. He who, after his being baptized, has been involved in two marriages, or has kept a concubine, cannot be a bishop, or a presbyter, or a deacon, or at all belong to the sacerdotal catalogue.

8. He that marries a widow, or one that is divorced, or a harlot, or a servant, or an actress, cannot be a bishop, or a presbyter, or a deacon, or at all belong to the sacerdotal catalogue.

9. He that marries two sisters, or his niece, cannot be a clergyman.

10. Let the clergyman who gives security for any one be deposed.

11. If any bishop, presbyter, deacon. or any of the sacerdotal catalogue, do abstain from marriage, and flesh, and wine, not for mortification, but out of abhorrence, as having forgotten that all things are very good, and that God made man male and female, and blasphemously reproaching the workmanship of God, let him amend, or else be deposed, and cast out of the Church; and so also shall a layman.' In the Canons of Laodicea,

12. That they of the priesthood and clergy ought not to gaze on fines shows at weddings or other feasts; but before the masquerades enter, to rise up and retreat.

13. That they of the priesthood and clergy, or even laity, ought-not to club together for great eating and drinking bouts.' The duties of the various ranks of the clergy; were strictly defined, and firm laws laid down for their guidance. They were not allowed to leave their station without permission, but were to reside in their cure, deserters being condemned by a law of Justinian to forfeit their estates; but they could resign in certain circumstances, and a retiring or canonical pension was sometimes granted. They could not remove from one diocese to another without letters dimissory, nor could they possess pluralities, or hold office in two dioceses. It was forbidden them to engage in secular employments, or attend fairs and markets, nor could they become pleaders in courts of law. They were expected to lead a studious life, their principal book being the Scriptures, while heathen and heretical treatises were only allowed them as occasion served. Bishops could not be tutors and governors,' but the inferior clergy might, under certain limitations. After the example of Paul, some of the lower clergy might support themselves, or fill up their leisure by some secular occupation. Severe laws were passed against what are called wandering clergy vacantivi, who appear to have been often fugitives from discipline, without character or certificate. If a clergyman died without heirs, his estates fell to the Church, so the Council of Agde in 500 ruled. By a law of Theodosius and Valentinian III, the goods of any of the clergy dying intestate went in the same way" (Eadie, s.v.).

14 . Election Of The Clergy. "Some assume that in the early Church the people had no other power than to give their testimonials to the persons elected, or to make exceptions, if they had any just and reasonable objections to urge; others say that the people were absolute and proper electors, and this from apostolical right, and that they enjoyed this for a succession of ages. That the people had a voice in the elections is evident from several circumstances. No bishop could be intruded upon a Church against the consent of the members: in case the majority of a Church consisted of heretics or schismatics, the practice differed. In many instances recorded in ecclesiastical history the voices of the people prevailed against the bishops themselves. In addition, we have the words used by the people in the decision, such as Ἄξιος or Ἀνάξιος , Dignus or Indignus; and instances in which persons were brought by force to the bishop to be ordained, or were elected to the office by acclamation. It was decided by the fourth Council of Carthage that as the bishop might not elect clerks without the advice of his clergy, so likewise he should secure the consent, cooperation, and testimony of the people.

The popular elections, however, became scenes of great disorder and abuse. A remarkable passage from Chrysostom (De Sacerd.) has been frequently quoted, and applies more or less to such elections, not only in Constantinople, but also in Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and other large cities. He says: Go and witness the proceedings at our public festivals, in which, more especially, according to established rule, the elections of ecclesiastical officers take place. You will find there complaints raised against the minister as numerous and as various in their character as the multitude of those who are the subject of church-government. For all those in whom the right of election is vested split into factions. It is evident that there is no good understanding, either among themselves, or with the appointed president, or with the presbytery.

One supports one man, and one another. And the reason of this is, that they all neglect to look at that point which they ought to consider, namely, the intellectual and moral qualifications of the person to be elected. There are other points by which their choice is determined. One, for instance, says, "It is necessary to elect a person who is of a good family." Another would choose a wealthy person, because he would not require to be supported out of the revenues of the Church. A third votes for a person who has come over from some opposite party. A fourth uses his influence in favor of a relative or friend. While another lends his influence to one who has won upon him by fair speeches and plausible pretensions.' In order to set aside these abuses, some bishops claimed an exclusive right of appointing to spiritual offices. In this way they gave offense to the people. In the Latin and African churches an attempt was made to secure greater simplicity in elections by introducing visiters. This did not, however, long continue. Another plan was to vest the election in members of the lay aristocracy. But the determining who these should be was left to caprice or accident; and the result was that the right of election was taken out of the hands of the people, and vested partly in the hands of the ruling powers and partly with the clergy, who exercised their right either by the bishops, their suffragans and vicars, or by collegiate meetings, and this very often without paying any regard to the Church or diocese immediately concerned. Sometimes the extraordinary mode of a bishop's designating his successor was adopted; or some one unconnected with the diocese, to whom a doubtful caste had been referred for decision, was allowed to nominate. Butin these cases the consent of the people was presupposed. Patronage has prevailed since the fifth century; but the complete development of this, system was a work of the eighth and ninth centuries" (See Patronage). Coleman, Christian Antiquities, ch. 3; Farrar, Ecclesiastes Dictionary, s.v. Election; Bingham, Orig. Ecclesiastes bk. 4, chap. 2; Henry, Ch. Antiq. bk. 2, ch. 1; Wetzer u. Welte, Kirchen-Lex. 1, 630; Herzog, Real-Encykcop. s.v. Geistliche. (See Ecclesiastical Polity).