The Church was a structured organisation, with a system of grades or ranks and a geographical structure. The rank system is best understood if we consider the geography first.
By the eleventh century, almost every estate had a church of stone or wood, built and endowed with land by the local thegn. The church was occupied by a priest, to see to the spiritual well-being of the people on the estate. At the church the people assembled to celebrate Mass, to give thanks to God for marriages and births, and to pray for the dead. The priest gave them advice in his sermon, and read them extracts from the Bible which they could think about and learn from. At least once a week there was a Saint's Day - the Saints were considered role models for the populace. The priest would hear confessions and give absolution for sins. When people were sick or dying the priest would offer help and comfort - and perhaps even medical assistance.
These small, simple churches were an important part of society, but they did not exist in isolation. The priests had to be trained, and the alms and tithes paid to the church had to be collected and redistributed.
The Church divided Britain into two provinces, the Province of Canterbury and the Province of York. Each province was divided in turn into dioceses, each based around one major town. There were sixteen dioceses in mainland Britain by 1035, each covering an area that roughly followed shire boundaries. Each diocese was then divided into parishes, with each parish containing just one church. It was at the level of the diocese that most of the Church administration was carried out.
In Scotland the practices of the Roman Church were laid over the organisation of the Celtic Church. The monasteries and abbeys were the basis of church life. Few bishoprics existed; Whithorn, established by Ninian in the fifth century, had always followed the Roman tradition. The Northumbrian domination of Galloway in the eighth and ninth centuries brought the see under the control of York, but the viking incursions into Northumbria in the later ninth century disrupted the close association and the see declined to be re-founded in 1128. A similar fate befell the Anglian see of Abercorn, and whilst the see of St. Andrews continued - indeed by 906 the Bishop of St. Andrews was regarded as Bishop Alban [ of all Scotland ] - it was the monastic structure which governed the Church, headed by Iona. Iona, and its subordinate abbeys, accepted the Roman Church early in the eighth century, but the Scottish Church did not conform entirely. Some of its clergy married, and abbacies could be held by secular men - Crinan, Abbot of Dunkeld married a daughter of Malcolm II, and was the father of King Duncan. After the repeated sacking of Iona by Norsemen, Dunkeld had become the religious capital of Scotland. When Margaret (sister of Edward Atheling of the Saxon royal line) married Malcolm III, she found 'irregularities' in the Scottish practice, but she was unable to introduce diocesan episcopacy, and one of her sons became Abbot of Dunkeld. The diocesan system was finally introduced by David I in the first half of the twelfth century.
With the basic geography of the Church set out it is possible to look at the ecclesiastical rank structure. There were two 'orders' of clergy: the Minor Orders and the Major Orders. The Minor Orders were the trainees of the Church and consisted of the doorkeepers, lectors, exorcists and acolytes. The Major Orders consisted of the deacons, priests and bishops.
To simplify matters we can ignore the Minor Orders since many of them were villagers with no interest in becoming full time clergy. For example, the doorkeeper did most of the jobs we would now associate with the modern verger.
The deacons were men in training for the priesthood. There were a number of jobs they could not do, such as hear confession or celebrate Mass, but they were able to assist at services and carry out many of the lesser functions around the church.
The priests were men who had completed their training, who had a definite vocation for the ministry, and who had been 'ordained'. Once ordained, a priest could hear confessions, etc., and was given a parish church to work in. A priest was known by the title 'Father'. In most cases that was the pinnacle of the man's clerical career.
Every diocese was run by a bishop, and his headquarters became the largest and most important church in the diocese. The bishop had a seat of office which, in latin, was called a 'cathedra', so his church became known as the cathedral church. The bishop had a body of priests to assist him in running the diocese, called canons. The most important of these was the archdeacon, who was the bishop's administrative assistant.
At the highest level, in charge of the provinces, were the two archbishops, of Canterbury and York. They also had canons to assist them, however the archdeacons were replaced by 'suffragan' bishops, from the latin 'suffragator', meaning 'supporter'.
There are more senior grades, such as cardinal, but these take us beyond Anglo-Saxon England.
Original article by Mike Farmer 1992