The Clergy and Their Vestments

By: Fr. Seraphim SlobodskoyRead time: 10 mins6830 Hits

The Clergy and Their Vestments.

Following the example of the Old Testament Church, in which there were a high priest, priests, and Levites, the holy Apostles also instituted in the New Testament Christian Church the priesthood: bishops, priests, and deacons.

They are all called members of the clergy because by means of the Mystery of the priesthood they receive the Grace of the Holy Spirit for sacred service in the Church of Christ: enabling them to celebrate the divine services; teach the laity the Christian faith and holy life; and direct ecclesiastical affairs.


The bishops comprise the highest rank in the Church, and therefore receive the highest degree of Grace. Bishops are also called hierarchs, or leaders of the priests. They may celebrate all the Mysteries and all ecclesiastical services. Bishops have the right not only to serve the usual Liturgy, but they alone may consecrate others into the priesthood, as well as consecrate Holy Chrism and the Antimins.

In their degree of priesthood they are equal, though the senior and most deserving of the bishops are termed archbishops, while the bishops whose sees are centered in major cities are termed metropolitans, after the Greek word for a large city, “metropolis.” The bishops of the ancient major cities of the Roman Empire, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, and of the capitals of some Orthodox countries such as Belgrade and Moscow, are called patriarchs.

From 1721 to 1917 the Russian Orthodox Church was governed by the Most Holy Synod. In 1917 an All-Russian Council was summoned and restored the rule of the Church to the “Most Holy Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.”

A bishop sometimes is given another bishop, called a vicar bishop, to assist him in his duties.


Priests comprise the second rank of the sacred ministry under the bishop. Priests may serve, with an episcopal blessing, all the Mysteries and ecclesiastical services, with the exception of the Mystery of Ordination and the sanctification of Holy Chrism or an Antimins. The congregation of Christians subject to. the supervision of the priest is termed his parish. The more worthy and distinguished priests are granted the title of archpriest; the first among these priests is called a protopresbyter.

If a priest is also a tonsured monk he is known as a hieromonk. Hieromonks appointed to direct monasteries, or those honored independently of any appointment, are usually given the title of igumen or abbot. Those of a higher rank are called archimandrites, and bishops are chosen from this rank.


Deacons form the third and lowest rank of the sacred ministry; in Greek “deacon” means a “server.” Deacons assist a bishop or priest during the serving of the Divine Liturgy or other Mysteries and services, but they may not serve alone. The participation of a deacon in the divine services is not obligatory, and therefore many churches conduct services without them.

Some deacons, particularly in cathedral churches, are deemed worthy of the title of protodeacon. Monks who have received the rank of deacon are called hierodeacons, and the senior of them is called an archdeacon.

Lower orders

In addition to the three orders of sacred ministry, other lower orders (minor orders) of service in the Church include the subdeacons and the readers. They belong to the ranks of church servers who are not ordained to their duties through the Mystery of Ordination, but only by a short series of prayers with an episcopal blessing.


The subdeacons are also ordained and help in the altar. They primarily take part in episcopal services. They vest the serving bishop in his sacred vestments, hold the trikiri and dikiri, and hand them to the bishop to bless those present. They also may assist in changing the altar covers.


Readers have the duty to read and chant both on the cliros during divine services, and at homes when services are conducted by a priest.


An acolyte or an altar boy (taper-bearer) is a term used for someone who, though unordained, performs liturgical duties such as lighting altar candles, preparing charcoal for incense, and assisting the major orders with the liturgy. [The prayers of episcopal blessing for a reader first blesses him as a taper-bearer, but a acolyte servers with the blessing of the priest.]

[ An extinct office within the lower orders is the sacristan (doorkeeper) who was obliged to call the faithful to the divine services with bell-ringing, to light the lamps and candles in the church, to ready and to hand the censer to the serving priest, to assist the readers in the readings and chantings, opening and closing of church doors, guarding the church building proper, and ensuring that no unbaptized persons entered during the Liturgy of the Faithful.   ]


Those who conduct services must be dressed in special, sacred robes or vestments. These are made of brocade or some similarly suitable material and adorned with crosses or other symbolic signs.


The vestments of the diaconate are the sticharion, the orarion and the cuffs.

The sticharion is a long garment, open down the length of the sides for a deacon, but entirely unslitted for servers, in the form of a cross with an opening for one’s head and with wide sleeves. The deacon’s sticharion may also be worn by subdeacons. The right to wear a sticharion may also be granted to readers and servers. The sticharion signifies purity of soul, necessary for a person of ecclesiastical rank.

The orarion is a long, wide band of the same material as the sticharion with fringe on the ends. It is worn over the left shoulder on top of the sticharion. For simple deacons it is worn as shown, for pro-todeacons it is wound once around the body. The orarion signifies the Grace of God which the deacon received in the Mystery of Ordination.

The cuffs or manacles are of the same material as the sticharion, and are worn around the wrists and laced with cords. They remind those conducting the services that they celebrate the Mysteries or partake of the Mysteries of the Christian faith not by their own powers, but by the power and Grace of God. They also remind us of the bonds that tied the hands of the Saviour during His passion.


The vestments of a priest include the under-vestment or sticharion, the epitrachelion (stole), the belt, the cuffs, and the phelonion.

The under-vestment is just a simpler form of sticharion, differing from the sticharion in that the sleeves are narrow with laces at the wrist, and it is usually made of a fine, white material. The white color reminds the priest that he must always be of pure soul and lead a blameless life. It also recalls the tunic which the Lord Jesus Christ wore on earth and in which He accomplished our salvation.

The stole or epitrachelion is similar to the deacon’s orarion, only it is worn around the neck and comes down in front so that the two inner edges are fastened together for convenience. It signifies the double portion of grace bestowed on a priest, in comparison to that of a deacon, for the celebration of the Mysteries. The priest may not conduct any service without his epitrachelion, just as a deacon must have his orarion.

The belt is worn over the epitrachelion and under-vestment and signifies readiness to serve the Lord. It also symbolizes the divine power that strengthens the priest during the course of his serving. The belt also recalls the towel which the Saviour was given for the washing of the disciples’ feet at the Mystical Supper.

The phelonion is worn over the other garments. It is a long and wide cape without sleeves with an opening for the head at the top and cut away in front to give the hands freedom of movement. In its form it resembles the purple mantle which the Lord was given during His passion. The ribbons sewn on it recall the streams of blood which flowed over His garments. In addition to this the phelonion reminds the priests of the garment of righteousness with which they must be vested as servants of Christ. A priest wears a pectoral cross around his neck, over the phelonion.

For long and dedicated service a priest is given an award called a nabedrennik or thigh shield, which is a stiffened, rectangular cloth hung on the right hip from the shoulder by a strap fastened at two upper corners, and which signifies a spiritual sword. Other awards are the skoufia and kamilavka (head coverings), and another diamond-shaped cloth, similar to the nabedrennik, worn on the right hip, called a palitsa (in which case the former is worn on the left). It also represents the spiritual sword, the Word of God with which the celebrant must battle disbelief and irreverence.


The bishop is vested with all the vestments of a priest, the sticharion, epitrachelion, belt and cuffs, but the phelonion is replaced with the saccos and the nabedrennik with the palitsa. In addition, a bishop wears the omophorion and the miter.

The saccos is the outer vestment of a bishop which resembles a shorter deacon’s sticharion so that the sticharion and epitrachelion are visible underneath. It, like the phelonion, recalls the purple mantle of the Saviour.

The palitsa is hung by a strap from the upper corner over the right hip on top of the sakkos. For exceptional service the right to wear the palitsa is granted by the ruling bishop to worthy archpriests. For archimandrites, as well as for a bishop, the palitsa is an indispensable appurtenance to their vestments.

Around the shoulders, over the saccos, a bishop wears the omophorion. This is a long, wide fabric usually adorned with crosses. It is wrapped around the shoulders of the bishop so that one end falls in front and the other behind. Omophorion is a Greek word meaning “that which goes over the shoulders” and is exclusively an episcopal vestment. As with the priest and his epitrachelion, the bishop may not conduct any service without his omophorion. It reminds the bishop that he must be concerned for the salvation of the fallen like the good shepherd who, when he has found the lost sheep, carries it home on his shoulder.

At all times, as part of his normal attire and for services, the bishop wears a panagia around his neck in addition to a cross. The panagia, which means “all-holy” in Greek, is a small, round icon of the Saviour or the Theotokos, sometimes adorned with precious stones.

When serving, the bishop wears a miter on his head, adorned with small icons and precious stones. According to some, it signifies the crown of thorns which was placed on the head of the Saviour, and to others it represents the Gospel of Christ to which the bishop always remains subject. Archimandrites wear the miter as well, and in exceptional cases a ruling bishop can grant the right to wear one to the more worthy archpriests in place of the kamilavka.

During the divine services the bishops use a staff as a sign of ultimate pastoral authority. A staff is also granted to archimandrites and abbots as heads of monasteries.

During the service an “orlets,” a circular rug with the image of an eagle flying over a city, is put under the bishop’s feet. This symbolizes that the bishop should soar from the earthly to the heavenly like an eagle, and as an eagle can see clearly over distances, so must a bishop oversee all parts of his diocese.

Street clothing

The street clothing of a bishop, priest or deacon includes a black cassock and a riassa. Over the riassa the bishop wears a panagia and a cross, while a priest only wears a cross.