CLERGY (M.E. clergie, O. Fr. clergie, from Low Lat. form clericia [Skeat], by assimilation with O. Fr. clergié, Fr. clergé, from Low Lat. clericatus), a collective term signifying in English strictly the body of "clerks," i.e. men in holy orders (see Clerk). The word has, however, undergone sundry modifications of meaning. Its M.E. senses of "clerkship" and "learning" have long since fallen obsolete. On the other hand, in modern times there has been an increasing tendency to depart from its strict application to technical "clerks," and to widen it out so as to embrace all varieties of ordained Christian ministers. While, however, it is now not unusual to speak of "the Nonconformist clergy," the word "clergyman" is still, at least in the United Kingdom, used of the clergy of the Established Church in contradistinction to "minister." As applied to the Roman Catholic Church the word embraces the whole hierarchy, whether its clerici be in holy orders or merely in minor orders. The term has also been sometimes loosely used to include the members of the regular orders; but this use is improper, since monks and friars, as such, have at no time been clerici. The use of the word "clergy" as a plural, though the New English Dictionary quotes the high authority of Cardinal Newman for it, is less rare than wrong; in the case cited "Some hundred Clergy" should have been "Some hundred of the Clergy."
In distinction to the "clergy" we find the "laity" , the great body of "faithful people" which, in nearly every various conception of the Christian Church, stands in relation to the clergy as a flock of sheep to its pastor. This distinction was of early growth, and developed, with the increasing power of the hierarchy, during the middle ages into a very lively opposition (see Order, Holy; Church History; Papacy; Investitures). The extreme claim of the great medieval popes, that the priest, as "ruler over spiritual things," was as much superior to temporal rulers as the soul is to the body (see Innocent III.), led logically to the vast privileges and immunities enjoyed by the clergy during the middle ages. In those countries where the Reformation triumphed, this triumph represented the victory of the civil over the clerical powers in the long contest. The victory was, however, by no means complete. The Presbyterian model was, for instance, as sacerdotal in its essence as the Catholic; Milton complained with justice that "new presbyter is but old priest writ large," and declared that "the Title of Clergy St Peter gave to all God's people," its later restriction being a papal and prelatical usurpation (i.e. i Peter v. 3, for and ).
Clerical immunities, of course, differed largely at different times and in different countries, the extent of them having been gradually curtailed from a period a little earlier than the close of the middle ages. They consisted mainly in exemption from public burdens, both as regarded person and pocket, and in immunity from lay jurisdiction. This last enormous privilege, which became one of the main and most efficient instruments of the subjection of Europe to clerical tyranny, extended to matters both civil and criminal; though, as Bingham shows, it did not (always and everywhere) prevail in cases of heinous crime (Origines Eccles. bk. v.).
This diversity of jurisdiction, and subjection of the clergy only to the sentences of judges bribed by their esprit de corps to judge leniently, led to the adoption of a scale of punishments for the offences of clerks avowedly much lighter than that which was inflicted for the same crimes on laymen; and this in turn led to the survival in England, long after the Reformation, of the curious legal fiction of benefit of clergy (see below), used to mitigate the extreme harshness of the criminal law.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)