Wednesday, May 02, 2007


As I typed the phrase 'random thoughts of a hairy vicar' into a site to advertise this blog, i had a sudden thought that some (many?) people don't know what a Vicar is... Or at least might be interested in why ministers in the Church of England are called, usually, Vicars. Anyone who watches reruns of old Brit comedy will often see a rather comical character who pops up, usually completely ineffectual and often pompous, who is 'the Vicar'. But where does this funny name come from? Here is my understanding of it, ecclesiastical historians - and indeed anyone else - are welcome to correct me if I am wrong.

First of all the confusion over 'Priests' and 'Deacons'. In the C of E we are ordained firstly Deacon (though I think the technical name for this is 'made Deacon') which, for most ministers, is a one year ministerial appointment - though there are more ministers deciding to remain in a 'permanent Diaconate'. Deacons have a pastoral role in the Church, they assist with the service of Holy Communion, they visit the sick, the housebound and those in need of care. Deacons can perform weddings and baptisms but cannot offer blessings, nor can they consecrate the bread and wine of the Eucharist (Holy Communion). They cannot offer absolution on behalf of the Church, so they don't hear confession, but they can perform most liturgical and pastoral functions, including preaching, leading worship and all that. After that first year a Deacon is ordained into the Priesthood and s/he will have hands laid on him/her (again) by the Bishop and will then act with the Bishop's authority to offer the blessing of the Church, absolve (or rather state God's absolution) of the penitent, consecrate bread and wine and fulfill the Sacramental Ministry of the Church.

By being Ordained (which simply means taking on Holy Orders) Priest a minister still has the calling to be a Deacon. Likewise if someone is Ordained (or Consecrated) Bishop one still retains one's Priestly ministry. So being Priest, Deacon or Bishop is a kind of qualification, like having a BA or MA or PhD. Every ordained minister in the C of E is one of these.

The other titles, like Rector, Curate or Vicar, or Priest in Charge, or Chaplain, or whatever are more 'job descriptions' - the confusion comes when Bishop acts as both a qualification and a job title. But that's not really that confusing.

These job titles all have different histories. The all embracing name for clergy used to be 'Curates' - those responsible for the 'care of souls' of a particular parish, the word comes from the same root as 'Curator'. In the prayer book of 1662 which is still in regular use in many of our parishes we pray for all 'Bishops and Curates' which reflects the general setup of the Church at the time.

As time went on and the ministries of the Church developed and diversified more titles were added to reflect the change in circumstances. A Rector tended to live in a Parish and would be supported financially by taking ten percent of the income on land held by the Church and let out to farmers and the like. They might also be supported by a 'patron' of the Church, such as a College, a particular charity or a Bishop. This was called 'holding a living' of a parish.

Sometimes the living of the parish was held by an academic who living in a college, or by someone who worked at a Cathedral. These absentee Rectors might have very little (if any) contact with the Church(es) they were responsible for so would appoint someone to do the everyday work and the Sunday by Sunday services for them, this person acted 'Vicariously' or 'on behalf of' and so the Vicar was created! Often a Rector or Vicar would have an assistant who was being trained 'on the job', in some places they might have a number of ordained assistants, these were called 'Assistant Curates' which these days are known simply as 'Curates'.

These days Rector and Vicar are pretty much interchangable as few Rectors gain any income from Church land. The only place it has a noticable effect are in Team Ministries - parishes grouped together with a share Team of ministers, such as ours - where the Team Rector is normally 'senior partner' of the Team and holds the position of 'Incumbent' for all of the Parishes.

There you are, ecclesiology 101, now aren't you glad you stopped by...? Probably not :-)


Nick said...



(for other reasons)

quilly said...

I don't suppose you'd want to tell that again, only using manipulatives this time?

Who's on first?

Tom said...

Interesting. I wondered about that. I didn't wonder enough to go look for an answer (or even to ask for that matter), but it was nice to get one anyway.

So, yeah, I'm glad I stopped by.

Robin said...

i just stopped by your blog for the first time. i wanted to let you know how much i've enjoyed reading it. you sound pretty cool for a vicar, rector, minister, pastor or whatever you are. over here, we say priest, pastor or minister (depending on the church). i have a lot of faith, just not sure i'm using it wisely. or maybe i should be letting it lead me? i'll keep reading you and maybe i'll find some answers! i also liked your myspace page. "hairy biker" is too funny!