Sunday, August 9, 2009

Episcopal talk

That you’re not in church this Sunday morning does not mean that you escape ecclesiastical subjects. Religion, like science or law, is treacherous to write about because it is so easy to get the lingo wrong. This morning — sit up straight; I’m talking to you — you’re going to learn how to write about Episcopalians.*

First off: Episcopal (adj.); Episcopalian (n.). It’s an Episcopal church, an Episcopal priest, and an Episcopal brouhaha, not an Episcopalian church, priest, or brouhaha.


A priest or deacon is written about with the title the Rev.: the Rev. Martha Macgill. Not just Rev., because Reverend is traditionally understood as an adjective, not a noun. That is why you will never write about a member of the clergy as a reverend. **

But wait; there’s more.

A canon, a member of the clergy assigned to diocesan administrative responsibilities is the Rev. Canon: the Rev. Canon Mary D. Glasspool.

An archdeacon is the Venerable: the Venerable Kerry Smith.

The dean of a cathedral is the Very Rev.: the Very Rev. Hal T. Ley Hayek.

A bishop — look at me while I’m talking to you — is the Right Rev. or the Rt. Rev.: the Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton. (Episcopal bishops are much given to tripartite names.) Bishop is an acceptable substitute for the Rt. Rev.

The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, its primate, is the Most Rev.: the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori.


Collectively, Episcopal congregations are members of a diocese, of which the bishop is the chief pastor and administrative officer. The adjectival form is diocesan.

The central church in a diocese is a cathedral, from the Latin cathedra, or chair, the place which holds the bishop’s chair of authority.

An Episcopal congregation, unless it is part of a cathedral, is called a parish.

In a parish that is self-supporting, its pastor is called a rector. In a parish that is supported by its diocese, the pastor is called a vicar.

The lay leadership of an Episcopal parish is its elected vestry, of whom the chief lay administrators are the wardens, senior and junior. (A cathedral has a chapter rather than a vestry.)


The Episcopal Church of the United States (ECUSA, if you go in for abbreviations) is a member of the Anglican Communion, a loose confederation of national churches whose titular head the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. and Rt. Hon. Rowan Williams. (The Archbishop of Canterbury holds both ecclesiastical and noble titles.)

The Anglican Church dates from a dispute between King Henry VIII of Britain and the See (diocese) of Rome in the 16th century. Though there is a history of antagonism between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, most modern Anglicans are not hostile to the pope and his followers for their having broken away from the Church of England.

*We’re talking about the Episcopal Church of the United States, the dominant denomination, not the schismatic denominations that have split off every time the national church has revised the Prayer Book or the congregations and dioceses that have recently affiliated with Anglicans outside the United States. There’s a limit to how much of this that non-Anglicans, or, for that matter, Anglicans, can take.

The titles and terms in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches are similar, but with significant variations which you must learn separately.

**Regrettably, this distinction has blurred seriously even among the churchy.


  1. I believe old King Henry could use one more "I" in his title. It was the wife-lovin' (in terms of quantity, if not fidelity) Henry who got the party started, if memory and Wikipedia serve.

  2. I will testily inquire whether, and why, it's necessary for a secular newspaper in a secular age to carefully maintain all these fussy distinctions. In an article directly about the Church or its institutions, or about its employees in their role as employees, fair enough. But we do not normally refer to Al Franken in a story that happens to mention him as "Al Franken, I.O.O.F", though he is (apparently) every bit as entitled to that postnominal as Rowan Williams is to his prenominals.

  3. Quite right, Mr. Cowan, that these distinctions are to be observed primarily in articles about the clergy in their official capacities. Just as in writing about a soldier or sailor in an article about the military, one would want to get the rank right. Or, if using a courtesy title about a woman, to determine whether she prefers Miss, Mrs., or Ms. There are occasions on which titles are used, and on those occasions the writer ought to use them precisely.

  4. Patricia the TerseAugust 9, 2009 at 5:43 PM

    I wouldn't refer to Al (Al: how professional it sounds) Franken at all, except with words that would make a Vicar, Rector, Very Rev or Rt Rev blush. The current Archbishop of Canterbury would doubtless give an encomium on the reasons Islamic law should be part of the British judicial system. This is why I, a lapsed Episcopalian, depend on the Old Testament as back-up. There is just too much "incoming" in these tryin' times.

  5. In all these years of (1) being either an Episcopalian or a lapsed one, and (2) being a Janeite, I've never been *quite* sure of the difference between a rector and a vicar. Now I am. To cite two Austenian examples, Mr. Collins is the rector of Hunsford (since he is of course supported by his noble patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh), and Mr. Elton is the vicar of Highbury (which must be a diocesan living, since neither Mr. Knightley nor Mr. Woodhouse is ever mentioned as his patron). Got it? Got it.

  6. In British practice, mainly historical, a priest would have had the "living" (income) of a parish and, rather than subject himself to the tedium of acutally officiating at liturgies, would engage a vicar to carry out the actual duties of presiding at public worship,

  7. This time, I think I have the terminology right: I believe the term for the type of substitute you describe is "curate," not "vicar." Let me dip back into Austen again, this time to fish out a minor character in "Persuasion": When young Charles Hayter becomes the curate for "dear Dr. Shirley" at Uppercross, this generates enough of an income for him that he and Henrietta Musgrove can think about marrying--even though, as the astute Mrs. Croft notes, they will "have to struggle with a few difficulties together."

    And I can't leave the topic without also fishing out a joke I remember from a church bulletin of my childhood. A visitor approaching the home of the clergyman in a strange town became confused as to whether it would be called the "rectory" or the "vicarage," and ended up asking the lady of the house, "Is this the wreckage?" The quick-witted wife immediately replied, "Yes, and I'm the wreck."

  8. Patrick K. LackeyAugust 9, 2009 at 7:52 PM

    Better to just write about Unitarians.

  9. Thanks, John, for the primer, from a relatively new Episcopalian who left out the "canon" in describing her own rector in a church history write-up and was too embarrassed to ask the associate rector, who slotted the copy and fixed the error, what the word meant.

  10. Changing churches, John, would you give me your thoughts on this, from the Times (it won't let me copy and paste the offending paragraph):

    On Dec 25 last, the Times ran a story about the Von Trapp family and referred to Maria as a singing nun. I sent a note to the corrections people and noted that while the writer wanted to play off the "singing nun" phrase, the writer was incorrect because Maria never became a nun. She was on track to do so but left the monastery before doing so.

    Am I splitting hairs or has the Times taken license?

  11. The Singing Nun was Jeannine Deckers, Soeur Sourire, whose "Dominique" was an improbable hit song in the 1960s. Conflating her with Maria von Trapp in an epithet seems questionable.

    I'm not sure that you're splitting hairs over the reference to Maria von Trapp as a nun, since she didn't profess vows.

  12. Patricia the TerseAugust 10, 2009 at 5:12 PM

    It's time to reread "O Ye jigs and Juleps."

  13. Soeur Sourire would be The Singing Nun, Mother Theresa would The Non-Singing Nun, Maria von Trapp The Singing Near-Nun, and Julie Andrews would be I'm Not The Singing Near-Nun But I Played One In The Movie.

  14. Very helpful post.

    Britain is such a slippery term. I would say Henry VIII was of England, the King of England. The crowns weren't united until 1603 when James VI of Scotland also became James I of England. The Union between England and Scotland was passed in 1707.

  15. On the singing nun reference, I must add that the Times, quick to run corrections for a misspelled name, did not bother to correct this relatively egregious error, which it published on page 1.

  16. Originally, a rector was someone who had both the cure of souls in the parish and the benefit of tithe; when these were separated, the rector kept the tithe and the vicar did the work. Vicar means 'substitute', as in the adjective vicarious. Nowadays in the Church of England the distinction is basically historical; a parson (which was originally just a spelling variant of person) is a rector or a vicar if his predecessors were.

    A curate is a second-level substitute; he works with, and when necessary substitutes for, the vicar. Curiously, across the Channel the vicar is the curé, and the curate is the vicaire.

  17. Patricia the TerseAugust 13, 2009 at 2:05 AM

    I'm cured. Judaism seems so simple by contrast.

  18. Rob, I can't get John to stop calling England "Britain." Lord knows, I've tried to explain it to him (country vs. empire, the whole schmear.) He does look snappy in a fedora, though.

  19. I believe it is "cathedra," not "cathreda," as you have written here, as the primary church of a diocese. -- DAVE G.

  20. Patricia the TerseAugust 27, 2009 at 4:55 PM

    "Britain never never never shall be slaves." "Rule, Britannia" And the female depictions are titled "Britannia." Enough, please. "He is an Englishman" is the exception- G&S had to make it fit the meter and the music, and they were several centuries later.

  21. And the plural of diocese is what? And pronounced how?

  22. Singular: diocese

    Pronunciation: DIE-uh-sis

    Plural: dioceses

    Pronunciation: DIE-uh-seez

    Adjective: diocesan

    Pronunciation: die-AHS-uh-sen

  23. Patricia: "Britons [not Britain] never, never shall be slaves."