Have you ever wondered who all the different leaders in the church are and what it is that they do. Well we put Alan Mason on the case. Here is his enlightening report. – Deskarati

This article is written in response to a simple and interesting question about what the words, “vicar” of “priest” mean exactly. As with most simple questions, the answers can be complicated, but here the issues are pared down and illustrated with square Venn diagrams where possible. The key words are given in bold type for easy reference.

PRIEST: There is no simple definition of the word, but I offer this as a possibility. A priest is a person, accepted by a particular faith community as having authority and competence to preside at religious ceremonies, such as leading the people in prayer and worship, birth and welcome, coming of age, marriage, death and funeral rites, and other important occasions. The priest will also preach, teach and explain the particular faith to the people, and counsel them over any difficulties they may have.


Four major faith communities are given here, but there are of course many more. The Venn diagram indicates four exclusive sets; people in one set cannot be in any of the others. The fifth set in the centre is of priests. A person can only be a priest if he belongs to one of the four sets.


There are two major faith communities having religious leaders, with a title that is never translated into English as “priest” but who carry out all the functions described above for a priest.

A. JUDAISM: The Jewish faith based on what, in English, is called “The Old Testament”.

RABBI: The word means “teacher” and a rabbi leads the people of a Jewish synagogue. As Figure 2 shows, in orthodox or conservative Judaism only men may be rabbis, unlike the liberal or reform version.

B. ISLAM: The Muslim faith, based on the Old Testament and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as set out in the Koran.

IMAM: His role is that of prayer leader at the mosque, but he also carries out all the functions described above for a priest. Women imams are very rare, so the vast majority are men.


The original question was concerned with the meaning of names and titles that are applicable mainly to Christianity, hence the need for more detail. Four major groups of Christians are discussed here; A) the Catholics, (B) the Orthodox, (C) the Anglicans (Church of England), and (D) Other Protestants.

Three levels of religious leaders are recognised, going back to the origins of Christianity in the First Century AD, as described in Greek, in the New Testament. These are bishops, priests and deacons, and all three are represented in the churches of the Catholics, the Orthodox, and the Anglicans, but not necessarily the rest. The detailed functions of these three are shown in Figure 3.

BISHOP: (Greek, επiςkoπoη, episkopoi) He has been given authority to ordain (create) other bishops and priests. In addition, he is in charge of a district (called a see or diocese) with priests under his orders.

PRIEST: (Greek, πρεςβυτεροη, presbyteroi) He has been ordained by a bishop and is in charge of a parish.

DEACON: (Greek, δεκανοη, decanoi) He is a layman and not a priest; he may be married, but has been given authority to carry out certain functions, shown in Figure 3.

A. CATHOLIC CHURCH The word, “catholic” means “universal” or applicable to everyone. It is often, but needlessly called the Roman Catholic Church by those outside it, because it accepts the headship of the Pope as the Bishop of Rome. It has what is called, “the Apostolic Succession” meaning that the priests of today are connected in an unbroken chain of ordinations to the First Century priests, the Apostles of Jesus, and to St Peter, the first Pope. The official language of the Church is Latin, and although it is still used occasionally, the Mass is said in local languages in all parts of the world.

All bishops, priests and deacons are men, and always have been. Bishops, and priests may not marry, but deacons can be recruited from married men.

ARCHBISHOP: a senior member of the clergy in charge of a group of Dioceses and Bishops. England has two, one in Liverpool and one at Westminster.

CARDINAL: A member of the ruling body of the Catholic Church. Each nation-state normally has at least one. He lives in his home country but frequently visits Rome. Cardinals are created by the Pope, and one of the roles of a Cardinal is to elect a new Pope.

POPE: The main role of the Pope is to issue guidance to Catholics on faith or morals, with the support of the College of Cardinals. The written documents on faith or morals are called Encyclicals, meaning they are for circulation among the faithful. The day-to-day work of running the Church is done by the Curia, a group of Cardinals and priests.

RELIGIOUS: This means a monk or a nun. They take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Monks may be priests but this is not always the case. Their title is either Brother or Sister.     

ABBOT: This is the senior monk in charge of a community of monks.

MOTHER SUPERIOR: This is the senior nun in charge of a community of nuns. The old name was Abbess.

B. ORTHODOX CHURCHES The word, “orthodox” means “right speaking” or teaching the truth. The two major divisions are the Greek Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. The Greek Orthodox Church split from the Catholic Church in the eleventh century. From earliest times this Church said Mass in Greek and it still does. Christianity was brought to Russia by Greek missionaries, but Mass in the Russian Orthodox Church is said in a Slavonic language rather than Greek.

These churches have “the Apostolic Succession”, as explained earlier, and the three orders of clergy, bishops, priests and deacons are all men. They do not accept the supreme authority of the Pope, and that is the main difference from the Catholic Church. Priests are free to marry and often do, but bishops must be unmarried, and are recruited from the ranks of monks, who are also priests. Many monks are not priests.


The beautiful old cathedrals, abbeys and medieval parish churches were part of, and owned by the Catholic Church, until the sixteenth century, when there were a series of major religious changes. The authority of the Pope on religious matters was rejected, and then the nature of the Mass, and worship was changed so radically that it was no longer what had gone before. The Apostolic Succession was broken, so that the new Anglican clergy were no longer part of the Catholic priesthood. Anglican clergy are not recognised as validly ordained priests by the Catholic Church.

Although modern Anglicans may dispute this account, things were so bad in the time of Elizabeth I that Catholic priests were executed along with any lay people who had fed or housed them. The Law of that time clearly did not recognise the Anglican clergy as part of the Catholic Church.

This varied history makes for a complex pattern within the Anglican Church, as indicated in Figure 6 below. This briefly indicates the titles used, clothing worn and the names of the religious services. The three groups are not official and there is much variation from one church to another within a single group.

The word “vestment” means the clothing worn by the person conducting the religious service. The High Church Anglicans, like Catholic priests, wear a “chasuble”, a round cloak with a hole in the centre, so it can be dropped over the head. It comes in a variety of colours – green, red, blue, black, white – depending on the religious season of the year and the occasion. It can often be richly decorated.

The more Low Church clergy wear plainer clothes, like a cassock, a long black garment from shoulder to calf, and perhaps a cotter, a loose white top, from shoulders to waist, with short, wide sleeves, which is worn over the cassock. Some would wear only a plain black or grey suit with a clerical collar.


Many of the terms used are historical and date back centuries.

PARISH: The parish is a small geographical region, for which an Anglican clergyman is responsible, together with the church building at its centre, and a group of parishioners.

LIVING: This is the property, together with the income, which provides for the upkeep of an Anglican clergyman and his family, enabling him to live, hence the name. If the living includes fields, called glebe lands, these can be leased to local farmers for an annual rent. When a man is “inducted into” (been given) a living he has security of tenure and can only be removed with great legal difficulty.

INCUMBENT: This is the person holding, or “inducted into”, a “living”.

PATRON: This is the person responsible for appointing a clergyman to a living. It might be a lay person, like the local squire, or duke, or an Oxford or Cambridge College, but more often it is the local bishop.

VICAR: The word comes from the Latin “vicarius” meaning, “in place of”. In medieval times it was common for Patrons to appoint their younger sons, or promising young men to a living, or even several livings simultaneously. Once the young men had the income, they were relatively wealthy and could afford to pay someone else to do the actual work, at a much lower salary. The person doing the work was a “vicarius” or vicar. The same word appears in “Vice-Principal”, as the person “in place of” the Principal.

Often, in medieval parish churches, a list of incumbents is proudly displayed. What the parishioners and the visitors do not know is who did the actual work of the parish priest. How many of the listed incumbents had ever even seen or visited their parish? It was merely a source of income for them.

A churchwarden once proudly pointed out to me, the obviously Italian name and place of origin of a medieval incumbent, as an illustration of the international connections of the parish. I explained that it was more likely that the Italian was working in the household of a local bishop and had been given the living as a source of income, appointed a vicar, and had never been near the parish.

Modern vicars, by contrast, usually do all the work of a parish. The title, “Vicar” is often used by people outside the Anglican Church as a polite form of address to any clergyman.

CURATE: This is usually, a young and inexperienced clergyman, working as an assistant to an experienced man.

PARSON: This word is a corruption of “person” and is applied to any junior clergyman.

PADRE: The word is Spanish for “Father” and is used for Spanish Catholic priests. During the Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal, (1808 – 1814) British troops were helping to drive out the French forces of Napoleon Bonaparte. The soldiers somehow picked up the word, “Padre” and applied it to their own Army chaplains, and eventually brought it back to Britain. It is often used as a polite form of address for any Anglican clergy, but has no official status. (John Betjeman wrote a poem called, “Our Padre”, about an ex-service chaplain now in a civilian parish.)

OTHER TITLES: There are more clergy titles listed below but the functions have been omitted. They are simply more senior ranks of clergy, with specific jobs, often attached to cathedrals.






WOMEN CLERGY: Until the twentieth century, all Anglican clergy were men. Women were permitted to become parish clergy in 1999 and by 2015 the first women bishops were appointed. This proved to be unpopular with the High Church section, (because it was “un-Catholic”) and with the Low Church section because there was no scriptural or New Testament basis for the change. It is possible that this move may cause deep splits, or even formal separations within the church in future years.


These are communities of people who often do not want formally organised churches, or any connections with past practices. Their clergy derive their power and authority from the people of their congregations, and are often formally elected by them. They lay great stress on good singing and good preaching, and are distrustful of most kinds of church decoration and ceremonial, so their church interiors are extremely plain.

Baptist churches

Methodist churches

Wesleyan churches

United Reformed churches

Free churches

Evangelical churches


Society of Friends (Quakers)


It needs to be said, in my experience, that, at a local level, relations between the clergy of all the different denominations, are extremely cordial, despite the major differences over theological issues. The local Anglican vicar will drop into the Catholic presbytery for a cup of tea and a chat. A Requiem Mass was said by our Catholic priest, in a distant village Anglican Church, for a man who lived in the village.

A group of Catholic lay people, along with their priest, were invited to see over a new Free Church that had been established in a converted factory. The Catholic priest was very impressed with the Free Church organisation and felt everyone had a lot to learn from it.


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