Decorated initial I

n 1896, the London publisher John Murray brought out the fifteenth edition of A Church Dictionary by the Rev. Walter Farquhar Hook, the late vicar of Leeds. The first edition had appeared fifty-four years earlier, making it one of the most frequently reprinted books of the nineteenth century. As Dr. Hook (as he was known to his contemporaries) explains in the preface to the sixth edition (1852), the project's origins were in fact quite modest. It began as a series of monthly tracts in which Hook sought to explain "those theological terms and ecclesiastical practices, which were misrepresented or misunderstood by persons who had received an education external to the Church" (vii). The high demand for the tracts ("the monthly issue extending to four thousand") convinced Hook that he had a book on his hands, and he was soon able to find interested publishers in several cities. He would revise and augment the dictionary edition by edition (repeatedly promising that the newest one would be the last), with the result that the book stretched to seven hundred or more pages in the later versions.

Hook recognized that the Church, and here he meant the Church of England, wasn't just inviting people into a worshipping community. It introduced its adherents to a language--several hundred years in the making--that assigned special names to the nooks and crannies of church architecture, the decorative pieces on the altar (or communion table), the layers of clerical dress, the roles within the church hierarchy, and the doctrines and parties that shaped its theology. Anglicanism was truly an education from A to Z, beginning, on Hook's telling at least, with "Abacus" (the top part of a capital) and ending with "Zuinglian" (i.e. a follower of sixteenth-century Swiss theologian Ulrich Zwingli). Hook started the book as an aid to those who hadn't been schooled in the Church of England's rituals and offices from childhood; yet the sales figures suggest that many who'd had an Anglican upbringing found it a useful resource as well. The fact that Hook kept at it for so long, moreover, made the dictionary a fascinating record of the changing conditions of religious belief and practice as well as church law in Victorian England, as Hook and his readers themselves realized. The author, for one, was anxious about the increasing influence of Roman Catholic rites on Anglican habits and so spent more and more time in later editions defining doctrines and practices with which he disagreed.

The success of A Church Dictionary should give encouragement to contemporary readers who are befuddled by those discussions of church offices and paraphernalia that pop up more than occasionally in Victorian literature. You aren't the first person to wonder what the difference was (and is) between a rector and a vicar or between a sacrament and a sacramental! You aren't the first reader who has had to consult a reference book (or Wikipedia) to find out where the chancel is to be found within a cathedral! (Note: All of these terms are discussed by Hook, and some at great length.) In our modern setting in which denominational affiliations are loosening and numerous readers come to Victorian literature without a church background, all of the problems that Hook sensed regarding the Church of England's "clerical tongue" (if you will) have been magnified. The vast majority of today's readers are now "persons who received an education external to the Church." That applies, furthermore, to the other denominations and religious communities in Victorian Britain that had (and have) their own vocabularies for sacred spaces, ritual objects, and consecrated leaders. Several more Church Dictionaries--for Methodism, say, or Presbyterianism, or Roman Catholicism, or Unitarianism, etc.--would surely be helpful.

That's what this glossary seeks to offer, albeit at a significantly smaller scale than what Hook attempted and with a narrower focus, our concern being the terms related to ecclesiology. That word means roughly the "logic" or "system" of the "ecclesia" or congregation; it describes how a religious body is structured at the local, regional, national, and in some cases international levels. Accordingly, this glossary catalogues some of the key words that church officials used to describe the structures of their denominations and of the various paid and unpaid positions within them. We'll be trying, in particular, to enumerate the jobs people did if they spent their careers or much of their spare time working in or on behalf of a Victorian-era church.

In calling this a "reader's guide," we indicate those whom we'd particularly like to help: nonspecialists, or as we prefer to call them "lay readers." The word "lay" is a word we borrow from ecclesiastical discourse; it refers to the regular people in the congregation, that is to say, those who aren't members of the clergy. While some lay readers may find the variety of Victorian religious callings fascinating material on its own, most (or so we've observed) value such information chiefly as the means to an end--say, to understand the various career paths of the churchmen featured in Anthony Trollope's Barchester Chronicles. Cathedral deans and chaplains and preachers have a way, too, of wandering into the biographies of eminent Victorians, making it useful to know a bit about what the titles of ministers in the major denominations denote.

Our ambition is to give lay readers the equipment to decode a passage like this one from the Dictionary of National Biography (fifty-seventh volume, 1899), one of the herculean Victorian history projects. The entry-in-question traces Edward Trollope's (no relation to the novelist) forty-year climb up the clerical ladder of the Church of England:

In 1843 he was appointed to the rectory of Leasingham, Lincolnshire, by his maternal relative, Sir John Thorold, and held this living for fifty years. On 14 Dec. 1860 he was collated to the prebendal stall of Decem Librarum in Lincoln Cathedral, and in 1866 was elected proctor in convocation. In 1867 he was appointed prebendary of Liddington in Lincoln Cathedral, which he held until 1874. The same year, 1867, he was collated to the archdeaconry of Stow. On 21 Dec. 1877 Trollope was consecrated bishop suffragan of Nottingham, in which capacity he assisted the bishop of Lincoln in the episcopal work of the diocese for sixteen years. On his nomination to the bishopric he was created D.D. by his university on 11 Dec. 1877 from Christ Church. [243; emphasis added]

To modern ears, this passage is full of strange nouns and verbs. What does it mean to be "collated to a prebendal stall"? What does a "proctor in convocation" get elected to do? And for how long? What's an "archdeaconry"? What makes a "bishop suffragan" different than any other bishop? What does it mean to be "created D. D."? (It's worth adding here that our Dr. Hook was also a D.D.) Notice, though, that the Dictionary of National Biography writers didn't believe that they needed to define any of the terms. Readers were expected to know how to read this ecclesiastical language, or at least to have a copy of A Church Dictionary at hand that would allow them to decipher it.

Explanations of each of these terms will be offered as the glossary develops. Briefly now, we can say that the entry follows Rev. Trollope as he accrues largely ceremonial as well as real leadership positions in his native county of Lincolnshire, all the while continuing to serve as the rector--a type of local pastor--in the village of Leasingham. The example is useful to us at the outset not only in showing the eccentric language of church officials. It also offers an important preliminary lesson about the additive nature of many church roles. Ecclesiastical offices, titles, and to some extent income streams, especially within the Church of England, often built up over time. Just because you were collated to a prebendal stall didn't mean that you necessarily left your home rectory behind.

The Church of England

The Church of England's priesthood is hierarchal, meaning that there's one priest at the top--the Archbishop of Canterbury--and then various substrata of priests below--including the bishops who oversee large areas and their subordinates, the thousands of priests at the local level such as Edward Trollope in Leasingham. It's thus tempting to begin our account at the top of the pecking order and work our way down to ground level. But in daily life, the average Victorian didn't frequently come upon an archbishop. The person you were most likely to meet on the street, call for if you were on your deathbed, or summon for a wedding ceremony would be a rector or vicar.

They, in turn, are the kinds of people who tend to show up in fiction, as in Oliver Goldsmith's tale The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), which was one of the most popular novels in the Victorian period, or Anthony Trollope's The Vicar of Bullhampton (1870) (about which we'll have more to say below). In fact, there's a veritable subgenre of rector novels in the nineteenth century, including The Rector of Overton (1828), The Rector of Auburn (1837), The Rector of Oxbury (1877), The Village Rectory (1844), The Rector's Daughters (1861), Our New Rector (1861), and The New Rector (1891). Our approach below thus begins with the clerical figures whom the Victorians encountered in everyday life (the domain of the realist novel). In subsequent entries, we will work our way up the hierarchy until we reach the Archbishop of Canterbury, "primate of all England," before then turning to other denominations.

The Local Church: Parish, Benefice, Parson, Rector, Vicar and Curate

The necessary starting point for understanding Anglicanism at the ground level is the PARISH. Hook defines it as "that circuit of ground which is committed to the charge of one parson or vicar or other minister having cure of souls therein" (561). Parishes are geographical units; you can--as the Victorians quite carefully did--map them out. Yet in terms of the priest's duties, they are really best thought of as domains of responsibility, and the nature of that responsibility is expressed in the curious expression "cure of souls." The phrase is a kind of half translation of a Latin phrase spoken by a bishop at the service in which a priest is installed in a parish: "Instituo te ad tale beneficium, habere curam animarum," meaning "I appoint you to such benefice, to have cure of souls." The Latin "cura" is better translated in this context as "care," and the way to "care for souls" on the Anglican understanding was to administer the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist (that is, communion), lead the liturgy, preach sermons, conduct marriages and funerals, and provide more personal forms of pastoral care (such as visiting the sick). This range of responsibilities made vicars and rectors leading figures in their parishes, and could lead to controversy when the person who had this charge (called an "incumbent") became slack in his duties.

Of course, freeing people up to do these things required that the community support their welfare. The title for such a living is a BENEFICE, which Hook helpfully defines as follows: "BENEFICE, in the ecclesiastical sense, means a church endowed with a revenue for the performance of Divine service, or the revenue itself assigned to an ecclesiastical person, by way of stipend for the service he is to do that church" (94). When the Victorians spoke of RECTORS, VICARS, and PARSONS, they were speaking of people who held benefices.

Ideally, priests would hold only one benefice. But the size of the livings varied considerably, ranging during Victoria's reign from less than a hundred pounds per annum to more than a thousand, and that variation led to priests accruing multiple benefices whether to live more comfortably or simply to scrape by. Because a priest can't be in two places at one time, however the holders of "pluralities" delegated (that is, subcontracted) certain responsibilities to other priests, known as ASSISTANT CURATES, who were rarely happy with their pay or title. The evils of pluralities were apparent to the Victorians, leading to two parliamentary acts in the period, the first in 1838 and the second in 1850, designed to limit both the number of a benefices a priest could hold and the distance between affected parishes.

As Victorian writers themselves observed, there was considerable slippage between all of the titles mentioned so far. In everyday use, for example, "parson" could be applied to a rector or a vicar. The reason is easy to grasp: generally speaking, the people called vicars, rectors, and parsons had the same day job--the "cure of souls." Meanwhile, in some parishes, the "cure of souls" was entrusted not to a vicar or rector but to a so-called PERPETUAL CURATE, who was appointed by a "lay impropriator" (see below). The status of perpetual curates changed in 1868, when an act of Parliament allowed them to refer to themselves with the more dignified title of vicar. Complicating matters further, all of these figures could be called "ministers."

The differences between these titles have to do with Latin roots, local customs, and the basis of their salaries. The linguistic point is illustrated by Hook's definition of parson:

PARSON (Persona ecclesiæ). One that has full possession of all the rectorial rights of a parochial church. He is called parson, persona, because by his person the Church, which is an invisible body, is in his parish represented. He sustains in the eye of the law the person of the Church, in any action touching the same. [564]

The title of "parson" thus expressed the local clergy's role as the Church's public face in the parishes where they served. Rector has a different the Latin root, regere, to rule (to which Hook adds, "as a priest is said to rule his people"([641]). Vicar, meanwhile, derives from the Latin vicarious, meaning "deputy" or "proxy." "Curate," of course, features the key word "cura," "care" or "charge."

Regarding salary, the titles didn't necessarily convey a higher or lower annual income, since pay varied considerably based on the size and location of the parish. But the terms did suggest different sources of the clergyman's income, and knowing something about these matters is useful, given that the Victorians themselves expended considerable effort debating how exactly the clergy ought to be paid.

The key issue was tithing. The word "tithe" comes from the Old English word for "tenth," that "tenth" being the traditional portion of one's income or produce that Christians, regardless of denomination, are supposed to give to their church, following Biblical teaching. Christian communities have always wrestled with how exactly to calculate that tenth, given the wide variety of things that members do, make, and raise. The Church of England inherited from the medieval church the idea that these gifts could be categorized and then doled out certain ways, such as by designating specific crops and timber as one kind of tithe and the products of animal husbandry (like milk and cheese) and manufacturing another. Traditionally, the title of rector signified that the priest received the so-called "great tithe" (crops such as hay and timber) and perhaps more, while the title of vicar indicated that the priest received the "small" or "lesser tithes" (other crops such as potatoes and animal products such as eggs) while another party--including, possibly, a lay person--received the "great tithe." (Notice that Hook's definition of parson aligns the title with "full possession of rectorial rights.")

In earlier centuries, the clergy received these tithes "in kind"--meaning in the form of goods like hay, grain, and cheese--directly from parishioners, storing them in "tithe barns" until market-time. Those arrangements gradually gave way to monetary payments to local clergy, a practice formally universalized by an act of Parliament in 1836. Yet the division between "great" and "small" tithes remained, and that policy required drawing up detailed maps of parishes and fee schedules for landowners (such as the "corn rent"). Parish boundaries thereby became an urgent and, unsurprisingly, debated matter in the Victorian period, especially early on. Tithes, moreover, were a matter of public record, allowing candidates to decide on livings based on anticipated income.

These matters were further complicated by the fact that in the middle ages the tithes of a number of parishes were absorbed (the official term is "appropriated") by local monasteries, who were then, theoretically at least, supposed to care for the souls in those parishes. When the monasteries were dissolved during the reign of King Henry VIII, the rights to those tithes were passed (or were sold) to bishops, colleges, and so-called "lay impropriators," that is, wealthy members of the laity (as in, not clergymen). The tithe-owners were still understood to have some responsibility to the parish from which they drew income, particularly in the upkeep of the church building. But in practice, the investment of these parties (some quite distant from the parish) varied considerably. Some did little or nothing. Some were important parts of church life; the aforementioned perpetual curates, for example, were appointed by and received a stipend from the impropriator. The Victorians were keenly aware of this strange history, and quite a few tracts were written opposing so-called "alienated" tithes that supported the fortunes of rich landowners rather than helping the clergy or the poor.

This all may seem like mere trivia. Yet the complicated dynamics of tithing and clerical incomes are discussed more regularly in Victorian literature than you might at first assume. Consider, for example, Anthony Trollope's account of the moneys associated with the church property at Bullhampton in the aforementioned novel:

The church and churchyard of Bullhampton are indeed perfect, and yet but few people go to see it. [...] Properly it is called Bullhampton Monachorum, the living having belonged to the friars of Chiltern. The great tithes now go to the Earl of Todmorden, who has no other interest in the place whatever, and who never saw it. The benefice belongs to St. John's, Oxford, and as the vicarage is not worth more than £400 a year, it happens that a clergyman generally accepts it before he has lived for twenty or thirty years in the common room of his college. Mr. Fenwick took it on his marriage, when he was about twenty-seven, and Bullhampton has been lucky. [3]

Trollope's father, Thomas Anthony Trollope, labored for years to compose a book called An Encyclopaedia Ecclesiastica (1834), which, as the name suggests, was a (less-successful) forerunner to Hook's dictionary. We see the the novelist drawing on that background here, as he portrays the typically complex finances of Anglican parishes. Bullhampton's tithe had been "appropriated" to the friars at Chiltern back in the middle ages, which subsequently passed to a "lay impropriator." The current holder of the "great tithes" is the Earl of Todmoren, whom Trollope frames as an absentee landlord. Trollope knew, too, that over the centuries the Oxford Colleges (and Cambridge Colleges too) had acquired several benefices (whether as gifts or purchases). In such cases, the college enjoyed special rights (called an "advowson") to propose candidates to the local bishop, thus making a post like the vicar at Bullhampton a natural career step for college fellows, especially those who wished to marry--given that college fellowships officially required men to remain celibate (a requirement repealed in 1882).

Bullhampton is described as being "lucky" for landing Frank Fenwick because, as the novel goes on to show, the vicar was deeply invested in caring for his flock. Yet Fenwick is not an altogether otherworldly character. He gets into a spat with the local grandee, the Marquis of Trowbridge, which leads the aristocrat to sponsor the building of Methodist chapel, including an infuriatingly loud bell tower, as close as possible to Fenwick's vicarage. A lawyer contracted by the vicar discovers that the chapel actually falls within the "glebe" land, a plot of ground attached to the vicar's benefice and thus under his control, raising the brief temptation to Fenwick to order the chapel's immediate destruction. The marquis ultimately orders the chapel's removal to a different property and two men reconcile, both understanding the largest landowner in the parish and its vicar ought to be on civil terms. What the novel so brilliantly shows is the complex relationship between a local clergyman and "that circuit of ground" that was his parish. Being a local priest entailed the "cure of souls," Trollope would show us; but it also meant carefully minding the parish map!


"Edward Trollope." Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder, and Company, 1899.

Hook, Walter Farquhar. A Church Dictionary. Sixth Edition. London: John Murray, 1852.

Hook, Walter Farquhar. A Church Dictionary. Fifteenth Edition. London: John Murray, 1896.

Trollope, Anthony. The Vicar of Bullhampton. London: Bradbury, Evans and Company, 1871.

Last modified 10 April 2021