Following on from some interesting questions and conversations I have encountered recently I thought it might be helpful to explain a little about the hierarchy of the Church of England and why clerics have different titles and what they actually mean.
Though we have split from the Roman Catholic Church we follow the same ordained pattern of ministry (as do most Christian Churches around the world) known as the threefold pattern: Deacons, Priests and Bishops. All Bishops have been Priests; all Priests have been Deacons and all three can be traced back to earliest times. The Bishop was the “overseer” (episkopos), the Priest was the “elder” (presbyter) and the Deacon was the “servant” (diakonos). Originally all authority belonged to the Episkopos alone but, as the church grew, responsibilities were delegated down the line. Today only Bishops can ordain (make priests) and Confirm; only Priests can pronounce blessings, forgive sins and conduct Communion services. Deacons can take most other services, preach, baptise and lead worship and prayer. Bishops can do all that Priests do and Priests can do all that Deacons do.
The singular most common ordained role is that of the Priest and they come in all varieties. The most senior Priests are the Archdeacons who have particular responsibility for the conduct of all Priests. Nowadays Archdeacons also attend to church building regulations as well as the general conduct of the Church. Archdeacons can have parishes to run as well but it is a very rare thing to find. Canons are those who hold seats in a Cathedral Chapter and do not necessarily (and confusingly!) have to be ordained. To be a Canon is to have some sort of seniority. Rural Deans are those Priests who have special local responsibility for groups of parishes – especially when a parish is without a Priest.
Incumbents – those who we know as parish priests – can have many names: Vicar, Rector, Priest, Padre, Father, and others, too.
These are mostly down to local usage or historical titles which have long since passed. Nowadays, after recent legislation, there are three types of parish clergy: Freehold, Common Tenure and Priest-in-Charge. The freehold Priest is an ancient position and is now only occupied by those who were appointed before the church laws changed in January 2011. Common Tenure is the new “normal” model but its procedural changes are yet to be tested. Priests-in-Charge can be asked to (made to!) move by their Bishops. Freehold Priests, a dying breed, cannot be moved by anyone unless they want to.
I have only addressed the ordained part of our church; other very valid and important ministries also have important parts to play in today’s church. We shall look at some of these another time. Suffice it, for now, to say that Readers, for example, (like Andrea Swarbrick and John Puxty) also have a long illustrious history that stretches back as far as Bishops and even further back than Priests. That’s all Readers who stretch back a long way, not Andrea and John!.