Church of England Diocese of Leeds Settle

What is a Priest?

I am asked this question over and over again when the term Priest in Charge comes up. Also ‘What is the difference between Priest in Charge and Vicar? And what is a Rector? This came up when people wondered why Alistair Helm was called Curate in Giggleswick in the language of the church when his move was announced. Some people will know all this and many will ask ‘What does it matter anyway?’ That is a very good question, but here is the information for reference as we embark on discussions about the Anglican organisation of our parishes and those around.

‘Priest’ and Deacon’ go alongside ‘Bishop’ and ‘Archbishop’ as titles of orders in the Church, to which an individual is ordained after suitable discernment and training. Although it is possible to be a permanent Deacon, usually Deacons are ‘priested’ after serving a two or three year term in a parish as a Curate. The term Curate only means ‘one who has the cure of souls’ i.e. any ordained person licensed to serve in a parish, but has confusingly come to refer to someone who is learning the ropes as a Deacon. Equally confusing is the fact that all priests are also still deacons and can serve as curates after they have been made priest! Any priest assisting in a parish is Curate there, even if (s)he is a Bishop.

The terms Vicar and Rector both refer to permanent appointments in the church and are attached to parish responsibilities. Rectors historically had the right of the Glebe income, and in some cases then appointed a Vicar to carry out the role and paid them a stipend from part of the income for doing the work. This has led to a mistaken concept of Rector being a more senior term than Vicar – most Vicars have the same status and responsibility as the Rectors around them, who have that title because of the historic origin of their parishes – not all are old enough to have been established to provide the income for the priest who serves in them from land donated to the parish.

The term Priest in Charge refers to an appointment when a priest is to serve in a parish where there is pastoral reorganisation intended. It means two things in practical terms. One is that the Bishop and his assistants rather than parish patrons, is/are responsible for the appointment. The other is that the person holding the post does not have the formal security of tenure – their role can be altered by the Bishop, in theory, though never in practice, without their agreement. The formal term for a parish in this situation is ‘suspension’, all three of our parishes have been in this situation for many years – my predecessors where Priests in Charge, though it is much easier to use the better-understood Vicar, especially as the responsibilities are the same. Suspension is for a fixed term of no more than 5 years but can be renewed if need be. The suspension has just been agreed again for Giggleswick and Rathmell with Wigglesworth (for 2 years), and will be again for Settle pending outcome of the discussions for the local area. It will be good for the parishes to see the end of the suspension, however, as it will indicate a period of a little more stability which most of us would greatly welcome, I imagine!

Having said all the above, the structures of the Church of England do not really answer ‘What is a Priest’, and certainly not ‘What is a Parish Priest for?’ These are important questions I hope you will explore with me over the next weeks, as we work out how we can fulfil our calling together, both as Anglicans and with other Christians in our area, as we seek to be the Church of God, the Body of Christ, the salt and light of Jesus’ parables, both in our communities and beyond.