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Episcopal Church Keywords

When you visit our website or watch our videos, you might stumble across terms that are common in the Episcopal Church but are unfamiliar to you. Below, we have listed some of the Episcopal Church jargon that appears frequently in our public-facing work, along with brief definitions of each term. Please use the included links to learn more! 

Anglican: Anglicanism is a form of Christianity that emerged in 16th Century England. The tradition features elements of both Protestant Christianity and Roman Catholicism. In 1534, the English Church, which until that point was subject to the pope, decided to become independent from the Catholic Church. Under the leadership of King Henry VIII, the English monarch became the leader of the English Church. Today, the monarch remains the symbolic head of the Church of England, and the Archbishop of Canterbury is its spiritual and administrative leader. In the Anglican Communion, there are 42 provinces. Many are national churches. Some have multi-national boundaries. There are also “extra-provincial” churches. One of these provinces is the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. The provinces use similar liturgical forms and observe similar theological perspectives. There is no singular “Anglican Church.” To learn more about Anglicanism, click here.

Bishop: Bishops are one of the three orders of ordained ministers in the Episcopal Church. These three orders are Deacons, Priests, and Bishops. The bishop’s role is to oversee the region under their charge. To learn more about the role of Bishops in the Episcopal Church, click here.

Diocesan Bishop: A diocesan bishop is the chief pastor of their diocese. A diocese is a geographical region that contains multiple parishes. Diocesan bishops are elected by the clergy and lay representatives in the diocese.

Suffragan Bishop: A suffragan bishop is an ordained Episcopal minister who assists their diocesan bishop. Suffragan bishops are elected by the clergy and lay representatives in the diocese.

Presiding Bishop: The presiding bishop is elected by other ordained Episcopal bishops as the chief pastor of the Episcopal Church. They initiate and develop Church policy, preach to the Church, and visit every diocese. While only bishops can formally elect the presiding bishop, the other orders of ministry serve on the nominating committee, which presents candidates for election as the Presiding Bishop. The Presiding Bishop serves a 9-year term, and the mandatory retirement age is 72.

Book of Common Prayer: Anglicans around the globe use locally adapted versions of the Book of Common Prayer to structure their worship and spiritual lives. First authorized for use in the Church of England in 1549, it has undergone multiple major and minor revisions since. In 17th-century England, most of the changes to the Book of Common Prayer resulted from Puritan frustrations with it and the desire of the Church of England’s leadership to include Puritan dissidents in the fold. These attempts were not successful. In 1789, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States implemented its own prayer book. The most recent United States version of the prayer book was published in 1979. To learn more about the Book of Common Prayer, click here.

Chancel: The chancel is an area at the front of the church that surrounds the main altar. The chancel is set aside for the use of those who are officiating over the service.

Communicant: A communicant is a person who takes communion (a sacrament of the Episcopal Church, see Eucharist) within a particular congregation and therefore is in communion with that church.

Deacon: In the Episcopal Church, deacons provide what the Book of Common Prayer calls a “special ministry of servanthood.” Deacons are one of the three orders of ordained ministers in the Episcopal Church. These orders are bishops, priests, and deacons. Deacons focus on social care and service. Many expand the Church’s reach by serving needy people in the community surrounding the local church. To learn more about Deacons, click here.

Episcopal: The Episcopal Church is a religious organization that is with and governed by bishops. Other sects of Christianity adhere to alternative leadership structures.

Eucharist: The word Eucharist comes from a Greek word that means “Thanksgiving.” It is the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper or communion. Communion is when participants remember the Biblical example of the last supper by sharing bread and wine (or grape juice) during the service.

Gallery: In early America, many churches constructed galleries in their sanctuaries. The gallery is a balcony where some congregants sit during worship. In Old North’s early history, the gallery provided racially segregated seating for the use of people of color.

Narthex: A narthex is a lobby or long entry space at the entrance of the church.

Parish: A parish is an area or district that has its own priest. It is under the leadership of a bishop. A parish is a subdivision of a diocese.

Pew: A pew is a flat bench in a church where the worshippers sit.

Box Pew: A box pew is a flat bench enclosed on the sides by wood panels. In colonial New England, most churches and meeting houses had box pews. Families would often purchase a pew in the church for their use during the services. During the cold winters, families could shut the door of their pew, which helped to block the drafts. They often brought foot warmers and blankets with them to church to help them stay warm during the lengthy services. At 18th and 19th-century Old North, worshippers paid a tax to reserve a pew for their exclusive use during the services. To watch a short video about Old North’s box pews, click here.

Slip Pew: By the early 20th century, most New England congregations used slip pews instead of box pews. Slip pews are long, thin benches without walls.

Priest: An Episcopal priest or presbyter is one of three orders of ordained people in the Episcopal Church. These orders are bishops, priests, and deacons. A priest is the pastor of a local congregation, a proclaimer of the gospel, and an administrator of the sacraments. To learn more about priests, click here.

Rector: A rector is a priest in charge of a parish.

Sanctuary: A sanctuary is both a physical and symbolic space. Physically, it is a space within a church building, including the chancel, where people gather for worship. Symbolically, it is a place of refuge from the social and political problems of the world outside of the church.

Sexton: A sexton is responsible for physically maintaining a church’s property.

Steeple: A steeple is a spire on top of the tower or roof of a church or another edifice. In churches, the steeple often serves to contain the church’s bells.

Strangers: Strangers is a historical term for visitors to a church. At Old North, they were seated in a designated Strangers Pew near the Wardens, the church leadership, who could both welcome and get to know them. The term “Stranger” was also used in the church’s burial records to describe people whose names were not known to the church leadership at the time of their burial.

Vestry: The word vestry has two definitions. First, it is a room near the chancel where vestments and records are kept. In many churches, the priest and choir use the vestry as a place to prepare themselves for worship. Second, a vestry is an elected council of parishioners who help govern the church’s business affairs.

Vicar: A vicar is a priest in charge of a mission congregation. Old North is a mission congregation. The diocesan bishop serves as the church’s official rector, while the vicar serves on the bishop’s behalf (i.e., vicariously).

Warden: Two senior lay leaders are elected annually to serve the church. Typically, the congregation elects one person to serve as Senior Warden and one to serve as Junior Warden. The election and duties of both leaders depend on the individual church’s by-laws.

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