Reading Anthony Trollope’s novels collectively known as the Barchester Chronicles again—and also reading Joanna Trollope’s memorable novel, The Choir, also set in a cathedral—I am surrounded by clerics and church officials of different ranks. In Anthony’s The Warden there is an amusing exchange which justifies this post. The Dean of Barchester Cathedral has died, and the plot now turns on who will be named to replace him. And there, as the discussion swirls, someone asks: “What is it that the Dean does?” What indeed. Well, if the characters themselves don’t know—but do know, to the pence, what that “preferment” means in income—what is the poor reader to think?
(Parenthetically, nineteenth century English fiction has but one theme—although it is fed by two tributaries. One is what income a woman has (so that she is worth courting at all); the other is the “living” that a cleric can hope to earn (so that he can finally marry).)
I’ve spent a little time trying to inform myself about the ranks within the Church of England, and here is the list: archbishop, bishop, archdeacon, dean, canon, vicar, curate, verger, and sexton. This might be loosely matched to another list: province, diocese, archdeaconry, cathedral, parish, buildings and furnishings, and graveyards—and this because archbishops preside over provinces made up of multiple dioceses headed by bishops; each diocese is divided into archdeaconries; within each of these there might be cathedrals, headed by deans. Archdeaconries also hold parishes. The parish priest is the vicar; his assistant or assistants are curates. Vergers are lay people who manage the physical plant of churches and guide ceremonial events. Sextons, finally, are yet lower-level lay functionaries but have been associated principally with managing graveyards.
Now things need a little further sorting. The parish priest of a cathedral is the dean; and for this reason he is also a vicar; the vicar is always the senior cleric in a jurisdiction. Yes, fine. But what, then, do we do with the bishop? Well, in the Church of England the cathedral’s high priest is the dean, to underline it, and the bishop is viewed as a visitor or a resident. Just knowing this makes Trollope’s plots easier to understand. It’s sort of when the Secretary of the Navy happens to be on board of an aircraft carrier. He ranks the captain but the captain runs the ship. So now, finally, we know what a dean does.