Thursday, March 29, 2012

Sorting the Ranks

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.

Canon is a generic for any priest, but if he is the canon of a cathedral, that title is an honorific bestowed after long service in a vicarage and entitles its bearer to preach once yearly in a cathedral. In some jurisdictions, such honorees are also known as prebendaries; that word derives from a prebend, meaning an income (related to stipend)—once more emphasizing the important of those “livings.” In Trollope’s England many parishes were actually run by curates, thus junior priests, aka the minor canons; one wonders if that’s still going on. A good living accrues to the vicar, a paltry income to the curate; the curate’s income is rarely sufficient to marry on (or was so in Trollope’s time), especially if children began arriving. The rank of archdeacon, still alive and well in the Church of England, has faded from view in Catholicism; there, however, the same functionality is carried out by auxiliary bishops. To give the lower ranks their due, I show here a photo of Vergers at Work. I have it from The Church of England Guild of Vergers (link). They are shown here at their ceremonial work, thus leading a procession, in robes of their own. Notice that one of them is a lady. Progress, you might say; progress is marching on.

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