Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) of a Vicar

The following article has been taken from Caroline Symcox's website "The Vicar's FAQ". Caroline is the priest and curate at St Mary's Church, Amersham, as well as the published author of several science fiction audio dramas and short stories, in addition to a number of critical essays.  She enjoys exploring the dialogue between religion and science-fiction.

Click here for her website

What is the difference between a deacon, a priest and a bishop?

Each of these levels of ordination means you are authorised and empowered by the Church to do certain things.

A deacon can lead worship and prayer, preach, take blessed bread and wine to the sick and housebound, and is especially encouraged to reach out in practical ways to the disempowered and helpless.

A priest does all those things, but can also declare God’s blessing and forgiveness and preside at services of Holy Communion – where people receive bread and wine as Christ’s body and blood.

A bishop in turn is able to do all those things but can also ordain others to be deacons and priests and confirm people at confirmation services.

 What is the difference between a vicar and a rector?

These days there isn’t a real difference, although often the title of rector will come with a little more authority, especially in the context of a team parish, where several ordained ministers work as a team to serve a parish with a large number of different churches.

Historically, the name vicar was given to a clergyman who was employed to take services in a church, while the rector was the person who had final authority for that church. That is to say, the rector, who was often the abbot of a local monastery, would hire a vicar to take services for him.

What does 'ordained' mean?

Vicar, ordained, curate, too many names. What's going on with all that?

Okay, the starting point in all this is 'ordained'.  To be 'ordained' means to be selected and set apart for a particular purpose. It's related to the term 'ordered' - everything set in a particular place. When someone is ordained they are selected by the Church and they go through a particular ceremony, where a bishop will lay his hands on the ordination candidate and pray that the Holy Spirit will empower them in the same way that it has empowered him.

There are three layers in the Church to which people can be ordained. In order, they are deacon, priest and bishop. Everyone starts at the beginning and builds up the layers as the Church decides they are ready to move and to the next level. So a bishop is already a priest and a deacon, for example.

What does a chaplain do?

Why chaplains in non-church places? What are they for?

Lots of people don’t go to church. Lots of people don’t go to church not because they don’t believe in God or couldn’t use the spiritual support, but because church services aren’t at times or in places where they can usefully attend. That’s what chaplains are for.

Chaplains go into places and situations to reach people where they are, and give them the support they need. So they’ll be in prisons, in hospitals, on mental health wards, at universities, and in the armed forces, to name just a few. Just like vicars, they lead worship services, they pray, they spend time with people who need them to give counselling or support or spiritual guidance. The only difference is that they do it in circumstances other than your average parish church

What does 'lay person' mean?

The term refers to those who are not ordained. It’s usually used for congregation members, but can also be used more widely to include non-Christians.

What does 'lay reader' mean?

Lay readers, officially called ‘Licensed Lay Ministers’, are non-ordained people who are nevertheless called to serve in the Church. To become a lay reader requires passing a selection conference (much like a selection conference for those seeking to be ordained, which is explained below), and undergoing a period of training.

Once they’ve passed the training they are licensed by the diocesan bishop, which makes it possible for them to lead certain worship services, preach, conduct pastoral care, and distribute the bread and wine at services of Holy Communion.

You can tell who is a lay reader during a church service by what they wear. When clergy wear a cassock and surplice they wear a black preaching scarf to complete the ensemble. Lay readers on the other hand wear blue preaching scarves. 

What is the significance of the things vicars wear? Do they mean anything?

Some more than others. Let's start with the dog collar itself.

Dog collar: Better called a clerical collar if you want to avoid strangers staring at you while you talk about clerical wear. These days, Church of England clergy of all levels (deacon, priest, bishop) wear clerical collars to show that they're ordained. But the look actually comes from the nineteenth century when clergymen (and of course they were men back then) would wear white silk stocks (like a cravat – think Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice) that would protrude over the top of their long black coats. In the modern Church this look is re-created with a specially made collar and a piece of white plastic.

Cassock: The name 'cassock' derives from the French casaque meaning a long coat, and that's just what a cassock was originally. It was simply smart outer wear for clergy. These days of course it goes under the surplice as part of choir dress. There are two versions in the Church of England. One is double breasted, fastening at the shoulders, and is known as 'Sarum style'. The other is single breasted, buttoning from the top to the bottom. This is often worn by those from higher church traditions, and will usually fasten with 39 buttons, symbolising the 39 Articles of Religion ratified by the infant Church of England in 1571. That's as symbolic as it gets though.

Surplice: The surplice, along with cassock and preaching scarf, forms choir dress, the clerical wear prescribed by the Church of England since the mid-sixteenth century for deacons and priests leading worship. It was originally an ankle-length garment, but shortened over the centuries until it hit the knee-length version generally worn today. As with the alb, the significance of the surplice is its colour. It's white, denoting purity, and is a concealing garment, supposed to hide the person and personal style of the individual cleric.

There's also a super-short hip-length version of the surplice called a cotta. This is sometimes decorated with lace, and is usually worn by clerics from an Anglo-Catholic church.

Preaching scarf (tippet): Again, this evolved over time from the original fashion. So instead of the long baggy black sleeves that would have been around before the fourteenth century, they have become the long black scarf that modern clergy wear. Alternatively it could be argued that the scarf is derived from the stripes signifying rank on a Roman toga or as a symbol of learning in the early church age. However, there's no modern theological significance. The scarf simply distinguishes the wearer as someone ordained in the Church.

Alb: The term comes from the Latin albus meaning white. Historically this ankle-length garment would have been the tunic worn by Romans. Its significance, like the surplice, is its colour and concealing nature. In more middle-of-the-road church traditions the alb is often combined with the cassock as a 'cassock-alb'. This is white, but made of heavier material than an alb. In more Anglo-Catholic traditions, the alb is often worn with an 'amice', a white neck scarf tied under the alb to protect the collar from the back of the neck. The amice is said to symbolise the 'helmet of salvation' in Paul's letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 6:10–17).

Cincture: This is the rope belt that clergy often wear to bring the alb in at the waist. It's symbolic of the 'belt of truth' in a reading from Ephesians.

Stole: The stole was originally a large shawl, worn over the shoulders, which is why its name comes from the Greek stolē meaning a garment. Over the centuries, it reduced in size into the long, narrow strip of cloth it is now. Symbolically it is often linked with the 'yoke of Christ', a reference to Jesus asking people to take on his yoke in Matthew 11:29. It's also linked to the towel Jesus tied around himself when he washed the disciples' feet, and the bonds he was tied with in his last days.

Chasuble: This started life as outer wear as well. The term is from the Latin casula – 'little house'. Originally it was very like a poncho, simply an oval of material with a hole in the middle. It's got more stylised over the years, but the basic form has remained the same. Symbolically the chasuble is a reminder of the 'seamless garment' Jesus wore on the way to the cross.

Dalmatic: This was originally a formal over-tunic in Roman times. It doesn't have any particular symbolic meaning.