Episcopal Language

The following are some of the more common terms used in the Episcopal Church. They are grouped in the following categories for your conveninece.

General Terms

Anglican: An adjective describing the worldwide communion of autonomous churches in communion with the Church of England. The Episcopal Church is part of that communion. Anglican can also be a noun, a member of the Anglican Communion.

Apostolic Succession: Episcopalians, along with other Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Orthodox and some other Christian bodies, trace their bishops’ spiritual heritage in an unbroken line back to the first apostles of Jesus. The importance of the historic episcopate is a major point in ecumenical discussions.

Book of Common Prayer: The primary guide for worship in the Episcopal Church. The first Anglican Book of Common Prayer was written in English in 1549 by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, drawing on material from a number of Latin books and manuals then used to conduct services.

Canons: The written rules governing church policy, structure and procedure. There are national canons and each diocese has its own.

Cathedral: A diocese’s cathedral is the church where the bishop makes his headquarters. The city in which the cathedral is located is the “see city.” Some dioceses have no cathedral.

Catholic: This word comes from a Greek word meaning “universal” and may, therefore, be used to apply to all Christians. When it is used this way, it usually begins with a little c. Sometimes it is used with a capital C when the writer means the Roman Catholic Church.

Diocese: A diocese is made up of several local congregations with a bishop as its chief pastor. Since only a bishop can consecrate other bishops, ordain priests and deacons and confirm, the diocese is the basic local unit of the church. Depending on the number of Episcopalians, a state may have one or several dioceses. The legislative body of the diocese is an annual convention of clergy and lay deputies from each congregation.

Episcopal: An adjective derived from the Greek word, episkopos, meaning overseer or bishop. Episcopalian is the noun. Episcopalians attend the Episcopal Church.

General Convention: The General Convention is the highest legislative body of the Episcopal Church. It meets every three years and is made up of a House of Bishops and a House of Deputies. Half the deputies are clergy and half lay persons.

Lambeth Quadrilateral: In 1888 the world’s Anglican bishops, meeting at Lambeth in England adopted four articles as essentials in any plan of union with other Christian bodies: The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, the sacraments of baptism and holy communion, and the historic episcopate (see Apostolic Succession).

Vestry: Lay members of the vestry are elected at a parish’s annual meeting. The rector presides at meetings of the vestry, which handles the parish’s business matters and serves as a council of advice for the rector.

Ecclesiastical Titles

Bishop: A bishop is a chief minister (servant) or chief pastor (shepherd) in the Episcopal Church, serving a number of local churches that make up a diocese. A large diocese may have more than one bishop. In that case the chief bishop is called the diocesan. Assisting bishops are usually called suffragan bishops. An assisting bishop who will succeed the diocesan is a bishop coadjutor. All are addressed as “bishop.”

Priest: This word comes from a Greek word, presbyter, meaning elder. Usually a priest is the chief minister in a local congregation. Forms of address-father, mother, etc.-depend upon the priest’s preference and local custom.

Deacon: A deacon, like a bishop or priest, is an ordained minister. Deacon comes from the Greek word, diakonos, meaning servant. Deacons usually serve in local congregations and have a special ministry to the poor, the sick and the troubled. Deacons are addressed as deacon, Mr., Miss, Mrs., etc. according to preference or local custom.

Minister: This is a Latin word, meaning servant. In the Episcopal Church lay persons as well as bishops, priests and deacons are ministers, servants of God, caring for their brothers and sisters in the church and those outside it.

Preacher: Preaching is only one function of the ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church and so preacher is not an appropriate synonym for bishop, priest or deacon.

Rector/Vicar: The priest in charge of a parish, a self-supporting church, is the rector. The rector is elected by the vestry. Assisting priests the rector appoints may be called curate, assistant or associate. The priest in charge of a mission, supported financially from outside, is the vicar. The vicar is appointed by the bishop.

Reverend: The Reverend is an appropriate title to precede the full name of a priest or deacon. The Right Reverend is used for a bishop. Reverend is an adjective, not a noun, and is incorrectly used with a last name only, or without the article, the, as in “Reverend Jones.”


Narthex: The entrance hall, called by some denominations the vestibule.

Nave: The pew area of the church building, where the congregation sits, stands or kneels during public worship. The nave is more than an auditorium, where people listen, because worship in the Episcopal Church involves everyone as participants.

Chancel: In classic church design, an area of pews, seats, stalls or prayer desks set apart from the nave, used by the ministers leading services and sometimes used by the choir.

Sanctuary: The area immediately surrounding the altar, often enclosed by an altar rail. In some denominations the word refers to the entire worship space.

Sacraments and Services

Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist: The two major sacraments in the Episcopal Church. In baptism God makes us his children, members of the church, the Body of Christ. The Episcopal Church recognizes baptism in other Christian bodies, done with water in the name of the Trinity. In the Holy Eucharist Episcopalians recall the saving acts of God and enter communion with Christ and Christians of all times and places. In this sacrament we are fed spiritually with the Body and Blood of Christ.

Other Sacraments: Confirmation, in which members make a mature commitment to Christ and receive strength from the Holy Spirit. Ordination, in which bishops, priests and deacons are made, receiving authority and grace of the Holy Spirit. Holy Matrimony, in which woman and man enter a life-long union, receiving the grace and blessing of God to help them fulfill their vows. Reconciliation of a Penitent, in which those who repent of their sins may confess them in the presence of a priest and receive assurance of pardon and the grace of absolution. Unction of the Sick, the anointing with oil or laying on of hands by which God’s grace is given for the healing of spirit, mind and body.

Other Services: The Book of Common Prayer provides a variety of services for individual and corporate worship. The most widely used, other than the Holy Eucharist, the central act of corporate worship, are Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, both of which may be used for private devotions or public worship.

Our thanks to Gene Britton who prepared the original version of this booklet and to Robert Horine and David Sumner who helped with the revision. “Episcopal Language” is published by Forward Movement Publications. © Forward Movement Publications. This and many other publications may be ordered from Forward Movement Publications.