The Book of Common Prayer (1662) of the Church of England refers to the clergy as bishops and curates in the text of prayer of intercession for Holy Communion. It uses the word ‘curate’ in its original sense to refer to all clergy entrusted with a cure of souls. It is only in recent years that in the Anglican Church it has come to mean an assistant priest or deacon.
Historically, Anglican parish clergymen were divided into rectors, vicars, and perpetual curates. These were distinguished according to the way in which they were remunerated. The church was supported by tithes levied on the agricultural output of the parish. These were divided into greater tithes levied on wheat, hay and wood, and lesser tithes levied on the remainder. A rector received both greater and lesser tithes, a vicar the lesser tithes only. A perpetual curate received no tithe income and was supported by the diocese and was usually in charge of a newly created Parish carved out of a larger Rectoral or Vicarious Parish.
As all rectors, vicars and perpetual curates were personal representatives of the authority of the church in their parishes they were generally styled parsons. However, this title was used most often by perpetual curates more easily to distinguish them from assistant curates, who were not legally parsons. The British Parliament passed an act in 1868 that authorised all perpetual curates to use the title ‘vicar’, which reinforced the notion that a curate is an assistant parish priest or deacon. Although widely called ‘curates’, however, they are still legally assistant curates.
Most parishes in England and Wales retain the historical title for their parish priest — rector or vicar — with vicar being more common in the Urban areas, due to the fact of an expansion of new Parishes being created in the Victorian years, and the Incumbents being styled ‘Vicar’ after 1868. The distinctions between the titles is now only historical.
In the late twentieth century, a shortage of clergy and the disparity of workload between parish clergy led to the development of a number of new forms of parish ministry. One of these, which has proved relatively effective, is the Team ministry or benefice.
It might be that a number of parishes join together to form the Team, and each parish retains its legal definition and independence. Rather than having clergy licensed to the individual parishes, a team of clergy are licensed to the entire benefice. Alternatively, a large Parish with daughter Churches in addition to a Parish church, may be created as a Team Ministry.
In these examples, the more senior priest takes the title Team Rector and serves as parish priest in the main parish, and one or more stipendiary, experienced priests serve as Team Vicars (often installed into the other parishes, or Churches). Non-stipendiary clergy and assistant curates take other titles, often Team Curate. Team Rectors and Team Vicars are not perpetual Parish Priests, and as such do not possess the ‘Freehold’ but are licensed for a fixed term, known as ‘Leasehold’, usually seven years for a Team Rector, and five years for a Team Vicar.
© Brian Tompkins