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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In the pre-Reformation church, a parson was the priest of an independent parish church, that is, a parish church not under the control of a larger ecclesiastical or monastic organization. The term is similar to rector and is in contrast to a vicar, a cleric whose revenue is usually, at least partially, appropriated by a larger organization.

Today the term is normally used for some parish clergy of non-Roman Catholic churches, in particular in the Anglican tradition in which a parson is the incumbent of a parochial benefice: a parish priest or a rector; in this sense a parson can be contrasted with a vicar. The title parson is also applied to clergy from other denominations. A parson is often housed in a church-owned home known as a rectory or parsonage.[1]



William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England says that a parson is a parish priest with the fullest legal rights to the parish properties:

A parson, persona ecclesiae, is one that has full possession of all the rights of a parochial church. He is called parson, persona, because by his person the church, which is an invisible body, is represented; and he is in himself a body corporate, in order to protect and defend the rights of the church (which he personates) by a perpetual succession. He is sometimes called the rector, or governor, of the church: but the appellation of parson, (however it may be depreciated by familia, clownish, and indiscriminate use) is the most legal, most beneficial, and most honorable title that a parish priest can enjoy; because such a one, (Sir Edward Coke observes) and he only, is said vicem seu personam ecclesiae gerere ("to carry out the business of the church in person")
— Bl. Comm. I.11.V, p. *372

Legally, parish priests are separately given spiritual and temporal jurisdiction (they are inducted and installed). The spiritual responsibility is termed the cure of souls, and one holding such a cure is a curate, which was also given to parish assistants, or assistant curates. The title parson, however, refers to the temporal jurisdiction over the churches and glebe. Depending on how the tithes were apportioned, a parson may be a rector or a vicar. A parish priest who received no tithes was legally a perpetual curate (to distinguish him from assistant curates). However, historically, many perpetual curates, as they were technically parsons (having temporal jurisdiction), preferred to use this latter title. This led to the term parson having three senses. It could refer to all parish priests (rectors, vicars and perpetual curates) without distinction; it could, through actual use, refer simply to perpetual curates, or it could, through popular use, refer to any member of the clergy, even assistant curates. An Act of Parliament in 1868, changed the way that parochial clergy were paid, and permitted perpetual curates to be called vicars. This led to the rapid abandonment of the title parson in favour of vicar, to the extent that now, as previously for parson, the term vicar is often used for any cleric of the Church of England.


In Ulster, in the early 17th century, every parish had a vicar and a parson instead of a co-arb and an erenagh. The vicar, like the co-arb, was always in orders. He said the mass (‘serveth the cure’) and received a share of the tithes. The parson, like the erenagh, had a major portion of the tithes, maintained the church and provided hospitality. As he was not usually in clerical orders, his responsibilities were mainly temporal.

However, there were differences in the divisions of the tithes between various dioceses in Tyrone. In the Diocese of Clogher, the vicar and the parson shared the tithes equally between them; in the Diocese of Derry, church income came from both tithes and the rental of church lands (‘temporalities’). The vicar and the parson each received one third of the tithes and paid an annual tribute to the bishop. In places where there was no parson, the erenagh continued to receive two thirds of the income in kind from the church lands, and delivered the balance, after defraying maintenance, to the Bishop in cash as a yearly rental. In other places, the parson, the vicar and the erenagh shared the costs of church repairs equally between them. In the Diocese of Armagh the parson received two-thirds of the tithes and the vicar one third. The archbishop and the erenagh impropriated no part thereof because they received the entire income from the termon lands.

The division of responsibilities between vicar and parson seems to derive from a much earlier precedent established in the old Celtic Church of St Columcille.


  1. ^ Anthony Jennings, The Old Rectory: The History of the English Parsonage, Continuum, 2009. ISBN 9780826426581

See also


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

PARSON, a technical term in English law for the clergyman of the parish. It is a corruption of persona, the parson being, as it were, the persona ecclesiae, or representative of the Church in the parish. Parson imparsonee (persona impersonata) is he that as rector is in possession of a church parochial, and of whom the church is full, whether it be presentative or impropriate (Coke upon Littleton, 300 b). The word parson is properly used only of a rector. A parson must be in holy orders; hence a lay rector could not be called a parson. There are four requisites to the appointment of a parson, viz. holy orders, presentation, institution and induction. The parson is tenant for life of the parsonage house, the glebe, the tithes and other dues, so far as they are not appropriated.

See also Rector; Vicar; Benefice; and Tithes.

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