Glossary/Religious Terms

This is a guide to many of the terms and phrases used in the Episcopal Church.


Acolyte: originally a minor clerical order but now usually a lay function in the church; the acolyte assists the priest, lights and carries candles, and performs other ceremonial functions.

Advent: the season of the church year immediately prior to Christmas beginning with the fourth Sunday before Christmas; also the entire Christmas season.

Altar Guild: a special, usually lay, group in a church charged with the maintenance and preparation of the altar and its furnishings in a church; altar guilds may also supervise church decorations and flowers.

Altar: a table [located in the sanctuary or the crossing] on which are placed the vessels for holding the bread, wine, and water used in the eucharist or communion.

Anglican: simply means English; a term indicating the English origins of the Episcopal Church. Sometimes seen in the expressions Anglican Church or Anglican Communion–both of which terms simply indicate any national church which derives from the Church of England

Archbishop of Canterbury: the presiding bishop of the Church of England; sometimes acknowledged by American Episcopalians as the honorary spiritual head of the entire Anglican communion.

Archbishop: a bishop over a group of dioceses or national church; for instance, the Archbishop of South Africa or New Zealand. The Episcopal Church in the U.S. has a Presiding Bishop instead of an archbishop.

Ash Wednesday: the day which marks the beginning of the season of Lent, a period of spiritual discipline, fasting and moderation in preparation for Holy Week and Easter; one of the most important days of the church year. In the Ash Wednesday service, ashes are lightly smeared onto the forehead of a person by the priest or bishop.

Baptismal Font: see Font.

BCP: Acronym for the Book of Common Prayer.

Bishop, Assistant: a specially ordained or otherwise specially designated person who has the spiritual and liturgical rank of a bishop and who usually assists the Bishop of a diocese; some retired diocesan bishops become assistants to other bishops; some assistant bishops are specially ordained for their work. Assistant Bishops can perform most functions performed by other bishops.

Bishop, Co-adjutor: an ordained person consecrated to become the next bishop of a diocese when the diocesan bishop retires; when the bishop retires or resigns, the Co-adjutor becomes the Diocesan and the term Co-adjutor is dropped.

Bishop, Diocesan: the primary bishop of a diocese; sometimes referred to as “The Diocesan”: the Diocesan of the Diocese of Olympia is The Rt. Rev. Vincent W. Warner, Bishop of Olympia.

Book Of Common Prayer: a collection of prayers, readings, Psalms, devotions, and services used by the Episcopal Church; the worship book used by Episcopalians. Nearly all services in any Episcopal Church will be printed in this book.

Cathedral: an Episcopal Church which is the official church of a bishop of a diocese; sometimes such churches are indicated by the word Cathedral in their name, but not always. Cathedrals are usually in the charge of a priest who is referred to as the Dean of the Cathedral; such Deans are referred to as “The Very Reverend…”. Not all large churches are cathedrals; not all cathedrals are large.

Catholic: literally, “universal” or “found everywhere”; usually, however, a reference to the Roman Catholic Church although the term also includes Anglican, Syrian, Greek, Coptic, Russian and other churches. The Episcopal Church is a catholic church. Catholic churches generally accept the teachings of tradition as well as scripture and usually accept the validity of one or more ancient creeds as the summary of the Christian faith.

Celebrant: the main priest in a eucharist, mass, or communion; the priest who performs the consecration of the bread and wine; the celebrant may be assisted by other priests, deacons, chalice bearers, acolytes, etc.

Chancel: the portion of a church between the front row of pews and the altar; usually the place the choir sits; sometimes also called the “choir”.

Chapel: a place of worship lacking a parish congregation [although chapels may have a permanent clergyman]; chapels may be large or small, private or institutional. A term for a place of Episcopal worship associated with a college, university, or seminary. A small place of worship attached to a larger structure.

Choir: a special group of singers who chant or sing during a worship service; also, the part of the church where the choir sits.

Church of England: the name of the Episcopal Church in England.

Church, local: the smallest social division of the Episcopal Church; above the church is the diocese; above the diocese is the province; above the province is the national church. Sometimes church refers to the local building; sometimes to the local congregation. See also parish, congregation, communicants.

Clergy: the group of ordained ministers of a church or denomination; all ministers together as distinguished from lay persons. When used in distinction from laity, the term includes both bishops and priests; sometimes the term refers to all priests except the bishops: as in the expression, “All bishops and other clergy…”

Communicants: the members of a local church; those who do or who are eligible to receive communion; loosely identified with the roll of the local church: “St. Mark’s has 300 communicants [official members].” But, “There were 37 communicants at the Eucharist at the early service [37 people received the Lord’s Supper].”

Communion: the Christian sacramental meal, equivalent to the Lord’s Supper; now more commonly called ‘eucharist’ in Episcopal churches; also called Mass in Roman Catholic churches.

Compline: an evening service to end the day; although the service is an old Christian usage, it has only recently been added to the Prayerbook of the Episcopal Church.

Congregation: the group of people who attend church; the members present for the worship service.

Consecration: a special service of dedication or ordination; a church [without debt] may be consecrated–made holy to God’s purposes; a service by which an ordained person becomes a bishop.

Crucifer: a person in a religious procession who bears the cross and who leads the procession into the church.

Crucifix: a kind of Christian symbol which is a cross with a likeness of the body of Christ on it; usually thought of as a “very Catholic symbol” by some protestants.

Cursillo: a contemporary, popular movement of Christian renewal in the Episcopal Church; usually involves a very close-knit group of people in an intense retreat for a weekend, followed by spiritual disciplines and gatherings.

D. Min.: Doctor of Ministry; a special graduate program for clergy offered by many seminaries; courses are often scheduled in the summer so that parish clergy may attend.

D.D.: common abbreviation of the honorary degree Doctor of Divinity; an honorary degree reserved exclusively for ordained persons, especially bishops. The abbreviation is used after the bishop’s full name: The Rt. Rev. Duncan M. Gray, Jr., D.D.

Deacon: the initial level of ordination in the Episcopal Church. Unlike protestant churches where Deacon is a lay order, in the Episcopal Church Deacon is a clerical order. Deacons often have special clerical duties; by tradition the Gospel is read by the deacon if a deacon is on the staff of a church or chapel.

Diocese:  a unit of church organization; the spiritual domain under a bishop. A diocese may contain many parishes and churches.

ECUSA:  initials of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America (see PECUSA)

EFM:  Education For Ministry; the popular extension program of the School of Theology of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.

Epiphany:  January 6; a feast celebrating the visit of the Wisemen to the infant Jesus; the end of the Christmas season.

Episcopal:  the name of a form of church organization which means government by an overseer

Epistle, The:  a reading from the New Testament other than from the Gospels; also any reading from the Bible other than the Gospels or Psalms.

Eucharist:  a “good gift” or thanksgiving; the current usage in the Episcopal Church to refer to communion or the Lord’s Supper.

Font:  a basin of water used in baptism. The Episcopal Church normally practices baptism by sprinkling or pouring rather than by full immersion.

Gospel, The:  any reading from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John in the New Testament; also a general reference to the essential message of the Christian faith.

High Church:  a designation of a church emphasizing theological or liturgical formality; a church with several vested assistants and many fine utensils used in the service; a church that sings or chants its service rather than reading or speaking it; a church that celebrates the Eucharist every Sunday [though most Episcopal Churches do this now]. Such churches sometimes appear to be more “catholic”.

Holy Week:  the period from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday; most important period of the church year with many special services.

Homily:  a short sermon often on a single topic of devotion or morality.

Hymn:  sacred words set to music; church vocal music involving the congregation and distinguished from the Psalm or anthem.

Incense:  the “smell” element in Smells & Bells; a fragrant [and now usually hypo-allergenic] powder burned in a small dish or pot; used during the service or in the processions in recollection of one of the three gifts of the Wisemen to the Christ Child.

Inclusive Language:  the attempt to find forms of religious expression which are not biased in favor of a particualr gender group. Some churches favor an Inclusive Lectionary, and some have altered prayers and hymns so that gender-restrictive images and pronouns are removed: “Our God who art in heaven…”

Junior Warden:   the assistant to the Senior Warden; usually becomes Senior Warden after the Senior Warden’s term is up.

Laity:  the non-ordained members of a church; all lay persons together; “the people” as distinguished from “the clergy”.

Lay minister:  a person who is not ordained, but who works closely with a church or religious program. Some lay ministers are un-paid volunteers; some are paid staff members of a church.

Lay person:  any non-ordained person; in the Episcopal church today, lay person is often used instead of the older protestant usage “layman”.

Lay Reader:  any non-ordained person who participates in reading part of a church service. In some churches Lay Readers are officially recognized as a special group assisting in church services.

Lay:  from laios, a Greek word meaning the people.

Lectern:  a raised platform with railing used for reading prayers or scripture; usually located at the front of the nave opposite the pulpit.

Lectionary:  the complex series of Biblical readings used in the Episcopal Church throughout the year.

Lent:  the period of fasting, sobriety and meditation following Ash Wednesday; in the past Lent was widely associated with denial or “giving something up for Lent.”: “I gave up smoking for Lent.” Or, “I gave up desserts for Lent.” The season recalls the period of Christ’s fasting and meditation in the wilderness, so traditionally is for a period of forty days–from Ash Wednesday to Palm Sunday. The term is derived from an old word for ‘lengthen’ which referred to the lengthening days of early sping.

Lesson:  also the Epistle; any reading from the Bible except the Gospels or Psalms; usually read on the opposite side of the church from where the Gospel is read; in older practice the Lesson was read from the “Epistle Side”–the right side facing the altar, while the Gospel was read from the “Gospel Side”–the left side facing the altar. Current practice in many Episcopal churches does not conform to this older pattern.

Liturgy:  literally the word means the work of the people; generally used to refer to the full text of the words of a worship service; any ritual order for holding a church service.

Mass:  the Roman Catholic name for the Christian sacramental meal but sometimes used by conservative Episcopalians to refer to communion or eucharist.

Maundy Thursday:  the Thursday of Holy Week; the name is from Latin `mandatum’ referring to Christ’s commandment concerning foot-washing; also the day on which the first Lord’s Supper was celebrated.

Morning Prayer:  a morning worship service without communion; now this service has generally been replaced by a eucharistic or communion service.

Narthex:  an enclosed space at the entry end of the nave of a church.

Nave:  the main part of a church; the place where the congregation sits. Derived from an old word for ship; in older churches the beams of the roof resembled the beams and timbers in the sides of a ship.

Ordination:  a special service for inducting a person into holy orders; the ritual that makes a person a deacon, priest or bishop.

Palm Sunday:  the Sunday before Easter. In an Episcopal Church, members of the congregation carry real palms during the service; in some churches, the tradition is that palms from one year are saved, dried and later burned to make the ashes used at the next year’s  Ash Wednesday service.

Parish:  the group of people of a certain area who are organized into a local church; sometimes the word also refers to the geographic region around a church.

Peace, The:  also known as Passing the Peace; a ritual in the Episcopal Church in which members of the congregation, including the clergy, greet one another. The priest says, “The Peace of the Lord be always with you.” The congregation responds, “And also with you.” Immediately after these words people shake hands or speak or sometimes embrace in the church.

PECUSA:  initials of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America

Prayer Book:  a short way of referring to the Book of Common Prayer, the worship book of the Episcopal Church containing services, psalms, prayers, etc.

Presiding Bishop:  the elected episcopal head of the Episcopal Church in America [PECUSA]; the chief administrator and spiritual head of the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church does not refer to its head bishop as an archbishop.

Priest:  a special term for the minister of a Roman Catholic or Episcopal or Orthodox church; originally the term mean someone who performed a sacrifice; later the term referred to those who said Mass; now often synonymous with minister although the older terminology is still familiar in some churches.

Procession:  the line of choir, clergy, acolytes, crucifer, torchbearers and others walking into a church to begin a service.

Reader:  anyone who reads a lesson, psalm or prayer in a service. Lay persons may read any lesson but the Gospel reading is usually done by an ordained person.

Rector:  the priest or minister of a local church or parish; the head priest of a parish.

Rectory:   the residence of a rector; the place where an Episcopal minister lives.

Rite One:  a portion of the Book of Common Prayer which contains worship services using the older language of the 1928 edition of the prayerbook; sometimes the phrase “Rite One” is used as a reference to those who are traditional,  more orthodox Episcopalians.

Rite Two:  a portion of the Book of Common Prayer containing worship services which use more modern language.

Sacristy:  the room near the altar where priests vest for the service; the room where the communion vessels and vestments are kept.

Sanctuary:  the portion of a church at the head of the chancel around the altar; the space immediately around the altar. Sometimes used to refer to the whole interior of the church, but this is not the usual Episcopal usage.

Senior Warden:  the chairman of the vestry; the lay person who heads the governing board of the local church. “Smells & Bells”:a way of describing a “high” church; a church that frequently uses incense, bells, candles, chimes, vestments all together in worship services.

Stole:  a long, narrow strip of cloth worn around the neck of the priest and allowed to hang down the front of the clerical vestments; some stoles are decorated with diocesan or school insignia near the lower ends.

Trinity, The:  a fundamental symbol of the Christian faith and a very important doctrine in catholic Christianity; the Trinity refers to the oneness and essential unity of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Twelve Days of Christmas:   the time from December 25th to January 6th, that is from Christmas day to Epiphany. The time from the first Sunday in Advent until Christmas Eve is, properly, Advent; the time from December 25th to January 6th is the Christmas season or the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Vestments:   clothing worn by people who lead the services of a church; clothing worn by clergy. [The clothing worn by monks and nuns is usually called a ‘habit’; the clothing worn by choir members is usually called a `robe’; the clothing worn by professors is usually called a `gown’.] Colors used in some vestments are changed during the year to indicate the seasons of the church year. Vestments are usually styled by cut and color to indicate whether a person is a deacon, preist, or bishop. Bishops’ vestments for instance include a purple shirt.

Vestry:   governing board of a local Episcopal church consisting of lay members; the group that usually makes basic decisions about church budget, building plans, etc. Usually headed by a Senior Warden assisted by a Junior Warden who often follows the Senior Warden in office.

Wafer:   the bread part of the Lord’s Supper; often an unleavened, thin cracker; sometimes the wafer is imprinted with a cross; some wafers are large, being several inches in diameter.

Wine:   the beverage portion of communion symbolizing the blood of Christ; equivalent to the grape juice used in some protestant churches. Communion wine is fermented grape juice and is therefore alcoholic.