Anglican Glossary

Anglicanism draws from a rich reservoir of tradition going back in an unbroken line to the early church. This means, however, that many of the terms used in worship are unfamiliar to contemporary hearers. Here are definitions for a few of these rich but difficult terms:

  • Alb: a narrow-sleeved, full-length white vestment that became in the early church the basic liturgical garment. It has been in wide liturgical use by Anglicans since the nineteenth century.
  • Ablutions: Ceremonial washing of communion vessels.
  • Absolution: A declaration by a bishop or priest, announcing forgiveness by God to those who have confessed their sins and repented.
  • Acolyte: From a Greek word meaning, "to follow." Acolytes are lay volunteers who follow the Cross in the procession and recession and assist the priest in worship. An acolyte lights and sometimes carries candles, and helps in the preparation of communion.
  • Agnus Dei: From two Latin words: agnus, meaning "lamb" and dei, meaning "of God." The term refers to a three-part litany frequently said or sung after the fraction in the Holy Communion part of the Eucharist.
  • Ante-communion: the first part of the service of Holy Communion up until the Gospel or the prayers of the people. This term is generally used if the Eucharistic prayer and communion do not follow.
  • Antiphon: From the Greek words anti, meaning "against," and phone, meaning "sound." An antiphon is literally a song sung back and forth by two choirs, or by one choir divided into two sections. In the Episcopal Church, the Kyrie and the Sursum Corda are two examples of antiphons. The familiar exchange "The Lord be with you" - "And also with you" (Rite I: "And with thy spirit") is also an antiphon.
  • Aumbry: A box or cupboard in the wall of a church building or in a sacristy where the Reserved Sacrament is kept.
  • BAS (Book of Alternative Services): Some prefer to worship in the language of the Book of Alternative Services which was published in 1985. Its language is more contemporary and the prayer forms used draw on a broad range of resources both those that are being recovered from the earliest centuries of the Church and those more recently developed in many parts of the Anglican Communion.
  • BCP (Book of Common Prayer): The "BCP" has been the worship book of the Anglican Church since its inception in 1549. Commonly called the "prayer book" and often abbreviated as the BCP, the Book of Common Prayer is a collection of classic prayers, devotions, services and psalms that developed from the rites of the 16th Century and uses that century’s language of that century. Many people continue to find its measured cadences attractive, and it remains the church’s official prayer book.
  • Burse: From the Greek byrsa, meaning, "a bag." A burse is one of the furnishings of the altar for communion, and is a pocket case made from two squares of some rigid material covered in cloth. The burse sits on top of the chalice, paten and veil, and serves to hold a corporal. Often, the burse also serves to hide an extra purificator.
  • Canticle: a song derived from Scripture that is used in the church’s worship.
  • Cassock: a long garment, usually black, used in non-Eucharistic liturgies.
  • Catechism: a form of instruction usually based on questions and answers.
  • Chalice: the cup used at the Eucharist.
  • Chasuble: a liturgical vestment originally derived from the outdoor cloak worn by men and women in Roman society. Now, it is sometimes worn by the Celebrant of the Eucharist.
  • Ciborium: A cup that resembles a chalice, except that is has a removable lid. A ciborium is used to hold communion wafers during the Eucharist
  • Collect: From the Latin word collecta, meaning "assembly." The word is normally used to refer to the prayer near the beginning of the Eucharist that precedes the lessons. The collect was supposedly designed to "collect" the thoughts of the lessons and bind the thoughts together, back in the days when only one lesson and a Gospel were read. A collect is actually any short prayer that contains an invocation, a petition, and a pleading in Christ’s Name (in that order).
  • Cope: a decorated liturgical cape used especially in processions and on solemn occasions.
  • Corporal: From Latin: corpus, meaning "body." A square piece of linen laid on top of the altar cloth at Communion.
  • Credence Table: A small table or shelf on the epistle side of the altar that holds the bread, wine and water before consecration.
  • Crosier: The bishop’s staff ( a shepherd’s crook) carried in a procession and held when giving the absolution or blessing.
  • Crucifer: A person in a religious procession who carries a large cross (a processional cross), and leads the procession into the church and the recession out of the church.
  • Crucifix: From Latin, crux, meaning "cross" and fixus, meaning "attached." A cross is a crucifix when it has the body of Christ on the cross attached. Sometimes a cross will have Christ on the cross but in royal robes - this is called a "Christus Rex" (Christ the King).
  • Cruet: From old French, crue, meaning "a vial or a glass." A cruet is the vessel (glass or metal) used to hold the water and wine for the Eucharist.
  • Curate: From Latino curatus, meaning "the person in charge." The term should mean the "head priest" if literally interpreted, but instead has come to refer to a transitional deacon or an assistant to the rector. Usually a curate is one who recently graduated from seminary, and is in the process of "learning the ropes," or "curing."
  • Deacon: derived from the Greek word for "servant," it is now used for the first order of ordained ministry." There are "transitional" deacons: those who will eventually be ordained as priests, and "vocational" deacons, those who will serve as deacons for the balance of their lives.
  • Eucharist: the primary act of "thanksgiving," from which the word is derived, in which the central events in the Christian faith are celebrated as the church remembers Christ’s saving work on the cross.
  • Evensong: the title of the evening worship service in the BCP. Now frequently applied to Evening Prayer when it is sung.
  • Ewer: A pitcher most often used to hold water at baptisms, but can also be used in place of a cruet or a flagon at Communion.
  • Feria: an ordinary weekday on which no special liturgical commemoration is held.
  • Flagon: A container that is larger than a cruet and is used instead of, or in addition to cruets at larger celebrations of Communion.
  • Font: A basin for water to be used in church baptisms.
  • Fraction: The part of the Communion liturgy where the Communion bread is broken by the celebrant. According to the prayer book, a period of silence is to follow, and then can be said or sung, "Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us."
  • Homily: while various views can be found to draw a distinction between a homily and a sermon, they are now often used interchangeably.
  • Lection: a passage of Scripture appointed to be read at a liturgical service.
  • Litany: a form of prayer which consists of a series of requests to which the people reply with a fixed response such as "hear our prayer."
  • Liturgy: used in reference to authorized services of corporate worship especially the Eucharist.
  • Mattins: an older title for morning prayer.
  • Missal: The altar book - The big book on the Altar or Holy Table containing the services of Holy Eucharist.
  • Miter, or Mitre: The tall, pointed liturgical hat worn by a bishop during formal worship. Its shape is said to be symbolic of the tongues of fire which rested on the original bishops at the first Pentecost.
  • Narthex: In Greek, the word literally means "a large fennel" (a tall herb). In church architecture, the narthex is an enclosed space at the entry end of the nave of a building; the area in the church building inside the doors and in front of the nave. The narthex is usually enclosed (primarily to provide a buffer between the outside weather and the heating/cooling inside), and is the area where the procession gathers prior to the service.
  • Nave: The main part of a church building; the place where the congregation sits. Probably derived from the Latin word navis, meaning "ship." (As in Noah’s ark) In medieval England the derogatory term "knave" (commoner) developed from nave, because the nave is the area of the building where the "common" people sit. Oblation: the act of offering the eucharistic gifts to God.
  • Oblation: the act of offering the eucharistic gifts to God.
  • Paschal Candle: From the Hebrew word Pesach, meaning Passover. A very large candle in a very tall holder and placed in a prominent display in the epistle side of the sanctuary. The candle is lighted throughout the Easter season, and during baptisms, weddings, and funerals.
  • Paten: the small plate used for the bread at the Eucharist.
  • Priest: A special term for an ordained minister of a Roman Catholic or Episcopal or Orthodox church; In Roman circles, the term refers to those who recite the Mass, but the Episcopal Church traces the word’s origin to a Celtic corruption of the official term for Clergy - Presbyters. The duty of a priest, according to the prayer book, is to baptize, preach the Word of God, and to celebrate the Eucharist, and to pronounce Absolution and Blessing in God’s Name.
  • Purificator: From Latin "purus" (pure) and "facere" (make). A purificator is a small piece of white linen used at Communion to cleanse the chalice, by wiping the rim of the chalice with the purificator.
  • Pax: A small container used for transporting the Host. Most commonly used by a priest when taking Communion to a sick person or shut-in.
  • Recession: The procession of the crucifer, acolytes, choir, readers, clergy and other assistants out of a church building at the end of a service.
  • Recessional: The final hymn sung as the recession takes place.
  • Reredos: Any decoration behind or above an altar; may be in the form of statues, screens, or tapestries.
  • Sacraments: From the Latin word sacrare, meaning to "consecrate." According to the prayer book, sacraments are "outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace." Sacraments are physical actions that point us to deeper realities than we are able to experience with our five senses. The Episcopal Church recognizes two major, or "gospel" sacraments, and five minor sacraments, or sacramental acts. The two major sacraments, Baptism and Communion, and called gospel sacraments because Jesus told us (in the gospels) to do them until he comes again. The five sacramental acts (or minor sacraments) are not all necessarily required of all Christians. They are Confirmation, Marriage, Ordination, Reconciliation, and Unction.
  • Sacristan: In earlier times the sacristan was the man in charge of the sacristy. Some cathedrals will still designate a priest as a Canon Sacristan, but now the usage of the word has largely become interchangeable with the word "sexton."
  • Sacrist: A sacrist superintends the litergy.
  • Sacristy: A room near the altar where the communion vessels, altar hangings, candlesticks, etc. are kept and cleaned. The room is often seen as the exclusive domain of the Altar Guild.
  • Sanctus: The part of the Holy Communion service that beings with the words, "Holy, Holy, Holy."
  • Sedilia: The seats inside the sanctuary, used by clergy and acolytes.
  • Sexton: The word "Sexton" is believed to be derived from the Anglo-Norman "egesting" which itself originated from the Latin word "sacristans" which basically means "someone who looks after the sacred objects".
  • Amongst the traditional duties of the sexton in small parishes was the digging of graves - the gravedigger in Hamlet refers to himself as sexton, for example. In modern times, gravedigging is usually done by an outside contractor. The general duties of a modern sexton may include (but are not limited to):
  • Operation and maintenance of mechanical systems, such as fridges, boilers, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning units, hot water systems, kitchen equipment, and piping systems (i.e. gas, water, fire protection, and sewer systems).
  • Operation and maintenance of electrical and instrument systems, such as a power distribution system, security/communication system, fire alarms, telephone wiring and computer LAN systems.
  • Liaison with routine contract maintenance & supply companies regarding fire and safety, pest control and cleaning, etc.
  • Ordering/receiving supplies and equipment.
  • Aesthetic appearance, security, and fire protection.
  • Logistics for events on church calendar (chairs/tables, lighting, acoustics, audio/video, etc)
  • Emergency response during bad weather, etc.
  • Other building and grounds tasks not handled by a contract service and/or church volunteers, such as the replacement of ceiling light bulbs, returning premises to a neat and orderly state following services and events, disposal of rubbish, and running any local errands or trips that are needed by the church.
  • Stole: a long thin liturgical vestment worn only be the clergy. Bishops and priests wear it around the neck and the shoulder; deacons wear it over the left shoulder.
  • Surplice: a wide-sleeved white vestment often made of linen and worn over a cassock.
  • Sursum Corda: Latin for "Lift up your hearts." The Sursum Corda is part of an antiphon that has been in the Eucharist since the third century.
  • Taizé:: This is a service of contemplation and prayer featuring the rich musical tradition of the community of monks in Taizé, France. Thus community began in 1940 when, at the age of twenty-five, Brother Roger left Switzerland, the country where he was born, to go and live in France. For years he had been an invalid, suffering from tuberculosis. During that long illness, the call had taken shape in him to create a community where simplicity and kind-heartedness would be lived out as essential Gospel realities.
  • When the Second World War started, he had the conviction that he should begin at once to offer assistance to people in difficult circumstances. The small village of Taizé, where he settled, was close to the demarcation line that divided France in half, and so was well situated to be a place of welcome for refugees fleeing the war. In order not to put any pressure on those he was sheltering, Brother Roger prayed alone; he often went into the woods near the house to sing. By 1944 a few brothers had joined him, and they had begun a life together.
  • The first brothers furthered the work of hospitality begun by Brother Roger. They cared for young boys orphaned by the war and also assisted German prisoners-of-war interned in a nearby camp. Gradually other young men arrived and joined the original group, and on Easter Day 1949, the first seven brothers committed themselves for their whole life to celibacy, to material and spiritual sharing and to a great simplicity of life. Today, the Taizé Community is made up of over a hundred brothers, Catholics and from various Protestant backgrounds, coming from more than twenty-five nations. By its very existence, the community is thus a concrete sign of reconciliation between divided Christians and separated peoples. Taizé’s musical tradition has become widely acclaimed and has proven to be a wonderful aid to meditation and prayer. Visit the Taizé website.
  • Transept: The section of a cross-shaped (cruciform) church at right angles to the nave. It is also the name for the aisle in front of the first pew, that separates the nave from the chancel.
  • Verger: A verger is a committed lay minister within the Church who assists the clergy in the conduct of public worship, especially in the marshaling of processions. Vergers can be full-time or part-time, paid or volunteer. Their duties can be purely ceremonial or include other responsibilities, such as parish administration, leadership of the worship committee, or sexton. He/She can serve in many capacities throughout the church; i.e.: Verger, Sexton, Chalice Bearer, Lay Reader, Usher, Protector of the Procession, Doorkeeper, Grave Digger, Master of Ceremonies. The Office of Verger dates back to the Middle Ages when the Verger was the "Protector of the Procession". He leads the Procession into the Church or Cathedral, clearing the way for the Procession and protecting it from vagabonds and animals that tried to attack it. Today, in many churches and cathedrals, you will see a Verger ceremonially leading the Procession. The Verger wears a gown and carries a Virge (staff of Office) to help clear the way, and point the way for the procession.
  • The office of verger has its roots in the earliest days of the Church's history. It shares certain similarities with the former minor orders of porter and acolyte. Generally speaking, vergers were responsible for the order and upkeep of the house of worship, including preparations for the liturgy, the conduct of the laity, and grave-digging. Although there is no definitive historical survey of the office of verger, evidence from Rochester, Lincoln, Exeter, and Salisbury Cathedrals indicates the existence of vergers as far back as the 16th century. A familiar sight in English cathedrals, vergers have maintained the buildings and furnishings of the Church for many centuries. The Church of England Guild of Vergers (CEGV) was formed in 1932 as a fellowship of vergers within the Anglican Communion.
  • Versicles: short verses, often taken from the Psalter, usually recited antiphonally between the officiant and the people.
  • Vestments: the clothing appropriate to persons performing liturgical actions.
  • Vestry: a meeting of the members of the parish. Also refers to a room in the Church, where ministers vest, and often offical records (vestry books) are kept.