A Glossary of Churchly Terms

The list which follows is not arranged alphabetically. Neither is it arranged arbitrarily. We have attempted to gather together terms which are related one to another.

Scripture and Theology

The Faith and Practice of the Christian Life

The Church's Worship

Liturgical Time: Liturgical Colors and the Church Year

Liturgical Furnishings, Hardware, Etc.

Dramatis Personae of the Mass



Terms Relating to Scripture and Theology

Canon of Scripture - The Bible did not always exist as we know it today. In fact it took the Church nearly 200 years to decide which books to include in the Bible. When it did make a decision which was generally accepted this was set and known as the canon, a term derived from a Greek word which means a standard.

The Old Testament - The Hebrew Scriptures. The story of creation and of the fall of humanity through disobedience. The record of God’s plan to undo the fall, specifically through his dealings with His chosen people - the Jews.

The New Testament – The Scriptures of the Christian Church. The record of God’s acts for man in His Son – Jesus, the Christ - and the record of the early Church’s response to these acts. The canon of the New Testament is composed of:

The four Gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke, John.

The Acts of the Apostles - a history of the young Church and its missionary efforts.

The Epistles - letters of instruction and doctrine by Peter, Paul, John and others to the young churches.

The Revelation of John, or the Apocalypse - a visionary and symbolic writing.

The Apocrypha - Writings composed mainly in the period between the Old and New Testaments. Not included in Protestant Bibles but accepted in the Bibles of the Episcopal, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Accepted by Episcopalians not as a source of doctrine, but as instruction.

Revelation - From “reveal” - the revealing or disclosing of God and His acts to man.
general revelation - revelation accessible to all people, as the discerning of God’s presence in the beauty of nature.
special revelation - revelation accessible to humankind only through a special means, as the revelation through the Jews in the Old Testament, or the revelation in Jesus Christ in the New Testament.

Historie and Geschichte - Two German terms which relate to the study of history and which provide a helpful distinction in considering the stories and events recorded in Holy Scripture.
Historie means the bare literal fact or, in the case of accounts in Scripture, that which is reported to be the bare literal fact.
Geschichte means the interpretation or the meaning of the fact, i.e., what it means to people, what it means to me. How are these peculiar terms useful? In the scriptures many of the accounts and records are mythological or are facts clearly overlaid with myth and legend. Are we to abandon these because they don’t make sense or we can’t believe them? Not necessarily. We may accept the Historie as myth and not in itself literal fact, but we may confess the Geschichte to be true and an inspired revelation of meaning about the world and mankind: for instance, the account of the Garden of Eden. There may well have never been an historical Adam and Eve; however, various meanings of the story are indisputable and revealed: innocence, temptation, disobedience, fall. This distinction in the interpretation and understanding of Scripture is not a new one; it goes back at least as far as St. Augustine.

Theology - Literally the “science of God” - the understanding of a system of religious faith - in Christianity theology is derived from the scriptures, the tradition of the Church, the worship and experience of the Church, the reason of man.

Doctrine – A belief or teaching of the Church. A body of instruction which expresses the Church’s faith.

Dogma – A particular interpretation of a doctrine. For example, the Church has always believed that our Lord is truly and really present in the Sacrament of the Altar. This is a doctrine. Transubstantiation, which is a explanation of how He is present, is a dogma.

Tradition - We confess that the Holy Spirit is always with the Church guiding it and guarding it. For that reason the Church may learn from its own history, its tradition and thought and prayer and experience, from its successes and from its failures. In the Episcopal Church, as in the other Catholic churches, we look back to the tradition to instruct us. For instance, we confess the Creeds, which are not in the scriptures but are the product of the Church’s reflection upon the scriptures. We believe in God’s nature as Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – a doctrine which is indeed a Biblical one, but was elaborated and articulated more explicitly by the Church in years after the time of the Scriptures.

Creed - A statement or formula of Christian belief. There are three main creeds: the Apostles Creed (BCP, p. 52), the Nicene Creed (BCP, p. 326), and the Athanasian Creed (BCP, p. 864).

Ecumenical Council - The first five centuries of the Church were a period of intellectual controversy and stormy debate. At times general convocations of the Church were called to settle pressing questions of doctrine. Those councils which were universal and whose decisions were later accepted by the whole Church are called the Ecumenical Councils. Their decisions have in a sense become final and are now standards of right belief in the Church. Example - the Nicene Creed is a formula of the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.

Heresy - Wrong belief or error in the understanding of the Faith.

Incarnation - the belief and doctrine of the Church that God assumed manhood in the person of Jesus of Nazareth the Christ; that Jesus is both God and man, completely and fully God, completely and fully man. (See the Chalcedonian definition, BCP, p. 864)

Fall of Man - The teaching of the scriptures and the belief of the Church that in some way man is not as he should be, not as he was intended to be by God in creation; that he has fallen from fellowship with God and is consequently sinful, hateful, and unhappy. This is not to be thought of as the condition of one person or of some people, but rather of all humanity, and for that reason it is sometimes called Original Sin. (Here, again, is a good example of the Historie/Geschichte distinction. We may not accept the Historie of the story of Adam and Eve, but we can accept the Geschichte , i.e., that man is fallen and in need of redemption.) It has been said that the Fall of Man and Original Sin are the only theological ideas which are empirically verifiable.

Sin - The condition of Man apart from God. Any action of a human person in which he or she makes this condition of separation from the Person and Will of God real or actual.

Atonement – Literally, at - one - ment - the doctrine that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, man has been restored to fellowship with God. That man has been made at - one with God. The stranglehold of sin is broken and man is re-created as he should be - with God. The alienation of the Fall is overcome and man is raised to a new life with Christ in God.

Grace - The power of God. To understand what the church means by grace we must note that it is:

unearned - man is a creature and he cannot earn the grace of the infinite God.

undeserved - man has fallen away from God and he does not deserve the grace or power of God.

cooperative - God’s power - grace - acts with us as we allow it to become the principle of our lives. As we grow in grace, it grows in us making us holy, pure, and happy.

Grace - this word says to us that we don’t have to do anything to earn God’s love or receive his power. It is there - all has been done for us - not by us - in the atonement of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. In Baptism we receive the grace which brings us within the scope and power of the atonement In the Eucharist we receive the sacramental nourishment of grace to live the life of grace.

Sacrifice - From the Latin sacrum facere - to make holy. We usually think of sacrifice as meaning to give something up. Perhaps it does carry this meaning, but we must remember that the fuller meaning is to give something up in order to receive it back again. Jesus’ life was sacrificial: He gave up his life which was a human life - in order to receive human life back again, made holy, at-oned, with God. The Christian life is sacrificial: we give up our own lives to God in order to receive them back again made pure, holy, and happy. Christian worship is sacrificial - we give up our lives in worship, we give up the bread and wine in worship, and we find our life changed by worship, and the bread and wine made holy in worship to be food for our changed life.

The Trinity - The Christian doctrine about the nature and inner life of God. That God is one God in Three Persons - One God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (The Athanasian Creed will tell you more about this. B.C.P., p. 864)

Terms Relating to the Faith and Practice of the Christian Life

Word and Sacrament - The Christian Faith as the Episcopal Church understands it has a twofold structure - word and sacrament. In God’s Word - the Bible - we learn about God, what He has done for us, and how He wishes us to be. The Word, then, is intellectual and moral. In the sacraments we are brought into the life of the Church and are nourished by communion with God Himself. The sacraments, then are mystical and experiential.

Sacrament - According to the BCP a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us; and a pledge to assure us thereof.” - a visible way in which God gives Himself and His power to us, as in the water of Baptism or the Bread and the Wine of the Holy Eucharist. In the Orthodox Church these are called Mysteries - the spiritual and supernatural way in which God uses the everyday things of the earth, and the occasions of human life. There are seven traditional sacraments: Holy Baptism, Confirmation, the Holy Eucharist (Mass), Penance, Holy Unction, Holy Orders, Holy Matrimony.

Holy Baptism - The sacrament by which a person becomes a member of the Christian Church.

Holy Eucharist - The sacrament by which one’s spiritual life is nourished by God in Christ. Other names for the Eucharist are The Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, the Divine Liturgy, the Mass. Eucharist means “giving thanks”.

Holy Orders - The Church, like all human institutions, needs order and structure to enable it to operate efficiently and effectively. For that reason certain persons in the Church are singled out to be the leaders and organizers of its life and activity. Holy Orders is the sacrament whereby the Church is provided with individuals who give it order and organization.

Threefold ministry of the Church - Traditionally the Church has had three different types of orders. The Episcopal Church believes that these three traditional orders are the way the Church was intended to be structured by God. They are:

Bishop - The visible head of the Church in a specific location and the chief sacramental minister. The Bishop confirms and ordains; he is a symbol of the unity of the Church and he gives orders to the Church. He is bishop over a diocese.

Priest - The priest is an ordained leader of the Church in a specific parish. It is the priest’s office to preside in the name of the Bishop over the celebration of the Sacraments and the worship of the Church, to teach, to govern and lead, to be a pastor to his flock.

Deacon - The word deacon comes from a Greek word which means “minister” or “servant”. In the early Church it was the deacon’s duty to carry out the official charitable works of the Church, i.e., distributing food to the poor, visiting the sick, etc. Thus, the deacon embodied the Church’s role as a servant to the world. In the middle ages the role of the diaconate became little more than that of an apprentice to the priesthood, which is unfortunately where it stands today. The deacon assists the priest at the celebration of the Sacraments, but is not a full sacramental minister.

Minister - Every Christian is a minister! As Christians we minister Christ and His love to our fellow Christians and others around us. Some persons have special ministries - as bishops, priests, and deacons - but we are all ministers in one way or another.

Preacher - The person who preaches a sermon during the Church’s worship. Any person can be a preacher.

Apostolic Succession - The continuity of teaching, worship and order in the Church over the centuries. This is a doctrine and discipline of the Episcopal Church, as well as the other catholic churches. The apostolic succession is preserved by the bishops who stand in a continuous succession back to the Apostles themselves.

The Church - The Body of Christian believers. Those who profess Jesus, the Christ, to be their Lord and their Savior, who live by His grace, pray in His name, and follow His example. There are four marks of the Church: she is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. That is to say:
One - unity is her reality and her goal.
- holiness is the presence of Christ within her.
- universality in space and in time and universality as a communion of the living with the dead is her nature.
Apostolic - the teaching of the Apostles handed down through the centuries is her standard and tradition.

Anglican Communion - The worldwide body of Christians in communion with the See of Canterbury (the Archbishop of Canterbury); the Church of England, the Church of Canada, and the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America are some of the members of the Anglican Communion. It is just as correct to say that you are an Anglican as to say that you are an Episcopalian.

Archbishop of Canterbury - The presiding bishop of the Church of England, and the titular head of the Anglican Communion.

Thomas Cranmer - The Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII who presided over the Church of England’s split away from the Church of Rome. Thomas Cranmer compiled and wrote most of the original Book of Common Prayer.

Book of Common Prayer - The book of worship of the Episcopal Church, the Prayer Book.

Terms Relating to the Church’s Worship

(See also An Instructed Eucharist.)

The Liturgy of the Word – The order for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist is twofold and is a reflection of the basic pattern of Christian faith and practice: 1) the Word and 2) the Sacrament. In the first part of the service - The Liturgy of the Word - we hear the Word of God proclaimed from the Bible - in the Old Testament Lesson, the Epistle, and the Gospel. We listen to an interpretation of the Word in the Sermon. We respond to this Word by declaring the substance of our faith in the affirmations of the Creed. This first part of the Mass is also known as the pro-anaphora and the synaxis.

The Liturgy of the Sacrament - After we have heard the Word of God proclaimed and expounded in the first part of the celebration of the Eucharist, we move to the second part of the service which is the The Liturgy of the Sacrament. Here we obey the commandment of our Lord to “Do This in remembrance of Me” and partake of the mystery of His presence in the Sacrament of Bread and Wine. This part of the Mass is also known as the anaphora, and with regard specifically to the Eucharistic Prayer or Consecration as the Canon of the Mass.

Proper of the Mass - Those parts of the Mass, such as the Collect, the Lessons and Gospel, the Introit and Gradual, etc., which vary according to the season and the day.

Ordinary of the Mass - Those parts of the Mass which do not vary, such as the Canon and other prayers.

Low Mass – A Mass celebrated without music or singing and with simple ceremony. The Celebrant is assisted only by a server. Also known as Said Mass.

altar set for Mass
Chapel altar prepared for Low Mass

High Mass or Solemn High Mass – A Mass that is sung and accompanied by music. Incense is used and the ceremonial is elaborate and colorful. The Celebrant is assisted by a Deacon and a Sub-Deacon, who have specific roles and responsibilities in the liturgy.

Liturgical Furnishings, Hardware, Etc.

Chalice - The cup used for the wine at the Holy Eucharist.

Paten - The small plate used for the bread at the Holy Eucharist.

Host - The unleavened wafer-like bread used in the Holy Eucharist.

Sanctus Bell or Sacring Bell - A bell sometimes found in churches which is rung at various times during the celebration of the Eucharist.

Crotalus – A wood rattle-like object which makes a terrifying sound. It replaces the Sanctus Bell during certain Holy Week Masses when the ringing of bells is surpressed.

Baptismal Font - A large receptacle which holds the water for the sacrament of Holy Baptism.

Paschal Candle - The large tall candlestick which is kept lighted during the fifty days of Easter and then placed next to the Baptismal font during the rest of the year. It is a symbol of the Resurrection of Christ - the Light of the World.

giant Paschal Candle
Paschal Candle before the altar

Thurible - Incense pot or censer.

Aspergillium – A wand-like object used for sprinkling Holy Water. Also known as an aspersorium or a hyssop. These names are derived from Psalm 51:7, Asperge me hyssopoet mundabor; lava me, et super nivem dealbabor. (Thou shalt purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; Thou shalt wash me and I shall me whiter than snow.), which is sometimes sung as the congregation is sprinkled at the beginning of Mass.

Monstrance – A remarkable object, often resembling a sunburst or a glory. A consecrated host is in placed in it to be the focus of meditation or adoration or to be carried in procession. Also called an ostentorium or ostensory.

Reserved Sacrament - Sometimes the sacramental bread from the Holy Eucharist is kept in the church to be available for any who may be sick or in grave danger of death and also to be a focus for prayer and adoration. When it is reserved, the sacrament is kept in a tabernacle - a box-like object which sits upon the altar as in the Lady Chapel at the Advent. Or it may be reserved in an aumbry or sacrament house, which is a more or less elaborate cupboard on the wall of the sanctuary near the altar. A light is always kept burning in front of the reserved sacrament signifying the presence of our Lord in the sacrament of His Body.

Dramatis Personae of the Mass

Sacred Ministers – The Celebrant and two assistants, Deacon and Sub-Deacon, at the celebration of Solemn High Mass.

sacred ministers in procession
Sacred Ministers: from left, deacon, celebrant
(in cope, with aspergillum), and subdeacon

Acolyte - Person who assists the priest at service.

Crucifer - Person who carries the cross in a procession.

Thurifer - Person who carries an incense pot.


Cassock - The long black (or red or purple or white!) robe worn by the clergy, the choir and the acolytes.

Surplice - The long white robe worn over the cassock.

Stole - The narrow colored scarf-like vestment worn by the ordained clergy. It is usually worn only at sacramental services and blessings. Its color varies with the season and the nature of the service being celebrated, as do the other vestments worn at the celebration of the Eucharist.

Maniple – A strip of cloth worn over the left arm by the Sacred Ministers during the Mass. It was originally a handkerchief or towel, with an obvious and practical purpose, which was part of normal dress in the Roman Empire. Later, it became associated with rank. In the Church it has always been understood as a sign of the nature of the ordained ministry - to be a servant of the servants of God.

Alb – A long white vestment with sleeves worn by the priest and deacon at the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.

Amice - The fluffy white cloth worn around the neck of the priest at the Mass.

Chasuble - The colored poncho-type vestment worn by the priest at the Eucharist.

vested priest
Priest in chasuble and alb (lavishly
trimmed with lace), with maniple

Dalmatic and Tunicle – Vestments worn by the Deacon and Sub-Deacon at Solemn High Mass.

Cope – The cape-like vestment worn by the clergy in processions and certain other services.

Biretta – A square black cap with a decorative pompom worn by the clergy as street dress and in some places also during Mass (during which it is removed at the mention of the Name of Jesus).

Humeral veil - a large oblong fabric, usually quite ornate, used at Benediction and for processions of the Blessed Sacrament, worn draped over the officiant's arms and shoulders and covering the hands so that skin does not directly touch the monstrance bearing the Host.

Liturgical Colors and The Church Year

“Liturgical Time” is divided into seasons, each with a distinctive theme and appointed liturgical color. The liturgical colors are:

White (or gold): symbolizing purity, victory and joy, used at Christmas, Easter, and other Feasts of our Lord, the feasts of saints other than martyrs, and other festal occasions such as baptism or marriage.

Purple: symbolizing penitence and sorrow, worn during Lent and Advent, also worn by priests when hearing confessions.

Red: symbolizing the Holy Spirit and blood, worn at Pentecost, at ordinations, and on feasts of Apostles or martyred saints.

Green: symbolizing growth, worn during the “Ordinary” seasons - between Trinity Sunday and the First Sunday in Advent and between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday.

Black: the color of mourning; worn for Requiem Masses and on Good Friday.

Oxblood: a deep dark red, combining the symbolism of blood with the darkness of sin, worn during Holy Week.

Blue: the color associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary; in some places blue is worn during Advent.

Rose: worn on the Third Sunday of Advent and the Fourth Sunday of Lent, days of “refreshment” in the midst of seasons of preparation and penitence.

The Church Year begins with the First Sunday of Advent and ends with the Feast of Christ the King on the last Sunday after Pentecost. The first part of the year follows the life of Christ from His foretelling and Incarnation through His ministry, His death, resurrection, and ascension, and the coming of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost. After Pentecost the Church Year enters an extended time of teaching. The seasons of the Church Year are as follows:

Advent - the four Sundays before Christmas, foretelling and anticipating the Incarnation; this season is more preparatory than penitential.

Christmas(tide) - the days from Christmas through Epiphany (January 6) inclusive, celebrating Christ's birth and His manifestation to the Gentiles.

Ordinary Time after Epiphany - the weeks between the Sunday after Epiphany and the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, one of the two periods in the church calendar (the other being Ordinary Time after Pentecost) in which the lessons focus on growth in Christian life rather than a particular period or event in the life of Christ.

Lent - from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, a period of penitence and self-discipline to prepare for the great feast of Easter; liturgical features include the omission of “Alleluia” and readings that emphasize man’s fallen nature.

Holy Week - from Palm Sunday through Holy Saturday, commemorating Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem, His Passion and Crucifixion.

The Triduum - the “Great Three Days” of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday:

Maundy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper and Christ's washing of His disciples’ feet (the “Maundy”, from Latin mandatum, a commandment: “a new commandment I give to you, that ye love one another”).

Good Friday observes Christ's Crucifixion, death and burial with solemn prayers, the Passion according to St. John, and the Veneration of the Cross.

Holy Saturday leads into the Easter Vigil, the great service in which the church scattered after the Crucifixion is gathered together and reconstituted, with the blessing of the New Fire, administration of Holy Baptism, and the first Mass of Easter.

Eastertide - the seven weeks between Easter and Pentecost, a sustained celebration of the Resurrection.

Ascension - the feast commemorating Christ's Ascension into Heaven, 40 days after Easter and 10 days before Pentecost.

Pentecost - the feast celebrating the promised descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. Although red vestments are worn, a traditional name for this feast day is Whitsunday - “White Sunday” - a name derived from the white robes given to persons baptized on this day.

Trinity Sunday - the Sunday after Pentecost, given over to a celebration of the mystery that is the Holy Trinity.

Corpus Christi - usually observed on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday; a celebration of the mystery of the Eucharist, traditionally including a procession with the Blessed Sacrament.

Ordinary Time after Pentecost - the period between Trinity Sunday and the first Sunday in Advent, an extended time of teaching and growth.

Corpus Christi procession
Corpus Christi procession: Sacred Ministers in
dalmatic, tunicle, and cope with humeral veil;
the Celebrant is holding up a monstrance