Ecclesiastical Terms

Christianity is an institution of extraordinary duration and complexity (not to mention insularity) and, over the past 2000 years, has developed its own extensive vocabulary that is largely incomprehensible to laypersons. This surprisingly large list contains 445 obscure ecclesiastical terms relating to Christian churches, priests, prayers, objects, and other interesting terms. Many of these terms are used only in specific Christian denominations (especially Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox), and may not be applicable to others. Others are obsolete or obsolescent, and are not well-known even among the clergy. Please note that I am not a religious person and am unable to answer specific questions about any of the definitions below (except as regards their etymology, perhaps). For such information, consult your local minister, priest, or similar churchy folk.

Consecration of a bishop in the US Episcopal Church

Consecration of a bishop in the US Episcopal Church

Word Definition
abba Syriac or Coptic bishop
ablegate papal envoy or legate
absconce lantern used in monasteries and night offices
abthane monastic region of the old Irish church
accensor acolyte
adiaphoron tenet or belief on which a theological system is indifferent
adoptionism belief that Christ was the adopted and not natural son of God
advowson right of presentation to church living
adytum sacred part of a temple or church; church chancel
affusion pouring on; as of baptismal water
agape selfless Christian love; a feast in celebration of such love
agapeistic characterized by Christian love
agapetae churchwomen who live platonically with celibate men
aggiornamento modernization of ideas of the Catholic church
agrapha sayings of Jesus not found in the canonical gospels
alb long white robe worn by priests
almoner giver of alms; social worker in a hospital
altarage payment to priest for mass; offerings at altar
ambo early Christian raised reading desk or pulpit
ambry recess for church vessels; cupboard or niche
ambulatory aisle down the east end of a church
amice strip of fine linen worn as cloak or wrap by priest at mass
ampulla vessel for holy oil or wine for coronations or rituals
anamnesis reminiscence; prayer recalling death and resurrection of Jesus
anchorite one withdrawn from the world for religious reasons
ancress female religious recluse
anele to administer extreme unction to
angelus prayer said in morning, at noon and at sunset
antechapel anteroom to a chapel or church
antependium covering or cloth over pulpit or altar
antilegomena books of the New Testament not part of early Christian Bible
antipedobaptism denial of validity of infant baptism
antiphon anthem sung as a response during church service
apocatastasis final restitution of all things at the appearance of the Messiah
apocrisiary papal secretary
apologetics defense and proof of Christianity or other doctrine
apse rounded extension of church or other building
archimandrite head of a monastery or convent
aspergillum vessel for sprinkling holy water
aspersory vessel for holding holy water
aureole radiant light around head or body of holy personage
autocephality ecclesiastical self-government
auto-da-fe burning of a heretic
autotheism belief that one is God incarnate or that one is Christ
baldaquin covering or canopy over a throne or altar
baptistery part of church reserved for performing baptisms
bardocucullus hooded cloak worn by monks
basilica Roman Catholic church given special privileges
beadle church caretaker or usher
beadsman monk or almoner who prays for benefactor
bema raised part of an Eastern church containing the altar
benefice ecclesiastical office to which revenue is attached
bethel a place of worship for seamen; nonconformist chapel
biretta square three-ridged cap worn by Catholic clergy
breviary book containing daily church service
bulla round seal attached to a papal bull
bullantic capitalized and ornamented, as letters used on papal bulls
bullary collection of papal bulls
bursary treasury of a monastery or college
burse square cloth case to carry the corporal during Communion service
caesaropapism control of the church by a secular ruler
calefactory a monastery sitting room
calotte Roman Catholic skullcap
camerlengo papal treasurer
campanile freestanding bell tower on church property
canoness woman living in a community under a religious rule
canticle short holy song or sung prayer
cantorial located on the north side of the choir in a church
capuchin pointed hooded cloak worn by friars
cardinalitial of, like or pertaining to church cardinals
cartulary keeper of monastic records
cassock close-fitting ankle-length clergyman’s garment
catabaptism belief in the wrongness of infant baptism
catechumen one undergoing instruction prior to conversion to Christianity
cathedra chair or throne of office for a bishop or other high official
cathisma short hymn used as response
catholicos primate of Armenian or Nestorian church
cellarer monastery official in charge of provisions
cenacle room where the Last Supper was eaten
cenobite monk; member of religious group
cenoby monastery or convent
censer vessel for burning incense in religious rituals
cephalophore decapitated saint depicted with head tucked under arm
chancel part of church containing altar and seats for choir
chancery church office dealing with legal matters and archives
chantry chapel or altar built for prayers for its benefactor’s soul
chaplet circlet or wreath for the head; short string of prayer beads
charterhouse Carthusian monastic building
chasuble sleeveless ecclesiastical garment
chevet east end of a church
chiliasm belief that Jesus will reign on Earth for a thousand years
chimere loose sleeveless robes worn by Anglican bishops
chrism consecrated or holy oil
chrismation sacrament of baptism in Eastern churches
chrismatory vessel for holding holy oil
chrisom white robe put on newly baptised child
christophany appearance of Christ to men
churching church ceremony given to women after childbirth
churchism devotion to church rules over religious precepts
ciborium freestanding canopy to cover altar; vessel for holding eucharistic bread
cilice haircloth shirt worn as penance
cimeliarch church vestry or treasury
cincture to gird or surround; belt worn around ecclesiastical vestment
cingulum girdle or girdle-like structure; priest’s belt
circumincession the reciprocal existence of three parts of the Trinity in each other
classis a group; governing body of Reformed churches
clerestory upper storey of a church; windows near the roof of a building
coadjutor bishop assisting a diocesan bishop and having the right of succession
collegialism theory that church is independent from the state
colporteur peddler of religious tracts and books
compaternity spiritual relationship between child’s parents and godparents
compline prayer service held just before bedtime
comprecation prayer meeting
concelebrate to jointly recite the canon of the Eucharist in unison with others
concordat agreement between the pope and a secular government
confirmand candidate for religious confirmation
confiteor prayer of confession of sins
consistory a solemn assembly or council; a church tribunal
consultor advisor to a Catholic bishop
conventicle secret or illegal church assembly
corporal white cloth on which Communion bread and wine are placed
credence small table for holding sacred vessels
credo concise statement of doctrine; section of Mass followed by offertory
crosier pastoral staff or crook held by bishop or abbot
cruet vessel used in religious ceremonies, especially to hold the Eucharist
curate assistant to a parish priest
curia papal court and its officials
custos guardian, custodian or keeper, especially of convents or monasteries
dalmatic ecclesiastical robe or other outer vestment
datary papal officer who registers and dates bulls and edicts
decanal located on south side of the choir in a church
decretal papal decree deciding a point of church law
deiparous bearing a god
deodate a gift to or from God
diaconicon sacristy for sacred vessels in Orthodox churches
diphysitism belief in the dual nature of Christ
diptych pair of pictures on hinged panels; register of bishops and saints
discalced without shoes; barefoot; a religious order wearing no shoes
ditheletism doctrine that Christ had two wills
donative benefice presented to church without reference to bishop
dossal ornamental cloth hung behind and above an altar
doxology hymn or verse of praise to God
dulia inferior veneration of saints and angels in comparison with God
ecclesiastry affairs of the church
eirenics theological doctrine of religious unification
encolpion reliquary; cross worn on the breast
encyclical letter sent by the pope to multiple bishops
eparchy diocese of an Eastern church
epiclesis calling on the Holy Spirit to consecrate the Eucharist
epistoler reader of the epistle in Anglican service
epitrachelion stole of an Orthodox priest or bishop
eremite hermit; religious recluse
eschatology doctrine of life and afterlife
eschaton end of the world; end time
euchology prayer book
exarch viceroy; rank below patriarch in Eastern church
exeat permission from bishop for clergyman to work elsewhere
exedra semicircular bench beside episcopal throne; outdoor bench or recess
exegetic explanatory, especially of Scripture
exequy funeral rites; funeral procession
faldstool desk from which the Litany is read at church service
fanion cloth worn on priest’s arm and used for handling holy vessels
fenestella recess in church wall for storing communion vessels
feretory shrine for relics during a procession or for a funeral bier
feria weekday of a church calendar on which no holiday falls
festilogy treatise on ecclesiastical festivals
flèche narrow wooden spire on church roof
florilegium anthology of writings, especially of church fathers
fossarian clergyman moonlighting as a gravedigger
frankalmoign land tenure requiring religious obligations on part of tenant
friary a fraternity or group of friars
frontal cloth hanging over front of altar
galilee porch in front of church
glebe church land granted to clergyman
gradual part of mass between epistle and gospel
guimpe wide cloth covering neck and shoulders worn by nuns
hagioscope opening in wall to enable viewing of altar
hanap chalice used in communion whose cover is a second chalice
hassock kneeling cushion in a church
hearsecloth cloth lain over coffin during funeral
hegumene head of a nunnery
hieratical priestly; bound by religious convention
hieromonach monk who also serves as a priest
holobaptism belief in baptism with total immersion in water
homolegomena books of the Bible used in early Christianity
housel the eucharist; the act of taking the eucharist
hymnal collection of church hymns
hymnody hymns collectively; hymn-singing
hyperdulia veneration of the Virgin Mary above saints and angels
iconostasis screen or partition in Eastern churches with tiers of icons
incardination acceptance by a diocese of clergyman from another diocese
indulgence former Catholic pardon granted for remission of punishment for sins
indult special temporary dispensation granted by the Catholic church
internuncio messenger between two parties; low-ranking papal legate
intinction administering communion by dipping bread into wine
introit psalm or hymn sung at beginning of church service
invination presence of Christ’s blood in sanctified wine
invitatory psalm or anthem sung before prayer during church service
jube ornamental choir-screen
jubilarian one who celebrates a jubilee, especially a priest, monk, or nun
jubilate the third Sunday after Easter
kamelaukion tall cylindrical hat worn by Orthodox priests
kenosis Christ’s rejection of his divine side upon assuming human form
kerygma preaching of the Christian gospel
kerygmatic of, like or pertaining to preaching the Gospel
kirking first attendance of a couple at church after marriage
kyrie religious petition for mercy
labarum moral standard; ecclesiastical banner bearing Christ’s monogram
laic of, like or pertaining to lay people rather than clergy
laicisation process of returning a clergyman to lay status
laicism doctrine of opposition to clergy and priests
lappet fold or flap on a garment or headdress worn by priest
latria highest degree of veneration, assigned to God over saints
lauds prayer service held at dawn following matins
lavabo ceremony in which priest washes his hands; basin for the ceremony
lavatory wash-basin for washing bodies of newly dead; room where lavabo kept
lavra group of recluses’ cells
lectern desk or stand from which church lessons are read
lection reading; lesson read in church
lectrice female reader in church
litany prayer of supplication in responsive style
liturgician one who studies or recites church rituals
locum clergyman temporarily replacing regular priest
lustration ritual washing; ablution
lychgate roofed gate of a churchyard
magisterium teaching function of the Catholic church
magnificat canticle in praise of the Virgin Mary
manciple steward of a college or monastery; purveyor
mandorla oval panel containing a work of art; elliptical halo around holy person
mandriarch founder or leader of a monastic order
maniple clerical vestment worn on the left arm
mantelletta knee-length sleeveless garment worn by Catholic cardinals and bishops
Mariolatry worship of the virgin mother
Mariology study of the Virgin Mary
marrano Jew converted to Christianity to avoid persecution
martyrium shrine erected in memory of a martyr
martyrolatry excessive devotion to martyrs
martyrology study of martyrs
matins prayer service held in early morning hours
mendicant member of impoverished religious order
menology register or calendar of saints’ days
mersion dipping; as in baptism
messianism belief in a single messiah or saviour
metropolitan archbishop holding authority over other bishops
midlenting custom of giving gifts to parents on mid-Lent Sunday
minster church associated with a monastery
misericord ledge in church to lean against while standing; forgiveness or mercy
missal book containing complete service for mass
miter high headdress worn by bishop or archbishop
modalism belief in unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit
monergism theory that the Holy Spirit alone can act
monial a nun
monkery monks in general; monasticism; behaviour of monks
monophysitism belief that Christ was primarily divine but in human form
monotheletism belief that Christ had only one will
monstrance vessel used to expose the Eucharist
mozzetta short cape with ornamental hood worn by Catholic prelates
mystagogical of, like or pertaining to religious ritual initiation
naos temple; inner cell of a temple
narthex small entrance or porch to a church
nave largest part of church where congregation sits
nipter ecclesiastical ceremony of washing the feet
nones prayer service held at 3 p.m.
novena series of Catholic church services held on nine successive days
nuncio one who brings tidings; high-ranking papal legate
obit religious office for a dead person
oblate layman living in a religious community under modified rule
oblation act of offering; a sacrifice; anything offered in worship
oculus round window, especially over main door in church
orant representation of praying figure in early art
orarion deacon’s stole in Orthodox church
orarium book of private devotions
orarium handkerchief; scarf attached to bishop’s staff
oratory small chapel for private prayer; lectern for prayer
ordinal book containing religious rites, especially for ordination
ordo calendar with list of services for each day of the year
oremus Roman Catholic liturgical prayer
orison prayer
orphrey gold or other rich embroidery on clerical robes
osculatory carved tablet kissed by priest during celebration of mass
ostensory container for holding consecrated Communion wafers
paedobaptism doctrine of infant baptism
pall covering cloth laid upon Communion chalice
pallium white woollen band symbolising archbishop’s authority
panegyricon collection of sermons for Orthodox church festivals
pannicle thin sheet-like vestment
pannychis all-night vigil in preparation for Orthodox church feast
paraclete advocate or intercessor; the Holy Spirit acting in such a role
parclose railing in church enclosing altar, chapel or tomb
pardoner one who raises money for religious works by selling indulgences
parousia second coming of Christ
parvis enclosed space at the front of a church
passalorynchite one who takes a religious vow of silence
paten plate; metal disk used to hold Communion bread
pax tablet decorated with sacred figure and kissed by participants in mass
peculiar parish or church exempt from jurisdiction of the bishop of its diocese
pentateuch the first five books of the Old Testament
pericope an excerpt or passage read during religious services
pernoctate to pass the night in vigil or prayer
phonascus person who maintains rhythm in church choir
pieta representation of Virgin Mary with dead Christ across her knees
pietism unquestioning or dogmatic religious devotion
piscina basin set in wall of church to drain away ceremonial water
plebania mother-church having authority over several local churches
pluvial floor-length open-fronted ecclesiastical garment
pneumatomachy denial of the divinity of the Holy Ghost
pneumatophany appearance of a spirit; especially the Holy Ghost
poppyhead raised ornament on top of upright end of seats in churches
postlude closing piece of music at end of church service
postulant candidate for a religious order
postulator official who presents case for canonization or beatification
prebend stipend or salary paid to clergyman
prebendal of, like or pertaining to stipends issued by a church
precentor leader of the singing of a church choir
predella platform for altar; portable altar or decoration upon it
prelacy episcopal church government
prelate bishop or abbot of superior rank
presbytery part of church reserved for officiating clergy
prie-dieu prayer stool or kneeling bench in a church
prime prayer service held at 6 a.m.
procathedral parish church serving as a cathedral
pronaos vestibule in front of a temple
proper elements of Christian mass that are variable
proseuche place of prayer; oratory
prothonotary chief registrar of a court; keeper of canonisation records
psalmodist singer of psalms
psalmody act of singing psalms in church services
pseudepigrapha apocrypha; non-canonical books of the Bible
pseudepiscopy existence or rule of a spurious bishop
psilanthropism denial of Christ’s divinity
pulpitum gigantic stone screen separating cathedral choir from the nave
purificator cloth used to wipe Eucharist chalice
pyx box or vessel in which coins or consecrated Eucharist are kept
quaestionary religious pardoner
qualificator one who prepares ecclesiastical cases for trial
quaresimal Lenten; having the meagreness of Lenten meals
quartodeciman early Christian who celebrated Easter on Passover even if not a Sunday
rantize to sprinkle with water during baptism
rasophore lowest rank of Greek Orthodox monk
recusant one who refuses to attend Catholic church services; nonconformist
refectory dining-hall of a monastery or other institution
regula rule of a religious order
reliquary a small box or shrine used to hold relics
repository side altar in Catholic church
requiem lament or mass for the dead
requiescat prayer for the dead
reredos screen behind altar
rescript answer of pope or emperor to any legal question; edict or decree
responsory set of responses sung or said after liturgical reading
retable shelf or ornamental setting for panels behind an altar
retrochoir space in choir behind high altar
ridel altar curtain
rochet surplice-like vestment of a bishop or abbot
rogation asking or supplication, especially in an ecclesiastical sense
rood cross or crucifix at entrance to church chancel
sacerdotalism belief that priests are necessary mediators between God and mankind
sacramentarianism belief that sacraments have unusual properties
sacrarium place where sacred objects are kept
sacristan church official in charge of vessels and the sacristy
sacristy room in church where sacred objects are kept
saltire X-shaped cross
samarra flame-decorated cassock worn by those condemned by the Inquisition
scapular badge of monastic order worn on the shoulders
schola church choir led by a cantor
scholasticate preparatory college for those intending to enter Catholic order
scriptorium writing room; room used by monastic scribes
sedilia stone seats for clergy in wall of chancel
sempect extremely elderly Benedictine monk
sepulchre receptacle in an altar for holding religious relics
sext prayer service held at noon
sexton church caretaker or bellringer
shrive to hear a confession from and give absolution
sigillum seal of the confession
simony buying or selling of ecclesiastical offices
sinecure ecclesiastical office or other job requiring little work
situla a holy bucket
slype covered passage between walls, or between transept and chapterhouse
solifidianism doctrine that faith alone will ensure salvation
soteriology study of theological salvation
soutane priest’s cassock
squarson clergyman who is also a land-holding squire
starets Eastern Orthodox spiritual advisor
staurolatry worship of the cross or crucifix
sticharion vestment like an alb worn by Orthodox priests
sticheron short hymn
stole narrow ecclesiastical vestment or scarf
stoup vessel for holding holy water
stylite monk who spends much time on tops of pillars
succinctorium band or scarf worn from the Pope’s girdle
suffragan assistant bishop
superhumeral ecclesiastical garment worn over the shoulders
surplice loose-fitting ankle length overgarment worn by clerics
synaxarion account of a saint’s life
synod ecclesiastical assembly or council
synthronus joint throne for an Orthodox bishop and his presbyters
tabernacle ornamental container for storing Communion bread and wine
taperer one who bears a taper during a religious procession
terce prayer service held at 9 a.m.
tester canopy over a bed, pulpit or altar
tetragrammaton sacred word or acronym of four letters
tetramorph artistic representation of the four evangelists in one figure
theanthroposophy system of belief concerning Christ as god and man
theodidact student of God; one who is taught by God
theody hymn in praise of God
theolepsy seizure or possession by a god
theologaster petty or shallow theologian
theometry measurement or estimation of God
theophany manifestation or appearance of a god to people
theotokos title given to the Virgin Mary as bearer of God
thurible censer
thurifer altar boy who bears censer
tiara three-tiered crown worn by or carried in front of the pope
tippet long black scarf worn by Anglican clergy
tonsure shaving of small area on the crown of head of a priest or monk
transept part of a church off to one side of main structure
transubstantiation miraculous changing of bread and wine into body and blood of Christ
tremendum feeling of overwhelming awe associated with religious experience
trental commemoratory service held thirty days after burial
triduum period of three days of prayer preceding Roman Catholic feasts
triforium gallery or arcade over an aisle; gallery over nave and choir
tritheism belief that the members of the Trinity are separate gods
tropology figurative language; moral interpretation of the Bible
tunicle short ecclesiastical vestment worn by bishop or subdeacon
tympanum space within an arch; arched recess at entrance of cathedral
ubiquitarianism belief that Christ is everywhere
ultramontane south of the Alps; supporting the Pope
unalist priest holding one benefice
unaneled without extreme unction
unction anointing as right of consecration or healing; warmth of address
undercroft crypt or vault under a church
unhouseled not having received the Eucharist shortly before death
verger church usher and attendant
vernicle cloth with image of Christ’s face impressed upon it
versicle short verse in church service normally followed by response
vespers prayer service held in early evening
vestry priest’s dressing room
vesturer keeper of vestments
viaticum money or provisions for journey; Eucharist for a dying person
vicegod hostile appellation applied to the Pope
wicket small door forming part of larger door of a church or castle
wimple cloth covering for head and neck worn by nuns
xerophagy eating of dry food; fast of dry food in the week preceding Easter
zeta small room or closet in a church
zucchetto round skullcap worn by Catholic clergy to indicate rank
zymite priest using leavened bread during communion

I hope you have found this site to be useful. If you have any corrections, additions, or comments, please contact me. Please note that I am not able to respond to all requests. Please consult a major dictionary before e-mailing your query. All material on this page © 1996-2014 Stephen Chrisomalis. Links to this page may be made without permission.

This article is provided by Stephen Chrisomalis

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