Have you ever been reading a Jane Austen novel and wondered why the English call their neighborhood religious liaisons vicars? It isn’t a word in the Bible. Usually religious systems that are trying to build off of Biblical status will at least re-use Biblical vocabulary to help legitimize themselves. The answer about vicar seems to be two-fold and political, a simple review of history indicates.
First of all, the Catholic organization, which a certain English monarch was trying to get out from under the political thumb of, had already used the term “priest” pretty thoroughly. To use it again would be too close to conceding to the Catholic format. If the Catholics had “done it right,” then there was no need to break away. Such is the use of vocabulary in political propaganda.
However, the English monarchy was not actually seeking to free anyone from religious authority. They wanted that strictly maintained, for political reasons. They wanted representatives out in the villages, but with the distinct message that these men (for men they all were at that time) answered and reported to higher religious persons, who were closer to the throne.
It is true that at the higher levels of English religious government (it was pretty much the English monarchy that ruled Britain, though the exact borders of subjugation varied with time), the titles of bishop were still used, but they might have felt that had more clout as a ruling office. They did throw in the prefix “Arch-,” to the highest offices, giving those roles a loftier ring. It had already been used in the ranks of English nobility with “success.”
So, where did the word vicar come from? It is thought to have traveled from Latin to Old French to Middle English. It has the same Latin root as the word vicarious, which most of us are more familiar with. The basic meaning of both words is “a substitute,” or one who “represents in the place of another.”
The designation of rector seemed to have been used interchangeably with vicar, but the definitions show that rector means “ruler”, and that a vicar was lower than a rector. This difference also showed up in how they were paid, a vicar having less control over his own income. However, as would be expected in a political-religious system, the titles and offices were based on noble rank, at least at first.
I could not find anything easily on the Church of England’s website about their current structure, beyond listing major provinces and dioceses (which according to the dictionary is just an ancient way of saying house or region in government-speak). There was promise of mention of vicars in pdfs, but when I tried to follow that, it became quite a dense maze of material. I did find this chart which shows the probably hierarchy in the Church of England around 1820, as well as some modern definitions.
Maybe by now you are also remembering other neighborhood religious titles such as parson and curate. Those seem to be the lowest of the low in terms of the political ranking and payment. A common person could even hold these jobs, because they were usually in locations that more noble personages eschewed. This churchsociety.org attempt at explaining all the roles and titles within the Church of England shows that it may be challenging for even the English people to understand. And it is subject to change.
There were even a few places where the title priest hung on, in spite of all these efforts at renaming things. This goes to show that even governments can only do so much to effect people’s choice of vocabulary, even if it superimposes it’s own power structure. Not only that, but some people take on the accepted government-speak and continue with doing what they were doing before. Some people are enough out of reach and unimportant enough that the government doesn’t kill them for using the wrong words.
All of this begs the question: Do people need a religious representative to help them connect with God? According to the New Testament, the answer is no. We learn from the Holy Spirit, we learn from each other, and we learn from those more experienced and mature, but never under a ruling religious class with authority to punish us or forgive our sin. We are constantly warned as individuals to evaluate all that we are told.
Even Jesus was not simply a vicar, or substitute. He did something for us we could not do at all by ourselves, something that if we had tried to do would not have yielded any worthwhile result. If we have any vicar, it might be said to be the Holy Spirit, but he also does nothing to stand between us and our Savior, but guides us to be in confident communion with the Father because of our inheritance with Christ.