What's the difference between a vicar, preferably of the Church of England, and a pastor? I browsed Wikipedia, but most of the gist of the article is that vicar is an ecclesiastical office, and oft-invoked title (e.g. the Pope is known as the Vicar of Christ), but there's not much else there except for it going into mind-numbing details of the hierarchy between they and rectors and curates, which I don't much care about.

[The reason I ask is that through reading various novels and histories, I noticed that quite a many famous scientific figures and intellectuals were sons of vicars, or married vicars' daughters — in the other words, the office of vicar seemed to have significant social prestige, and require a formidable mind to achieve it, but I can't figure out why, because I don't know what their official duties were or what they were in charge of. What does it mean to be vicar, and how is it different from being a pastor?]

  • @FumbleFingers: You meant parsons or pastors?
    – Alenanno
    May 23, 2011 at 16:48
  • In any historical novel that included both sons of vicars and sons of pastors, the latter would almost certainly be considered the 'lower-born'. And that distinction would probably be relevant to the author's purposes, if he explicitly included both. May 23, 2011 at 16:55
  • @FumbleFingers: ahah no problem :D by the way, it's not Alennano, but Alenanno :P
    – Alenanno
    May 23, 2011 at 17:33
  • @Alenanno: Soz. I usually cut & paste any handle longer than a few characters for just that reason (my handle does have some relationship to me, obviously! ;-) May 23, 2011 at 17:42
  • 1
    Related (but not quite the same): christianity.stackexchange.com/q/5596/214
    – TRiG
    Oct 25, 2012 at 17:36

7 Answers 7


There are many terms for the head of a local church, and the exact differences blur over time. Often the choice is based on some theological position of the founder; a distinction that is often lost in the general homogenization of ecumenicalism.

Nonetheless, in terms of a theological position, a vicar is someone who stands in place of Christ. A person who represents Christ, the real head of the church, at the church. He has a special spiritual position and role.

A pastor is specifically someone concerned with pastoral work, that is someone who heals the wounds and broken hearts. This is frequently used in churches where the leader doesn't necessarily have a special spiritual position, he is a teaching elder, or just a selected congregant. In the UK and outside the US this person is often called a minister, which has essentially the same meaning.

A priest is much the same as a vicar, except that a priest often has the role of offering a sacrifice, which is why you see it in Catholic churches, which offer the Eucharist, the re-sacrifice of the body of Christ.

These names are often reflected in the three basic categories of church:

  • Episcopal, which is a church with a hierarchy of spiritual leadership such as the Church of England or the Roman Catholic church. They usually use either priest, or vicar. (And also various higher level titles like Bishop, Cardinal, Monseigneur etc.) The name derives from the Greek work episcopos, which literally means overseer, or, more conventionally bishop.

  • Presbyterian, which is a church ruled by elders with a central congregation of elders from each church that, democratically, set church doctrine. Examples of this would be the Baptists, the Church of Scotland, or the Methodists. They tend to use words like pastor, minister or often just elder or teaching elder. This name derives from the Greek word presbyter meaning elder, the literal meaning being that everyone is the same but the wiser older ones set the standards.

  • Congregational, which is largely like the Presbyterian, except that there is not ruling body of doctrine set by the churches as a group. Each church is responsible for its own. There are lots of little churches like this, and some larger ones. They often have an overall organization, but it has limited governing powers.


Vicar is almost exclusively used within Anglican/Episcopal contexts. It is in many ways equivalent to Pastor/Minister/Priest. A vicar was traditionally one of the few educated men in a village and one of the few career paths open to an academic and therefore was a position of considerable social standing. Often it was a career that a younger son of an aristocrat would take as he didn't stand to inherit the estate that his older brother would inherit.

A pastor is a far more general term - particularly popular in non-conformist churches and as such varies widely in what level of qualification - if any - is required.


Vicar is the normal term for the local CofE god-botherer.

Pastor isn't a particularly common British term, it generally either means the preacher in an American church or a term from the 16th century reformation.

Note that up to the 20C, holy orders (training to be a CofE vicar) was the about only official course at some Oxford and Cambridge colleges. So people like the mathematician/author Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) were officially vicars or training to be vicars.

For a novelist, the vicar and vicar's daughter are pretty much stock 19C characters. It lets you have a character that isn't a peasant but also isn't an aristocrat.

  • It's more than that though. Pastor is perfectly common in non-Anglican churches, which are somewhere close to half in England. Also, it seems just a tad cynical to write off the characters in those novels as just a stock position for convenience. The pastor (or vicar) had a particularly important rôle socially, even if many of them weren't (or even are) particularly good at it. For all their usefulness in novels, their frequency does attest to more than just convenience: they had a real, noticeable place in the towns and villages where the stories are set. May 23, 2011 at 19:07

As reported from the NOAD, vicar has the following meanings:

  • (in the Episcopal Church) a member of the clergy in charge of a chapel.
  • (in the Church of England) an incumbent of a parish where tithes formerly passed to a chapter or religious house or layman.
  • (in other Anglican Churches) a member of the clergy deputizing for another.
  • a cleric or choir member appointed to sing certain parts of a cathedral service.

Pastor means "a minister in charge of a Christian church or congregation."

Comparing the first meaning of vicar with the meaning of pastor, I would say that pastor has a more generic meaning.


Mostly it's a matter of which denomination you belong to. The word "vicar" derives from Latin vicarius, a substitute, while the word "pastor" is Latin for "shepherd".

The priest of a local parish in the Church of England is called a vicar or a rector. (The convention appears to be that a vicar is a substitute for a rector?)

"Pastor", on the other hand, is the generic term - across virtually all Christian denominations - for the spiritual leader of a congregation. Even in the C of E, the duties of a priest are called "pastoral".

Other denominations also use the word "vicar" in various ways - for instance, one of the Roman Catholic Pope's titles is "Vicarius Christi", or "Vicar of Christ."

There is an apocryphal story that a Pope was visiting the Holy Ghost Convent, and was introduced to the head nun. "Your Holiness, how good to meet you! I am the Superior of the Holy Ghost," she said. "In that case, I am honored," he said. "I'm only the Vicar of Christ."


From TheFreeOnlineDictionary.com:

vic·ar (vkr) n. Abbr. Vic. 1. a. The priest of a parish in the Church of England who receives a stipend or salary but does not receive the tithes of a parish.

I think that's the specific distinction you're looking for. A vicar is still a pastor, I surmise.


Both words can be used in a fairly vague way to mean practically anyone with some kind of ecclesiastical position.

There are more 'formal' positions labelled vicar, but there are so many different ecclesiastical contexts around the world that I don't see much point in trying to list definitions for the role within a few of them.

I won't say there are no religious grouping where pastor is a clearly-defined and formally recognised position, but I don't know of any.

In general, I think most people wouldn't be (lexically) surprised to read in their local paper that the Vicar summoned the Pastor for a dressing-down if the latter had just done something questionable. But they might think it was odd if the Pastor summoned the Vicar.

That's not to say Vicar is by definition a higher position than Pastor, just by way of illustrating the more normal assumption of people who probably don't really know one way or the other anyway.

  • Many churches (perhaps baptists most numerously) would have pastor or elder (they are synonymous for baptists) as a formal position. May 23, 2011 at 19:09
  • @Nicholas Wilson: I don't doubt that for a moment. But taking all religious organisations together, I do seriously doubt that the number of pastors formally endowed with that title would be significant compared with the corresponding number of vicars, which was really all I was saying. Oh - and that in general, vicars are further up the hierarchy than pastors. May 23, 2011 at 19:58
  • In England, yes, but there are plenty of Americans around here where minister, pastor, and priest would probably each outnumber vicar as formal titles. Globally, in English-speaking countries, it's not entirely clear that 'vicar' would be the most common. May 23, 2011 at 20:17
  • @Nicholas Wilson: Well I think at the last count less than 5% of the UK are regular church-goers, and it's expected that practising Muslims will outnumber them in a couple of decades. So I see the whole thing as historical anyway. OP says he's asking because he keeps coming across vicars in literary / cultural / scientific contexts, so I guess that's mostly pretty old stuff. For me today, the whole field of religion is more evocative of suicide bombers and people like Harold Camping (the latest End-Of-Worlder to get the date wrong), so I don't really keep up with it. May 23, 2011 at 20:47
  • That's a shame, because it's not really representative. I guess you know that, but still. Things don't have merit as and when they're popular; they're useful only so far as they really reflect the world (and that's linguistic too, to prevent this being too OT). You're giving lots of of atheist signals (sorry if that's a wrong linguistic comment, but many of my friends display the same!); perhaps it is fair to point out that if we are correct now, it has to be because we square up against everything else and win, whether it's still around or not, so we can't write anything off as just history. May 24, 2011 at 0:31

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