In the pre-Reformation church, a parson is the priest of an independent parish church, that is, a parish church not under the control of a larger ecclesiastical or monastic organization. The term is similar to rector and is in contrast to a vicar, a cleric whose revenue is usually, at least partially, appropriated by a larger organization. Today the term is normally used for some parish clergy of non-Roman Catholic churches, in particular in the Anglican tradition in which a parson is the incumbent of a parochial benefice: a parish priest or a rector; in this sense a parson can be compared with a vicar. The title parson can be applied to clergy from certain other Protestant denominations. A parson is often housed in a church-owned home known as a parsonage.
- A parson, persona ecclesiae, is one that has full possession of all the rights of a parochial church. He is called parson, persona, because by his person the church, which is an invisible body, is represented; and he is in himself a body corporate, in order to protect and defend the rights of the church (which he personates) by a perpetual succession. He is sometimes called the rector, or governor, of the church: but the appellation of parson, (however it may be depreciated by familiar, clownish, and indiscriminate use) is the most legal, most beneficial, and most honorable title that a parish priest can enjoy; because such a one, (Sir Edward Coke observes) and he only, is said vicem seu personam ecclesiae gerere ("to carry out the business of the church in person")
- — Bl. Comm. I.11.V, p. *372
Legally, parish priests are separately given spiritual and temporal jurisdiction (they are instituted and inducted). The spiritual responsibility is termed the cure of souls, and one holding such a cure is a curate, which was also given to parish assistants, or assistant curates. The title parson, however, refers to the temporal jurisdiction over the churches and glebe. Depending on how the tithes were apportioned, a parson may be a rector or a vicar. A parish priest who received no tithes was legally a perpetual curate (to distinguish him from assistant curates).
However, historically, many perpetual curates, as they were technically parsons (having temporal jurisdiction), preferred to use this latter title. This led to the term parson having three senses. It could refer to any clergyman who was in charge of the parish church (rectors, vicars or perpetual curates) without distinction; it could, through actual use, refer simply to perpetual curates, or it could, through popular use, refer to any member of the clergy, even assistant curates. An Act of Parliament in 1868, changed the way that parochial clergy were paid, and permitted perpetual curates to be called vicars. This led to the rapid abandonment of the title parson in favour of vicar, to the extent that now, as previously for parson, the term vicar is often used for any cleric of the Church of England.
In Ulster, in the early 17th century, every parish had a vicar and a parson instead of a co-arb and an erenagh. The vicar, like the co-arb, was always in orders. He said the mass (‘serveth the cure’) and received a share of the tithes. The parson, like the erenagh, had a major portion of the tithes, maintained the church and provided hospitality. As he was not usually in clerical orders, his responsibilities were mainly temporal.
However, there were differences in the divisions of the tithes between various dioceses in Tyrone. In the Diocese of Clogher, the vicar and the parson shared the tithes equally between them; in the Diocese of Derry, church income came from both tithes and the rental of church lands (‘temporalities’). The vicar and the parson each received one third of the tithes and paid an annual tribute to the bishop. In places where there was no parson, the erenagh continued to receive two thirds of the income in kind from the church lands, and delivered the balance, after defraying maintenance, to the Bishop in cash as a yearly rental. In other places, the parson, the vicar and the erenagh shared the costs of church repairs equally between them. In the Diocese of Armagh the parson received two-thirds of the tithes and the vicar one third. The archbishop and the erenagh impropriated no part thereof because they received the entire income from the termon lands.
- Anthony Jennings, The Old Rectory: The History of the English Parsonage, Continuum, 2009; ISBN 978-0-8264-2658-1