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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
(Lat. decanus, derived from the Gr. Oka, ten), the style of a certain functionary, primarily ecclesiastical. Whether the term was first used among the secular clergy to signify the priest who had a charge of inspection and superintendence over two parishes, or among the regular clergy to signify the monk who in a monastery had authority over ten other monks, appears doubtful. "Decurius" may be found in early writers used to signify the same thing as "decanus," which shows that the word and the idea signified by it were originally borrowed from the old Roman military system.
The earliest mention which occurs of an "archipresbyter" seems to be in the fourth epistle of St Jerome to Rusticus, in which he says that a cathedral church should possess one bishop, one archipresbyter and one archdeacon. Liberatus also (Breviar. c. xiv.) speaks of the office of archipresbyter in a manner which, as J. Bingham says, enables one to understand what the nature of his duties and position was. And he thinks that those are right who hold that the archipresbyters were the same as the deans of English cathedral churches. E. Stillingfleet (Irenic. part ii. c. 7) says of the archipresbyters that "the memory of them is preserved still in cathedral churches, in the chapters there, where the dean was nothing else but the archipresbyter; and both dean and prebendaries were to be assistant to the bishop in the regulating the church affairs belonging to the city, while the churches were contained therein." Bingham, however, following Liberatus, describes the office of the archipresbyter to have been next to that of the bishop, the head of the presbyteral college, and the functions to have consisted in administering all matters pertaining to the church in the absence of the bishop. But this does not describe accurately the office of dean in an English cathedral church. The dean is indeed second to the bishop in rank and dignity, and he is the head of the presbyteral college or chapter; but his functions in no wise consist in administering any affairs in the absence of the bishop. There may be some matters connected with the ordering of the internal arrangements of cathedral churches, respecting which it may be considered a doubtful point whether the authority of the bishop or that of the dean is supreme. But the consideration of any such question leads at once to the due theoretical distinction between the two. With regard to matters spiritual, properly and strictly so called, the bishop is supreme in the cathedral as far as - and no further than - he is supreme in his diocese generally. With regard to matters material and temporal, as concerning the fabric of the cathedral, the arrangement and conduct of the services, and the management of the property of the chapter, &c., the dean (not excluding the due authority of the other members of the chapter, but speaking with reference to the bishop) is supreme. And the cases in which a doubt might arise are those in which the material arrangements of the fabric or of the services may be thought to involve doctrinal considerations.
The Roman Catholic writers on the subject say that there are two sorts of deans in the church - the deans of cathedral churches, and the rural deans - as has continued to be the case in the English Church. And the probability would seem to be that the former were the successors and representatives of the monastic decurions, the latter of the inspectors of "ten" parishes in the primitive secular church. It is thought by some that the rural dean is the lineal successor of the chorepiscopus, who in the early church was the assistant of the bishop, discharging most, if not all, episcopal functions in the rural districts of the diocese. But upon the whole the probability is otherwise. W. Beveridge, W. Cave, Bingham and Basnage all hold that the chorepiscopi were true bishops, though Romanist theologians for the most part have maintained that they were simple priests. But if the chorepisco pus has any representative in the church of the present day, it seems more likely that the archdeacon is such rather than the dean.
The ordinary use of the term dean, as regards secular bodies of persons, would lead to the belief that the oldest member of a chapter had, as a matter of right, or at least of usage, become the dean thereof. But Bingham (lib. ii. chap. 18) very conclusively shows that such was at no time the case; as is also further indicated by the maxim to the effect that the dean must be selected from the body of the chapter - "Unus de gremio tantum potest eligi et promoveri ad decanatus dignitatem." The duties of the dean in a Roman Catholic cathedral are to preside over the chapter, to declare the decisions to which the chapter may have in its debates arrived by plurality of voices, to exercise inspection over the choir, over the conduct of the capitular body, and over the discipline and regulations of the church; and to celebrate divine service on occasion of the greater festivals of the church in the absence or inability of the bishop. With the exception of the last clause the same statement may be made as to the duties and functions of the deans of Church of England cathedral churches.
Deans had also a place in the judicial system of the Lombard kings in the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries. But the office indicated by that term, so used, seems to have been a very subordinate one; and the name was in all probability adopted with immediate reference to the etymological meaning of the word, - a person having authority over ten (in this case apparently) families. L. A. Muratori, in his Italian Antiquities, speaks of the resemblance between the saltarii or sylvani and the decani, and shows that the former had authority in the rural districts, and the latter in towns, or at least in places where the population was sufficiently close for them to have authority over ten families. Nevertheless, a document cited by Muratori from the archives of the canons of Modena, and dated in the year 813, recites the names of several "deaneries" (decania), and thus shows that the authority of the dean extended over a certain circumscription of territory.
In the case of the "dean of the sacred college," the connexion between the application of the term and the etymology of it is not so evident as in the foregoing instances of its use; nor is it by any means clear how and when the idea of seniority was first attached to the word. This office is held by the oldest cardinal - i.e. he who has been longest in the enjoyment of the purple, not he who is oldest in years, - who is usually, but not necessarily or always, the bishop of Ostia and Velletri. Perhaps the use of the word "dean," as signifying simply the eldest member of any corporation or body of men, may have been first adopted from its application to that high dignitary. The dean of the sacred college is in the ecclesiastical hierarchy second to the pope alone. His privileges and special functions are very many; a compendious account of the principal of them may be found in the work of G. Moroni, vol. xix. p. 168.
There are four sorts of deans of whom the law of England takes notice. (I) The dean and chapter are a council subordinate to the bishop, assistant to him in matters spiritual relating to religion, and in matters temporal relating to the temporalities of the bishopric. The dean and chapter are a corporation, and the dean himself is a corporation sole. Deans are said to be either of the old or of the new foundation - the latter being those created and regulated after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. The deans of the old foundation before the Ecclesiastical Commissioners Act 1841 were elected by the chapter on the king's conge d'elire; and the deans of the new foundation (and, since the act, of the old foundation also) are appointed by the king's letters patent. It was at one time held that a layman might be dean; but since 1662 priest's orders are a necessary qualification. Deaneries are sinecures in the old sense, i.e. they are without cure of souls. The chapter formerly consisted of canons and prebendaries, the dean being the head and an integral part of the corporation. By the Ecclesiastical Commissioners Act 1841, it is enacted that "all the members of the chapter except the dean, in every collegiate and cathedral church in England, and in the cathedral churches of St David and Llandaff, shall be styled canons." By the same act the dean is required to be in residence eight months, and the canons three months, in every year. The bishop is visitor of the dean and chapter. (2) A dean of peculiars is the chief of certain peculiar churches or chapels. He "bath no chapter, yet is presentative, and hath cure of souls; he bath a peculiar, and is not subject to the visitation of the bishop of the diocese." The only instances of such deaneries are Battle (Sussex), Bocking (Essex) and Stamford (Rutland). The deans of Jersey and Guernsey have similar status. (3) The third dean "bath no cure of souls, but bath a court and a peculiar, in which he holdeth plea and jurisdiction of all such ecclesiastical matters as come within his peculiar. Such is the dean of the arches, who is the judge of the court of the arches, the chiefcourt and consistory of the archbishop of Canterbury, so called of Bow Church, where this court was ever wont to be held." (See Arches, Court oF.) The parish of Bow and twelve others were within the peculiar jurisdiction of the archbishop in spiritual causes, and exempted out of the bishop of London's jurisdiction. They were in 1845 made part of the diocese of London. (4) Rural deans are clergymen whose duty is described as being "to execute the bishop's processes and to inspect the lives and manners of the clergy and people within their jurisdiction." (See Phillimore's Ecclesiastical Law.) In the colleges of the English universities one of the fellows usually holds the office of "dean," and is specially charged with the discipline, as distinguished from the teaching functions of the tutors. In some universities the head of a faculty is called "dean," and in each of these cases the word is used in a non-ecclesiastical and purely titular sense.
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Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Dean'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/bri/d/dean.html. 1910.