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The term rector in the widest ecclesiastical sense means "one who sets straight, guides, directs; a ruler, governor, director, guide, leader," from the Latin verb rego, regere, rexi, rectum, "to set straight, guide, direct". It has similar meanings, in governmental and academic spheres of administration. A female equivalent is rectoress, and the term and office of a rector are a rectorate.
The Latin adjective rectus, meaning "straight", derives from the same source as the verb rego, regere, rexi, rectum, to rule, set straight. Thus a "ruler" in English refers both to a king and a drawing instrument for producing straight lines. In a moral sense a rector has the function of keeping those under his authority on the "straight and narrow path" of correct religious ideology. In classical Latin a rector may be a ruler, director or naval steersman, from which sense is derived "governor", Latin gubernator, one who operates the gubernum, the "rudder" of a ship.
Historical usage 
In ancient times bishops, as rulers of cities and provinces, especially in the Papal States, were called rectors, as were administrators of the patrimony of the Church (e.g. rector Siciliæ). The term 'Rector' was used by Pope Gregory the Great in the "Regula Pastoralis" as equivalent to pastor, Latin for "shepherd".
Roman Catholic hierarchies 
In the Roman Catholic Church, a rector is a person who holds the office of presiding over an ecclesiastical institution. This institution might be a particular building—like a church or shrine—or it could also be an organization, such as a parish, a mission or quasi-parish, a seminary or house of studies, a university, a hospital, or a community of clerics or religious. If a rector appointed as his employee someone to perform the duties of his office, i.e. to act for him "vicariously", that employee was termed his "vicar". Thus, the tithes of a parish are the legal property of the person who holds the office of rector, and are not the property of his vicar, who is not an office-holder but a mere employee, remunerated by a stipend, i.e. a salary, payable by his employer the rector. Thus, a parish vicar is the vicarious agent of his rector, whilst, higher up the scale, the Pope is deemed to be the "Vicar of God", acting vicariously for the ultimate superior in the ecclesiastical hierarchy.
The Canon law of the Catholic Church explicitly mentions as special cases three offices of rectors:
- rectors of seminaries (c. 239 & c. 833 #6)
- rectors of churches that do not belong to a parish, a chapter of canons, or a religious order (c. 556 & 553)
- rectors of Catholic universities (c. 443 §3 #3 & c. 833 #7)
However, these are not the only officials who exercise their functions using the title of rector. Since the term rector refers to the function of the particular office, a number of officials are not referred to as rectors even though they are rectors in actual practice. The diocesan bishop, for instance, is himself a rector, since he presides over both an ecclesiastical organization (the diocese) and an ecclesiastical building (his cathedral). In many dioceses, the bishop delegates the day-to-day operation of the cathedral to a priest, who is often incorrectly called a rector but whose specific title is plebanus or "people's pastor", especially if the cathedral operates as a parish church. Therefore, because a priest is designated head of a cathedral parish, he cannot be both rector and pastor, as a rector cannot canonically hold title over a parish (c.556). As a further example, the pastor of a parish (parochus in Latin) is pastor (not rector) over both his parish and the parish church. Finally, a president of a Catholic university is rector over the university and, if a priest, often the rector of any church that the university may operate, on the basis that it is not a canonical establishment of a parish (c. 557 §3).
In some religious congregations of priests, rector is the title of the local superior of a house or community of the order. For instance, a community of several dozen Jesuit priests might include the pastor and priests assigned to a parish church next door, the faculty of a Jesuit high school across the street, and the priests in an administrative office down the block. However, the community as a local installation of Jesuit priests is headed by a rector.
There are some other uses of this title, such as for residence hall directors at the University of Notre Dame which were once (and to some extent still are) run in a seminary-like fashion. This title is used similarly at the University of Portland, another institution of the Congregation of Holy Cross.
The Pope himself has been called 'rector of the world', in the (now discontinued) ceremony of the conferring of the papal tiara as part of his formal installation after election.
A now obsolete use of the term existed in the United States prior to the formulation of the 1917 Code of Canon Law. Canon Law grants a type of tenure to pastors (parochus) of parishes, giving them certain rights against arbitrary removal by the bishop of their diocese. In order to preserve their flexibility and authority in assigning priests to parishes, bishops in the United States until that time did not actually appoint priests as pastors, but as "permanent rectors" of their parishes: the "permanent" gave the priest a degree of confidence in the security in his assignment, but the "rector" rather than "pastor" preserved the bishop's absolute authority to reassign clergy. Hence, many older parishes list among their early leaders priests with the postnominal letters "P.R." (as in, a plaque listing all of the pastors of a parish, with "Rev. John Smith, P.R."). This practice was discontinued and today priests are normally assigned as pastors of parishes, and bishops in practice reassign them at will (though there are still questions about the canonical legality of this).
Anglican churches 
In Anglican churches, a rector is one type of parish priest. Historically, parish priests in the Church of England were divided into rectors, vicars, and perpetual curates. The parish clergy and church was supported by tithes, a form of local tax (traditionally, as the etymology of tithe suggests, of ten percent) levied on the personal as well as agricultural output of the parish. Roughly speaking, the distinction was that a rector directly received both the greater and lesser tithes of his parish while a vicar received only the lesser tithes (the greater tithes going to the lay holder, or impropriator, of the living); a perpetual curate with a small cure and often aged or infirm received neither greater nor lesser tithes, and received only a small salary (paid sometimes by the diocese). Quite commonly, parishes that had a rector as priest also had glebe lands attached to the parish. The rector was then responsible for the repair of the chancel of his church—the part dedicated to the sacred offices—while the rest of the building was the responsibility of the parish. This rectorial responsibility persists, in perpetuity, with the occupiers of the original rectorial land where it has been sold. This is called chancel repair liability, and affects institutional, corporate and private owners of land once owned by around 5,200 churches in England and Wales. (See also Church of England#Organisation) Today, the roles of a rector and a vicar are essentially the same. Which of the two titles is held by the parish priest is historical. Some parishes have a rector, others a vicar.
The term is also now used in the Church of England with different meaning, designating the priest in charge of a "team ministry". (See also curate)
In the Church of Ireland, Scottish Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada, most parish priests are called rectors, not vicars. However, in the some dioceses of the Anglican Church of Canada rectors are officially licensed as incumbents to express the diocesan polity of employment of clergy.
In the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, the "rector" is the priest elected to head a self-supporting parish. A priest who is appointed by the bishop to head a parish in the absence of a rector is termed a "priest-in-charge", as is a priest leading a mission (that is, a congregation which is not self-supporting). "Associate priests" are priests hired by the parish to supplement the rector in his or her duties while "assistant priests" are priests resident in the congregation who help on a volunteer basis. The positions of "vicar" and "curate" are not recognized in the canons of the entire church. However, some diocesan canons do define "vicar" as the priest-in-charge of a mission; and "curate" is often used for assistants, being entirely analogous to the English situation.
In schools affiliated with the Anglican church the title "rector" is sometimes used in secondary schools and boarding schools, where the headmaster is often a priest.
Protestant churches 
In many Protestant congregational churches such as Baptist, Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, Evangelical Free Churches, etc., the rector is the person elected to lead the congregation with pastoral duties affixed to their administrative job.
See also 
- Cassell's Latin Dictionary
- "Chancel repair liabilities in England and Wales". The National Archives. Retrieved 2012-07-07.
- Canons of the Episcopal Church in the United State of America, III.9.3