Origins and usage
The term arose from the monastic practice of organizing monks in very large monasteries into groups of ten, headed by a decanus, a senior monk among the ten. The term then came to be used for clerics in various positions of seniority. Rural deans were appointed to oversee sections of a diocese far removed from the bishop, who was located in the large city of the area. Although once universal, the title has been legally altered to "area dean" in certain urban Anglican dioceses where the older version had become an archaic oddity. In the Roman Catholic Church, such clerics are usually just referred to as a "dean".
In the Anglican churches, a rural dean is an officer of the bishop and, together with an elected layperson, chairs the deanery synod. In this capacity, the rural dean also participates in decisions affecting a benefice within the deanery. The rural dean's key roles include the care of parishes within the deanery which are in interregnum, calling and chairing meetings of the deanery chapter (assembly of all licensed priests and deacons within the deanery), co-chairing meetings of the deanery synod (elected representatives of every parish in the deanery), caring for the clergy of the deanery, providing a means of communication between the parishes and the bishop of the diocese, and carrying out a visitation of any parish within the deanery on behalf of the archdeacon when commissioned to do so. As the "rural" prefix has appeared incongruous in some more urban zones, the term "area dean" has officially replaced "rural dean" in certain dioceses.
Roman Catholic deans
In the Catholic Church, a dean or rural dean is a priest, usually pastor of a parish within the deanery area. The dean serves as a liaison between the diocesan bishop and the priests and parishes of the deanery, and chairs meetings of the clergy of the deanery. He serves many of the same functions, with somewhat less canonical authority, than an episcopal vicar does.
- MacMorran K. M. and Briden T. A Handbook for Churchwardens and Parochial Church Councillors, Continuum (2001) ISBN 0-8264-6308-8