An (ecclesiastical) law glossary

The Prayer Book Society (PBS) has announced that first-year students in theological colleges across the country are to receive a brand new glossary to assist their understanding of The Book of Common Prayer which is handed to them by the PBS at the start of their studies. The glossary is also available to others free of charge, and is on-line together with a Prayer Book Glossary card, which is designed to be used as a bookmark. Prompted by this initiative of the PBS, we have compiled our own “ecclesiastical law glossary” of terms used in the consistory and secular courts, in the Church of England, and elsewhere:

Judicial Vocabulary

Adumbrate: overshadow. [Note: this is a word that is much misused; in other contexts, it is used as “represent in outline” and “foreshadow (a future event)”, (OED)].

Dispositive: Relating to or bringing about the settlement of an issue or the disposition of property: ‘such litigation will rarely be dispositive of any question’.

Eirenic: A part of Christian theology concerned with reconciling different denominations and sects.

Evince: reveal the presence of (a quality or feeling); indicate.

Enounce: state (a proposition, theory, etc.) in definite terms.

Excursus: “A detailed discussion of a particular point in a book, usually in an appendix”; or “A digression in a written text”, from Latin excurrere ‘run out’.

Expatiate: speak or write in detail about.

Ex abundanti cautela: Out of an abundance of caution. ”Done solely or primarily to forestall some perceived risk”.

Gravamen: a complaint or grievance, the ground of a legal action, and particularly the more serious part of a charge against an accused person. In legal terms, the essential element of a lawsuit. The term is also used in ecclesiastical courts, being the technical designation of a memorial presented from the Lower to the Upper House of Convocation, setting forth grievances to be redressed, or calling attention to breaches of church discipline. (In Scotland, the term would be ‘libel’ – see below.)

Hapax legomenon: (sometimes abbreviated to hapax) is a word that occurs only once within a context, either in the written record of an entire language, in the works of an author, or in a single text.

Outwith: outside.

Pellucid: translucently clear.

Prolix: (of speech or writing) using or containing too many words; tediously lengthy. “he found the narrative too prolix and discursive”.

Recuse, recusal: where the judge withdraws from hearing the case on the grounds of an interest in the matter that might affect his or her judicial objectivity.

Tergiversate: Make conflicting or evasive statements; equivocate. Also, Change one’s loyalties; abandon a belief or principle.

Allusion to classical mythology

“To heap Pelion on Ossa”: To heap difficulty upon difficulty; to attempt that which is all but impossible.

“Steer between Scylla and Charybdis”: Between a rock and a hard place.

“Orpheus leading Eurydice out of Hades”: Disastrous consequences of looking back.

Scots legal & others

Mainly from the Scottish Judiciary Glossary (SJG) and Green’s Glossary of Scottish Legal Terms. The Cardiff Centre for Law & Religion has a helpful note by Carole Hope on the basics of Church of Scotland legal practice and procedure, here.

Ad vitam aut culpam“: the traditional description applied to the validity of Presbyterian ordination: for life and during good behaviour.

Adminicle: a document giving evidence as to the existence or contents of another, missing document. Origin: Mid 16th century: from Latin adminiculum ‘prop, support’.

Appeal: an appeal may be taken by an individual or legal body against a decision of a kirk session or presbytery, provided that the appellant can demonstrate an interest in seeking the review of the original decision.

Averment: allegation, particularly in written pleadings.

Avizandum: when a judge “makes avizandum with a cause,” i.e. takes time to consider his judgment. cf curia advisari vult in English law.

Bar: in Presbyterian church courts, parties are called to the Bar to give evidence or answer charges.

Barrier Act: the fundamental Act of 1697 that requires the General Assembly to consult the presbyteries when proposing “any Acts, which are to be binding Rules and Constitutions to the Church”: all the Scottish Presbyterian Churches have Barrier Act procedures.

Conclusion, to conclude for: statement of the relief sought.

Defender: the person defending a civil action – in traditional Scots terminology, the accused in a criminal trial is the “panel” (spelt more rarely nowadays “pannel”).

Deliverance: resolution passed by a Presbyterian church court.

Dissent and complaint: the means by which a member of a church court may appeal against that court’s decision to a higher court.

Furth: outside, outwith, as in “furth of Scotland”.

Haver: “The person in possession of a document or property from whom a party to proceedings wishes to obtain it for the purposes of the proceedings. See also Recovery of documents and Specification of documents”, (SJG). (Pronounced with a short “a” and not to be confused with its use as a verb, “(Scottish) Talk foolishly; babble: (British) Act in a vacillating or indecisive manner (OED)).

[Interim] Interdict: [temporary] order of the court preventing a person or body from undertaking certain actions – equivalent to an [interlocutory] injunction in England.

Irrelevance, plea to: plea that the facts averred do not disclose a situation that gives rise to a legal remedy.

Libel: In the criminal courts, the contents of a criminal indictment. In Presbyterian church courts (but not in those of the Church of Scotland, where the procedure has been abolished) ‘trial by libel’ is the procedure under which disciplinary matters are heard and determined by the presbytery of the bounds.

Nobile officium (a.k.a. “nob off”): the equitable power of a supreme court to provide an extraordinary remedy where the existing law is silent on the matter – but not to set aside the existing law.

Obtemper: to obey, comply with, or perform, esp. a decree or order of a court.

Overture: a formal proposal made by a lower court to the supreme court of a Presbyterian church for a change in church law: frequently used as a verb – “The Presbytery of Glasgow overtured the General Assembly to….”

Patrimonial: relating to property [as contrasted with, say, personal injury].

Pled: in Scotland, the past tense of the verb “to plead”.

Pro re nata: “for the thing that has arisen”: used to describe a meeting of a church court for business that has arisen unexpectedly.  A meeting in hunc effectum (“for this purpose”) is called to address a special matter that has arisen from a regular meeting.

Protest: formal deed dissociating a member of a Presbyterian church court from a decision of that court.

Pursuer: the person suing in an action.

Reclaimer, to reclaim: appeal from the Outer House to the Inner House of the Court of Session – an appeal is by way of a reclaiming motion and the party is described as “pursuer and reclaimer”.

Reduction, to reduce: to annul or set aside by legal process.

Reparation: the making good of a civil wrong, usually by damages.

Sist: “(1) To stay or stop proceedings from continuing in the meantime; (2) To summon or call someone as a party, e.g, sisting a mandatory, or a person seeking to become a party to civil proceedings”, (SJG).

Stymie: To prevent or hinder the progress of an action, and was originally a term used in golf.

In Cherry v Advocate General for Scotland, The Lord President, Lord Carloway, said: “…although advice to HM the Queen on the exercise of the royal prerogative of proroguing Parliament was not reviewable on the normal grounds of judicial review, it would nevertheless be unlawful if its purpose was to stymie parliamentary scrutiny of the executive” per .

Truster: The person who establishes a trust (cf English “settlor”) – not to be confused with “trustee”.

Norman French

Norman French is used in Parliament in some of the formal exchanges between the two Houses during a Bill’s passage through Parliament; also at Royal Assent. These procedures have hardly changed since they began when Norman French was the official language of Government. (Traditions and customs of the House: House of Commons Background Paper, Section 3.5 Endorsements on Bills – the use of Norman French, page 13). The phrases used include:

Finance bills: Le Roy/La Reyne, remerciant Ses bons Subjects, accepte leur Benevolence, et ainsi le veult. (The King/Queen, thanking her good subjects, accepts their benevolence, and so wills it.) [Frank notes that this is the position according to Erskine May: but, in practice, he has observed the Clerk of the Parliaments say La Reyne le veult to all bills, public and private on a number of occasions.]

Other public bills: Le Roy/La Reyne le veult. (The King/Queen wills it.)

Private bills: Soit fait come il est desire. (Let it be done as it is desired.)

Royal consent has not been refused since 1708, but the words for that were: Le Roy/La Reyne s’avisera. (The King/Queen will think about it.)

Church of England

Words used in relation to diocesan bishops, their election, and related issues

Congé d’Elire: Licence from the Monarch issued under the Great Seal to the dean and chapter of the cathedral church of a diocese, authorizing them to elect a bishop or archbishop.

Contumacious: stubbornly or wilfully disobedient to authority.

Episcopi vagantes, (singular: episcopus vagans):   Literally “wandering bishops or stray bishops”, a term applied to: “those consecrated in a “clandestine or irregular way” as Christian bishops outside the structures and canon law of the established churches; those regularly consecrated but later excommunicated and not in communion with any generally recognized diocese; and those who have in communion with them small groups that appear to exist solely for the bishop’s sake” (Wikipedia).

Porrect: to put forward, tender; to produce or submit for examination or correction

Weet : know.


Crockford’s Clerical Directory includes an extensive Glossary of key terms relevant to the Church of England and an equally useful How to address the clergy.


Finally, no glossary would be complete unless it included the word “gloss” – the provision of an explanation, interpretation, or paraphrase for (a text, word, etc.), (OED), often as comments written in the margin of a document.

Updated: 16 December 2023 at 17:12. 

David Pocklington and Frank Cranmer

Cite this article as: David Pocklington and Frank Cranmer, “An (ecclesiastical) law glossary” in Law & Religion UK, 25 September 2017,

14 thoughts on “An (ecclesiastical) law glossary

  1. Thanks for another fascinating, and helpful, post, Frank and David. Do any English courts have an equivalent to the power of nobile officium (perhaps known by another name)? I know that they have a declaratory power, but nobile officium seems to go far beyond that.

    I found this fascinating snippet in Kames’s Principles of Equity:

    ‘The court also had the power by its nobile officium to introduce new rules to overcome imperfections in the law. There was some debate over how far this extended. Lord Bankton illustrated the power by referring to “a memorable instance” in 1725 when the Court of Session made an act of sederunt to order the brewers of Edinburgh, who had entered a resolution to give up their trade, to give a security that they would continue to brew beer, on pain of imprisonment. Some critics found this legislative power of the court to be alarming.’

    • Given that my general knowledge of English law is pretty flaky, I wouldn’t presume to reply to that question – all I can say is that if there is an English equivalent to the nobile officium I haven’t come across it.

      My guess is that the nearest English equivalent is the principles of equity: but they have equity in Scots law as well (except it isn’t in a separate “box”) and the High Court of Justiciary also exercises the nobile officium: the Scots equivalent of a writ of habeas corpus is a petition to the nobile officium of the High Court.

      Perhaps someone who’s better-informed that I am could provide further and better particulars.

  2. Thanks, Frank. Incidentally, I am pleased that your word list is self-referential by defining ‘gloss’. I intend to compile a list of all and only those lists that mention themselves — and also one of all and only those that don’t!

    • I remember that during our LLM course at Cardiff, Richard Helmholz took us through a Latin text with Latin glosses – quite a struggle for those of us with only distant memories of O level Latin and Caesar’s De Bello Gallico.

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    • Ha: one of my favourites – but the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland decided to drop it on the grounds that it was archaic and the citations of Acts of Assembly have been changed to reflect that decision.

      Or as Celia Kenny replied in an e-mail after I’d written something in the Ecclesiastical Law Journal to mark its passing:

      There was a young man from Tranent
      Who was thirled to the use of ‘anent’.
      With inordinate skill
      He took up his quill
      And he penned a most touching lament.

  4. Where would Burns have been without Scots church law?

    O hear my earnest cry and prayer
    Against the Presbytery of Ayr
    Thy strong right hand, Lord, mak it bare
    Upon their heids

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