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Clergy houses are typically owned and maintained by a church, as a benefit to its clergy. The practice exists in many denominations because of the tendency of clergy to be transferred from one church to another at relatively frequent intervals; also, in smaller communities housing is not as available and in addition the house is provided in lieu of salary which (especially at smaller congregations) may not be able to be provided.
Catholic clergy houses in particular may be lived in by several priests from a parish. Clergy houses frequently serve as the administrative office of the local parish as well as a residence; they are normally located next to, or at least close to, the church their occupant serves.
Partly because of the general conservation of churches, many clergy houses have survived and are of historic interest or importance. In the United Kingdom the 14th-century Alfriston Clergy House was the first property to be acquired by the National Trust. It was purchased in a state of near ruin in 1896 for £10, the vicarage having moved elsewhere long before.
In some countries where the clergy houses were often rather grand, they have now been sold off by the churches, exchanged for more modest properties. In England the "Old Vicarage" or "Old Rectory" is very common in villages. It has often been acquired as a comfortable private home for the upper middle-classes. In Scotland it may be known as the "Old Manse". Others are now adapted as offices or used for various civic functions.
There are a number of more specific terms whose use depends on the rank of the occupant, the denomination and the locality. Above the parish level, traditionally a bishop's house was called a Bishop's Palace, a dean lives in a deanery, and a canon in a canonry or "canon's house". Other titles may have different names for their houses.
A rectory is the residence, or former residence, of an ecclesiastical rector, although also in some cases an academic rector (e.g. a Scottish university rector) or other person with that title. In North American Anglicanism a far greater proportion of parish clergy were and are titled rectors than in Britain, so the rectory is more common there. The names used for homes of the ordinary parish clergy vary considerably, and generalization is difficult:
- In the Anglican Communion vicarage or (more informal and old-fashioned) parsonage, and rectory if appropriate.
- Roman Catholics use priory, clergy house, parochial house (mostly Ireland), chapel house (in Scotland), presbytery, and rectory (especially in Massachusetts) if appropriate. In the Philippines, the term convent is used, a direct calque of the Spanish convento.
- Manse (cognate with mansion) is a Scottish term, used in Scottish Presbyterianism, and general in other parts of the British Isles by Non-conformist Churches such as the Methodists and the United Reformed Church. This word is also commonly used by Baptists in the United Kingdom and some Commonwealth countries.
- Pastorium is the usual term in the Southern United States, especially among Baptists.
- Lutheran churches often use parsonage.
- Parish house is used by many denominations
- A rectory in Ilmenau, Germany
- The rectory in Valö, Uppland, Sweden
- Halton Vicarage, England; 1739 and still used
- The old vicarage, Morwenstow, England
- Old rectory of Deschambault (1815–1818), Canada
- An 1887 Catholic rectory in Ohio