A benefice is a reward received in exchange for services rendered and as a retainer for future services. The term is now almost obsolete.

Girolamo and cardinal Marco Corner investing Marco, abbot of Carrara, with his benefice, Titian, ca 1520


Current usage

Church of England

The term benefice (or living) is now used in the Church of England to describe a parish or group of parishes under a single stipendiary minister.

The term dates from the grant of benefices by bishops to clerks in holy orders as a reward for extraordinary services.[1] The holder of a benefice owns the "freehold" of the post (the church and the parsonage house) but this freehold is now subject to many constraints.

To meet European regulations on "atypical workers", the freehold is to be phased out in favour of new conditions of service called "common tenure" (a term that sounds ancient but is of recent invention).[2]

For history see below after Catholic church.


Catholic Church

In ancient Rome a benefice was a gift of land (precaria) for life as a reward for services rendered, originally, to the state. The word comes from the Latin noun beneficium, meaning "benefit". The expanded practice continued through the Middle Ages within the European feudal system.

This same customary method became adopted by the Catholic Church

The church's revenue streams came from, amongst other things, rents and profits arising from assets gifted to the church, its endowment, given by believers, be they monarch, lord of the manor or vassal, and later to a much smaller extent certain tithes calculated on the sale of the product of the people's personal labour such as cloth or shoes and the people's profits from specific forms of, also God-given, natural increase such as crops and in livestock.

Initially these grants, then grants of land, were granted for life but the land was not alienated from the bishoprics. However the council of Lyons of 566 annexed these grants to the churches. By the time of the council of Mainz of 813 these grants were known as beneficia.

Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, grandson and cardinal-nephew of Pope Paul III, held sixty-four benefices simultaneously.

Holding a benefice did not necessarily imply a cure of souls but each benefice had a number of spiritual duties, attached to it. For providing these duties, a priest would receive "temporalities".

Benefices were used for the worldly support of much of its pastoral clergy, clergy being rewarded for carrying out their duties with rights to certain revenues, the fruits of their office. The original donor of the temporalities or his nominee, the patron, held the right, advowson, to nominate a candidate for the post subject to the approval of the bishop or other prelate as to the candidate's sufficiency for the demands of the post.

Parish priests were charged with the spiritual and temporal care of their congregation. The community provided for the priest as necessary, later, as organisation improved, by tithe (which could be partially or wholly lost to a temporal lord or patron but relief for that oppression could be found under law).

Some individual institutions within the church accumulated enormous endowments and with that temporal power. These endowments sometimes concentrated great wealth in the 'dead hand' of the church, 'dead hand' because it endured beyond any individual's life. The church, as often today, avoided some or all taxes.

The benefice system was open to abuse. Worldly prelates occasionally held multiple major benefices. The holding of more than one benefice is termed pluralism. An English example was Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury.

After the Reformation, the new denominations generally adopted systems of ecclesiastical polity that did not entail benefices, with the exception of the Church of England.


The French Revolution replaced France's system by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, confiscating the endowment of the church and awarding a state salary to the formerly dependent clergy. This system is still in force in several countries, including Belgium.

Church of England

A secular benefice was a benefice for a minister to a parish, the (sole) parish priest with his cure of souls, who may have been assisted by a curate or curates.

The Spiritualities were such revenue as was connected with spiritual duties and the cure of souls, and consisted almost entirely of tithes, glebe lands, and house - the parish house now commonly known as the parish hall.

The Temporalities were the church properties and possessions within the parish.[3] The term benefice, according to the canon law, implies always an ecclesiastical office, but does not always imply a cure of souls but see below. It has been defined to be the right which a clerk has to enjoy certain ecclesiastical revenues on condition of discharging certain services prescribed by the canons, or by usage, or by the conditions under which his office has been founded.

These services might be those of a secular priest with cure of souls, or they might be those of a regular priest, a member of a religious order, without cure of souls; but in every case a benefice implied three things:

  • (I) An obligation to discharge the duties of an office, which is altogether spiritual;
  • (2) The right to enjoy the fruits attached to that office, which is the benefice itself;
  • (3) The fruits themselves, which are the temporalities.

By keeping these distinctions in view, the right of patronage in the case of secular benefices becomes intelligible, being in fact the right, which was originally vested in the donor of the temporalities, to present to the bishop a clerk to be admitted, if found fit by the bishop, to the office to which those temporalities are annexed.

Nomination or presentation on the part of the patron of the benefice is thus the first requisite in order that a clerk should become legally entitled to a benefice. The next requisite is that he should be admitted by the bishop as a fit person for the spiritual office to which the benefice is annexed, and the bishop is the judge of the sufficiency of the clerk to be so admitted.

By the early constitutions of the Church of England a bishop was allowed a space of two months to inquire and inform himself of the sufficiency of every presentee, but by the ninety-fifth of the canons of 1604 that interval has been abridged to twenty-eight days, within which the bishop must admit or reject the clerk. If the bishop rejects the clerk within that time he is liable to a duplex querela (Latin; "double complaint": The procedure in ecclesiastical law for challenging a bishop's refusal to admit a presentee to a benefice)[4] in the ecclesiastical courts, or to a quare impedit in the common law courts, and the bishop must then certify the reasons of his refusal.

In cases where the patron is himself a clerk in orders, and wishes to be admitted to the benefice, he must proceed by way of petition instead of by deed of presentation, reciting that the benefice is in his own patronage, and petitioning the bishop to examine him and admit him.

Upon the bishop having satisfied himself of the sufficiency of the clerk, he proceeds to institute him to the spiritual office to which the benefice is annexed, but before such institution can take place, the clerk is required to make a declaration of assent to the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion and to the Book of Common Prayer according to a form prescribed in the Clerical Subscription Act 1865, to make a declaration against simony in accordance with that act, and to take and subscribe the oath of allegiance according to the form in the Promissory Oaths Act 1868.

The bishop, by the act of institution, commits to the clerk the cure of souls attached to the office to which the benefice is annexed. In cases where the bishop himself is patron of the benefice, no presentation or petition is required to be tendered by the clerk, but the bishop having satisfied himself of the sufficiency of the clerk, collates him to the benefice and office. It is not necessary that the bishop himself should personally institute or collate a clerk; he may issue a fiat to his vicargeneral, or to a special commissary for that purpose.

After the bishop or his commissary has instituted the presentee, he issues a mandate under seal, addressed to the archdeacon or some other neighbouring clergyman, authorizing him to induct the clerk into his benefice, - in other words, to put him into legal possession of the temporalities, which is done by some outward form, and for the most part by delivery of the bell-rope to the clerk, who thereupon tolls the bell. This form of induction is required to give the clerk a legal title to his beneficium, although his admission to the office by institution is sufficient to vacate any other benefice which he may already possess.

A benefice is avoided or vacated

  • (1) by death;
  • (2) by resignation, if the bishop is willing to accept the resignation: by the Incumbents' Resignation Act 1871, Amendment Act 1887, any clergyman who has been an incumbent of one benefice continuously for seven years, and is incapacitated by permanent mental or bodily infirmities from fulfilling his duties, may, if the bishop thinks fit, have a commission appointed to consider the fitness of his resigning; and if the commission report in favour of his resigning, he may, with the consent of the patron (or, if that is refused, with the consent of the archbishop) resign the cure of souls into the bishop's hands, and have assigned to him, out of the benefice, a retiring-pension not exceeding one-third of its annual value, which is recoverable as a debt from his successor;
  • (3) by cession, upon the clerk being instituted to another benefice or some other preferment incompatible with it;
  • (4) by deprivation and sentence of an ecclesiastical court; under the Clergy Discipline Act 1892, an incumbent who has been convicted of offences against the law of bastardy, or against whom judgment has been given in a divorce or matrimonial cause, is deprived, and on being found guilty in the consistory court of immorality or ecclesiastical offences (not in respect of doctrine or ritual), he may be deprived or suspended or declared incapable of preferment;
  • (5) by act of law in consequence of simony;
  • (6) by default of the clerk in neglecting to read publicly in the church the Book of Common Prayer, and to declare his assent thereto within two months after his induction, pursuant to an act of 1662.

Pluralism in England

Dispensation to enable a clerk to hold several ecclesiastical dignities or benefices at the same time was transferred to the archbishop of Canterbury by the Peterpence, Dispensations, &c. Act 1534, certain ecclesiastical persons having been declared by a previous statute (1529) to be entitled to such dispensations. The system of pluralities carried with it, as a necessary consequence, systematic non-residence on the part of many incumbents, and delegation of their spiritual duties in respect of their cures of souls to assistant curates. The evils attendant on this system were found to be so great that the Pluralities Act 1838 was passed to abridge the holding of benefices in plurality, and it was enacted that no person should hold under any circumstances more than two benefices, and this privilege was made subject to the restriction that his benefices were within ten statute miles of each other. By the Pluralities Act 1850, the restriction was further narrowed, so that no spiritual person could hold two benefices except the churches of such benefices were within three miles of each other by the nearest road, and the annual value of one of such benefices did not exceed £100.

By this statute the term benefice is defined to mean benefice with cure of souls and no other, and therein to comprehend all parishes, perpetual curacies, donatives, endowed public chapels, parochial chapelries and chapelries or districts belonging or reputed to belong, or annexed or reputed to be annexed, to any church or chapel. The Pluralities Acts Amendment Act 1885, however, enacted that, by dispensation from the archbishop, two benefices could be held together, the churches of which are within four miles of each other, and the annual value of one of which does not exceed £200.


The holder of more than one benefice, then a pluralist, could keep the revenue to which he was entitled and pay lesser sums to deputies to carry out the corresponding duties.

By a decree of the Lateran council of 1215 no clerk could hold two benefices with cure of souls, and if a beneficed clerk took a second benefice with cure of souls, he vacated ipso facto his first benefice.

Dispensations, however, could be easily obtained from Rome.

See also



  • [Anon.] (1911) Benefice Encyclopaedia Britannica
  • Coredon, Christopher (2007). A Dictionary of Medieval Terms & Phrases (Reprint ed.). Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer. ISBN 978-1-74384-138-8. 
  • Creagh, J. T. (1913) Benefice Catholic Encyclopaedia

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • bénéfice — [ benefis ] n. m. • 1198; lat. beneficium « bienfait », de bene « bien » et facere « faire » I ♦ 1 ♦ Avantage. Le bénéfice de l âge. ⇒ privilège. Laissons lui le bénéfice du doute. Quel bénéfice avez vous à mentir ? AU BÉNÉFICE DE : au profit de …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • bénéfice — BÉNÉFICE. s. m. Privilége accordé par le Prince ou par les Eois. C est un droit dont il jouit par bénéfice du Prince. Être héritier par bénéfice d inventaire. Être reçu par bénéfice de cession. f♛/b] On appelle Lettres de bénéfice d âge, Des… …   Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française 1798

  • benefice — BENEFICE. s. m. Privilege, grace. Benefice du Prince. benefice d âge. heritier par benefice d âge. heritier par benefice d inventaire. estre receu au benefice de cession. Benefice d âge. Ce sont lettres de Chancellerie que les mineurs obtiennent… …   Dictionnaire de l'Académie française

  • Benefice — • Popularly the term is often understood to denote either certain property destined for the support of ministers of religion, or a spiritual office or function, such as the care of souls Catholic Encyclopedia. Kevin Knight. 2006. Benefice      …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • Benefice — Bénéfice Pour les articles homonymes, voir Bénéfice (homonymie). Un bénéfice ou excédent ou solde positif, provient de recettes et autres produits comptables supérieures à des dépenses et autres coûts (charges comptables). L inverse (écart… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Benefice — Ben e*fice, n. [F. b[ e]n[ e]fice, L. beneficium, a kindness, in LL. a grant of an estate, fr. L. beneficus beneficent; bene well + facere to do. See {Benefit}.] [1913 Webster] 1. A favor or benefit. [Obs.] Baxter. [1913 Webster] 2. (Feudal Law)… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • benefice — Benefice, Beneficium. Recevoir un benefice ou bien fait, Accipere beneficium, Habere beneficium ab aliquo. Intrus en un benefice, Grassatus in possessionem beneficij. Benefices tombez en deport, Sacerdotia quae in causam caduci cesserunt.… …   Thresor de la langue françoyse

  • Benefice — Ben e*fice, v. t. [imp. & p. p. {Beneficed}.] To endow with a benefice. Note: [Commonly in the past participle.] [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • benefice — c.1300, a church living, from O.Fr. benefice (13c.) and directly from L. beneficium a favor, service, generosity, kindness, benefit, from beneficus generous, kind, benevolent, obliging, from bene (see BENE (Cf. bene )) + ficus, from stem of… …   Etymology dictionary

  • benefice — [ben′ə fis] n. [ME < OFr < ML beneficium < L, a kindness, service, promotion < BENEFIC] 1. land held by a feudal tenant for services rendered the owner 2. an endowed church office providing a living for a vicar, rector, etc. 3. its… …   English World dictionary

  • Bénéfice — (fr., spr. Benefis), 1) so v.w. Beneficium; bes. 2) (Beneficevorstellung), Vorstellung, deren Ertrag, nach Abzug der Kosten, einem Schauspieler od. einer Schauspielerin (beide Beneficianten) zu Gute kommt. Garantirtes B., wenn die Direction eine… …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

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