Many UK media agencies reported yesterday that worshippers were left distressed at St Edmund's in Southampton this Christmas as violence broke out amongst some of those who had found their way into the church during Midnight Mass.

According to the Daily Mail two men and a woman (the BBC mentions three men) who were not regular worshippers at St Edmund's came in to the building half-way through Mass and ended up throwing chairs at each other and then at members of the congregation. It seems that these characters may have entered the the church on their way from a drunken night on the town. From various reports it also appears that due to the nature of this unfortunate fracas the celebrant, Mgr Vincent Harvey, felt obliged to stop the Mass for several minutes in order to secure the safety of his flock.

This post is not so much concerned with the horrific details surrounding the unholy disruption of the Mass, but rather with a minor - but very telling - detail in the Guardian newspaper's reporting of it. Those who would therefore like to read more about the incident itself can do so here and here.

This is how Riazat Butt, the Guardian's religion correspondent, began her piece on the Midnight Mass fight at St Edmund's: -

"A vicar has said he feared for his parishioners' lives after a brawl broke out at the midnight mass he was leading on Christmas Eve." [Update 15:00 - the Guardian recently corrected this sentence, replacing "vicar" with "priest", stating "...This article was amended on 27 December 2011 to correct our erroneous description of Father Vincent as a vicar, to a priest" - which kind of means that the rest of this post is now redundant. Oh, well...]

Those of us based here in the UK will know that referring to a man as "a vicar" (in this context) almost always implies that he is a Church of England (Anglican) clergyman. From reading Riazat Butt's report, then, it would appear that the Guardian's religion correspondent is confused. Whilst obviously referring to a Catholic priest, Mgr Vincent Harvey, she has described him using what most would consider an Anglican form of address. Of course, Riazat Butt might be unaware of the various different meanings attached to the title "vicar" within both the modern Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church. Even so, it says a lot about the left-leaning Guardian if its own expert in religious affairs doesn't seem to know that "vicar" when referring to a parish priest almost exclusively relates to Anglicanism.

Although the title "vicar" for a certain parochial clergymen originated in the pre-Reformation English Catholic Church, it is now commonly used in the UK as a generic term for all Anglican clerics - though some people, especially those with little knowledge of religious matters, also use the word to describe any Christian minister. The title "vicar" for parish priests here in England is a very ancient one, which dates back to the Middle Ages when some clergymen were appointed by secular or monastic landowners - acting vicariously for them as tithe-collectors. The title in relation to parochial clergymen used to have a significant meaning for hundreds of years, helping to differentiate - mainly for financial purposes - vicars from their more distinguished colleagues, known as rectors.

There might be some kind of reasoning behind Riazat Butt's eccentric description of Mgr Vincent Harvey as "a vicar", though, as he is in fact the Vicar General for the Diocese of Portsmouth. Of course, there is an enormous difference between what many understand a vicar (here in the UK) to be and the role and function of a diocesan vicar general - both offices are not only distinct but usually belong to two different Christian traditions.

Although the Catholic Church in England and Wales no longer uses the ancient titles "vicar" and "rector" for its parochial clergy, they are still used when referring to specific offices within diocesan or ecclesiastical hierarchies. Vicars general, episcopal vicars and judicial vicars are men who help bishops run their dioceses, whilst vicars forane lead territorial divisions (deaneries) within a diocese. None of the men holding these offices are normally referred to as "a vicar" - especially when doing so would lead most people to assume they had joined the Anglican priesthood! Sadly, it appears that the religion correspondent at one of Britain's leading newspapers doesn't know this.

I also deliberately avoided dwelling on the fact that Riazat Butt chose not to use capital letters for "Midnight Mass". After all, such mistakes are to be expected in the left-leaning paper. The Guardian is so well-known for publishing misprints and typos that many (inspired by the satirical magazine, Private Eye) now jokingly refer to it as the Grauniad! But for a journalist who is supposed to be an expert in religious affairs to begin an article about a Catholic parish priest in modern-day Britain by calling him "a vicar" seemed so odd that I thought it worthy of comment.

Although the fact that three yobs were physically violent during Mass is depressing enough, the fact that a journalist specialising in religious affairs on a national newspaper doesn't seem to know the difference between the titles given to Anglican and Catholic clergy seems even more disheartening. Allowing someone who appears as clueless at Butt to report on religious matters may indicate that society as a whole has become religiously illiterate (as far as Christianity is concerned at least). It is also possibly a sign that secular news agencies are failing to realise the growing need for accurate religious reporting - religion is becoming more important, not less so. Having said that, most if not all the other papers that covered this story managed to get their facts right - no other journalist, as far as I know, referred to Mgr Vincent Harvey as "a vicar". It seems, then, that the Grauniad was merely abiding by its reputation ..........

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