In the British Isles, bishops of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Churches are all styled "Right Reverend"; archbishops are "Most Reverend":

The Rt Revd John Smith, Bishop of Salisbury
The Most Revd Martin Jones, Archbishop of Liverpool

However, in other countries, Roman Catholic bishops are Most Reverend, even where the a Church in the Anglican Communion has a fairly substantial presence (like the United States). In the United States, bishops and archbishops of The Episcopal Church [Anglican] follow the British model, whereas Roman Catholic archbishops and bishops are all "Most Reverend".

How is that difference (between the custom in the British Isles and that in other Bishops' Conferences) explained?

I guess that the similarity between the Churches within the British Isles is a hangover from the Reformation, and it would appear to indicate that the distinction existed in the pre-Reformation Church and was carried into the Church of England. In which case, why is there no difference between Catholic bishops and archbishops outside Britain now? When were bishops elevated to archbishops' style?

Or, did the nascent Church of England separate the styles (so the Roman styles outside Britain are historic) and then the emancipated Catholic Church simply fall into line when the hierarchy was re-established in the United Kingdom?

I don't know where to look for an accurate telling of the history.


(I'm British. The question is occasioned by finding an American bishop styled as "Most Reverend" and thinking "But he's not an archbishop!")

  • I am not British or American, but have always addressed both archbishops and bishops as "Most Reverend". The form of address of "Right Reverend" is given to abbots and major superiors of religious orders. – Ken Graham Jan 29 '17 at 12:41
  • @KenGraham That may help to explain the British thing then: most bishops' sees were originally based on abbeys. – Andrew Leach Jan 29 '17 at 13:23
  • Well, why is there a difference in practice between the British Isles (the four Bishops' Conferences of England & Wales, Scotland, Ireland) and other Catholic Bishops' Conferences? How did that difference arise? I think the two questions are linked, and probably inseparable – Andrew Leach Jan 29 '17 at 14:12

Inspired by a link in Ken Graham's answer I read the Wikipedia article on Archbishops. That contains a paragraph germane to the question but which Ken doesn't quote:

Roman Catholic bishops and archbishops are styled "The Most Reverend" and addressed as "Your Excellency." In English-speaking countries, a Catholic archbishop is addressed as "Your Grace", while a Catholic bishop is addressed as "Your Lordship". Before December 12, 1930, the title "Most Reverend" was only for archbishops, while bishops were styled as "Right Reverend." [18]

  1. Canon Law Digest, Bouscaren, Vol. 1, Page 20. Rt. Rev. Dominic Laurence Graessel. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore. Retrieved on 2016-11-19.

The article on Graessel says

Before December 31, 1930, the title "Most Reverend" was reserved for archbishops; the other bishops were given the title of "Right Reverend." After that date, "Most Reverend" became general for all archbishops and bishops. (Canon Law Digest. Bouscaren, Vol. 1, P. 20).

Thus there are two potential dates for the introduction of "Most Reverend" for bishops.

I then searched for "31 December 1930" decree "Most Reverend" and found the Wikipedia article on the honorific Excellency which gives further details:

By a decree of the Sacred Congregation of Ceremonial of 31 December 1930[5] the Holy See granted bishops of the Roman Catholic Church the title of Most Reverend Excellency (Latin, Excellentia Reverendissima). In the years following the First World War, the ambassadorial title of Excellency, previously given to nuncios, had already begun to be used by other Catholic bishops. The adjective Most Reverend was intended to distinguish the religious title from that of Excellency given to civil officials. ...

In some English-speaking countries, the honorific of Excellency does not apply to bishops other than the nuncio. In English law, Anglican archbishops are granted the title of Grace (Your Grace, His Grace, as for a duke), and bishops are granted the title of Lordship. The same titles are extended by courtesy to their Catholic counterparts, and continue in use in most countries that are or have been members of the Commonwealth. An exception is former British East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania).

  1. Acta Apostolicae Sedis 1931, p. 22; L'Osservatore Romano 24 January 1931.

The Acta are available online, although only in OCR form and thus do contain reading errors. The relevant decree is from what is usually called the Sacred Congregation of Rites and was indeed published on 31 December 1930:

SACRA CONGREGATIO CAEREMONIALIS
DECRETUM
DE TITULO « EXCELLENTIAE REVERENDISSIMAE »

Ssmus D. N. Pius Papa XI , eo consilio ut dignitas eorum, qui cum in Ecclesiae gubernatione, tum in ipsa Pontificis Maximi Domo principes habent partes, maiore cotidie in honore sit, Purpuratorum Patrum percontatus sententiam, qui sacris caerimoniis regundis praepositi sunt, die 11 mensis Decembris huius anni, arcessito viro hac in pagina subsignato, qui Sacrae Congregationi Caerimoniarum est a secretis, decrevit: Excellentiae Reverendissimae titulum, praeter quam Patriarchis et Latinae et Orientalis Ecclesiae, praeter quam Praelatis qui a flocculis vulgo appellantur, praeter quam Nuntiis et Internuntiis Apostolicis, tribuendum quoque esse Archiepiscopis atque Episcopis sive residentialibus sive titularibus tantum, itemque Magistro Pontificii cubiculi, Praelatis qui assident vel sunt a secretis in Sacris Romanis Congregationibus, Secretario Supremi Tribunalis Signaturae Apostolicae, Praelato Decano Sacrae Romanae Rotae ac denique Substituto Secretariae Status. Contrariis quibuslibet non obstantibus.

Datum Romae, ex aedibus Sacrae Congregationis Caerimonialis, die 31 Decembris 1930.
gg-I. Card. GRANITO PIGNATELLI D I BELMONTE,
Ep. Ostiensis et Albanensis, Praefectus
B. Nardone, Secretarius.

That is:

THE SACRED CONGREGATION FOR CEREMONIES
DECREE ON THE TITLE "MOST REVEREND EXCELLENCY"

So that the dignity of those who have the primary part of the governance of the Church, and especially of those in the house of the Pope itself, Our Most Holy Lord Pope Pius XI, after inquiring the opinion of the Purple Fathers who have been placed in charge of the rules for sacred ceremonies [i.e. the members of the Sacred Congregation for Ceremonies], has decreed by this advice, given on the 11th of December of this year, and undersigned on this page by the representative called for from those set apart for the Sacred Congregation of Ceremonies:

The title of "Most Reverend Excellency" (except for Patriarchs of the Latin and Oriental Churches, and for Prelates who are given that name by courtesy, and except for Apostolic Nuntios and Messengers), is to be given to Archbishops and Bishops, both [bishops] by residence and [bishops] by title, as well as to the Master of the Papal Household, and to Prelates who assist at or are members of the Sacred Roman Congregations, the Secretariat of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the Prelate Dean of the Roman Roat, and finally the Substitute Secretary of State. Anything at all to the contrary notwithstanding.

Given at Rome, in the offices of the Sacred Congregation of Ceremonies, on the 31 December 1930.

gg-I [sic] Cardinal GRANITO PIGNATELLI DI BELMONTE, Bishop of Ostia and Albano, Prefect
B. Nardone, Secretary

(translation Matt Gutting)

This says that the title "Most Reverend" tribuendum quoque esse Archiepiscopis atque Episcopis sive residentialibus sive titularibus tantum, "shall be given also to archbishops and bishops who are residential and also titular."

Thus my first hypothesis is correct and prior to this decree bishops were Right Reverend, as they still are in the British Isles and most Commonwealth countries.

The question still remains as to why the decree was not taken up within the Catholic hierarchy in Britain and the Commonwealth, although the cryptic reference to "English law" in the Excellency article is probably the reason. If I find that before someone else does, I'll update this answer.

  • Andrew, I updated this slightly to give the full translation (my translation) of the decree. Revert if you don't think that's appropriate. – Matt Gutting May 17 '17 at 17:04

I going to try and explain why Catholic archbishops and bishops are addressed as "Most Reverend".

First of all there will invariably be some local tradition that will differ as to how the faithful address archbishops and bishops.

Generally speaking most archbishops in the Catholic Church are Metropolitan Archbishops, but there are some archbishops that are Non-metropolitan Archbishops.

Archbishops

The title of archbishop is held not only by bishops who head metropolitan sees, but also by those who head archdioceses that are not metropolitan sees (most of these are in Europe and the Levant). In addition, it is held by certain other bishops, referred to as "Titular Archbishops" (see "Other Bishops" below) who have been given no longer residential archdioceses as their titular sees—many of these in administrative or diplomatic posts, for instance as papal nuncios or secretaries of curial congregations. The bishop of a non-archiepiscopal see may be given the personal title of archbishop without also elevating his see (such a bishop is known as an archbishop ad personam), though this practice has seen significantly reduced usage since the Second Vatican Council.

There even exists a few archdioceses that do not form part of any ecclesiastical province. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Monaco is an example of this.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Monaco (Latin: Archidioecesis Monoecensis) is an exempt Latin ecclesiastical territory or archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church in Monaco, directly subject to the Holy See, not part of any ecclesiastical province.

Since most archbishops are metropolitan archbishops, but not all, it seems that the address of "Most Reverend" in the Catholic world became the norm for all bishops regardless if title of archbishop has been conferred on them by right or by privilege.

In the Archdiocese of Vancouver (Canada), Archbishop Miller enjoyed the title of Coadjutor Archbishop of Vancouver before even being the Archbishop of Vancouver. Thus we see that some archbishops are really bishops that have been given this title, but really rank as ordinary bishops.

When I was in the seminary, we were taught that monsignors, abbots and major superiors of religious orders were to be addressed as Right Reverend.

More information can be read here: Ecclesiastical Addresses

In the Anglican Communion, archbishops are styled "The Most Reverend" and addressed as "Your Grace", while bishops are styled "The Right Reverend" and addressed as "My Lord" or "Your Lordship". (In some countries, this usage is followed also by the Roman Catholic Church, but in others no distinction is made and "The Most Reverend" and "Your Excellency" are used for archbishops and bishops alike.) Anglican archbishops are entitled to be preceded by a server carrying an archiepiscopal processional cross (with two bars instead of one) in liturgical processions. - Archbishop (Wikipedia)

  • So "Most Reverend" for bishops is an innovation by arrogation from archbishops' titles? I wonder why that didn't happen in the British Isles. – Andrew Leach Jan 29 '17 at 18:28
  • Andrew, as you may be aware Americans have a bit less ease with royalty and titles than the Europeans, who were accustomed to those styles and titles for a few millenia. It's a cultural deal, seen in the proposed style for "how to address the president" made by Alexander Hamilton (which is long and wandering, similar to the style for the Queen of England) and the style "Mr President" that was finally adopted. – KorvinStarmast Jan 29 '17 at 18:38

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