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A provost is a senior official in a number of Christian churches.
The word praepositus (Latin: "set over", from praeponere, "to place in front") was originally applied to any ecclesiastical ruler or dignitary. It was soon more specifically applied to the immediate subordinate to the abbot of a monastery, or to the superior of a single cell, and it was defined as such in the Rule of St Benedict. The dean (decanus) was a similarly ranked official. Chrodegang of Metz adopted this usage from the Benedictines when he introduced the monastic organization of canon-law colleges, especially cathedral capitular colleges. The provostship (praepositura) was normally held by the archdeacon, while the office of dean was held by the archpriest. In many colleges, the temporal duties of the archdeacons made it impossible for them to fulfil those of the provostship, and the headship of the chapter thus fell to the dean.
The title became prevost in Old French, before being adopted as "provost" in English. Prévôt is the equivalent in modern French.
In the Nordic countries, a provost (Danish and older Norwegian provst, modern Norwegian prost, Swedish prost (under the current system kontraktsprost), Icelandic prófastur (from the Old English prōfast)) is the leader of a provsti (or prosti, Ice. prófastsdæmi, Swe. kontrakt), an administrative territorial unit within the Lutheran national churches which comprises several parishes (sogn, Ice. sókn, Swe. församling (previously socken)). The provost is the immediate superior of the ‘parish priest’ (sognepræst or sogneprest, Ice. sóknarprestur, Swe. församlingspräst) but is normally also a parish priest in one of the local parishes. Several provstier form a Diocese (stift (all languages) or bispedømme, Ice. biskupsdæmi, Swe. biskopsdöme).
While the modern spelling is "Propst," in an historical context the spelling "Probst" may also occur. Historically, the title is also found among Military chaplains, both Roman Catholic and Protestant (e.g., Feldpropst in Prussia).
In England, the title of provost in cathedrals was almost completely replaced by that of dean, although sometimes when a bishop nominated himself as dean of his own cathedral, a provost was appointed as his deputy.
In cathedrals which were also parish churches, however, especially the newly created cathedrals of the 19th and 20th centuries, the senior priest (who was also the parish priest) continued to be known as the provost. This title was used by the head priests of Birmingham Cathedral, Blackburn Cathedral, Bradford Cathedral, Chelmsford Cathedral, Coventry Cathedral, Derby Cathedral, Leicester Cathedral, Newcastle Cathedral, Portsmouth Cathedral, St. Edmundsbury Cathedral, Sheffield Cathedral, Southwark Cathedral, Southwell Minster, and Wakefield Cathedral, but all were redesignated deans in 2000.
The usage is preserved in the title of the heads of some colleges in England formerly administered by the Church.
In Germany, the heads of certain chapters under the Catholic church are still known as Probst or Propst.
"Propstei" or "Propstei(pfarr)gemeinde" is the honorary designation for some important, old Roman Catholic churches in Germany; most honorary titles date back to the 20th century. The provosts (see "Propst" in German), being ordinary parish priests, have the privilege of wearing a prelate's dress (black-purple) and using a pectoral cross hung by a ribbon.
The office of provost in the Roman Catholic Church, particularly when applied to the monastic role, falls under the category of prelate, with a rank equivalent to that of a bishop. In a society of apostolic life such as an Oratory of St Philip Neri, the provost is the major religious superior of his particular oratory. It is customary among Oratorians to call the provost "THE father" as he is primus inter pares, and a father in the place of the founder, St Philip Neri.
After the Protestant Reformation, usually following pre-Reformation traditional usage, and in connexion with certain churches, some Protestant pastors bore the title of provost. In these cases it was merely an honorific rank, without any special place in the church hierarchy. Such usage occurred, for example, in the Evangelical Church of the old-Prussian Union and its successor Evangelical Church in Berlin-Brandenburg.
In certain Landeskirchen within the Evangelical Church in Germany, the title is still used for a pastor officiating as chairperson in a provostry (e.g. in the Lutheran Evangelical Lutheran State Church in Brunswick, Evangelical Lutheran State Church of Mecklenburg and in the united Evangelical Church in Hesse and Nassau, and the Evangelical Church of the Church Province of Saxony). In the above-mentioned Lutheran churches, a provostry is equal to a deanery, and, in the two united churches, it is a unit comprising several deaneries.
Moreover, in the united Evangelical Church of Berlin-Brandenburg-Silesian Upper Lusatia, the provost is the theological leader of the consistory.
The heads of Augustinian and Dominican friaries are termed "provost or prior" (praepositus vel prior), and those of Cistercian monasteries "provost or warden" (praepositus vel custos). The superiors of the Oratory are also known as provosts, as noted above.
In some religious orders, especially those under the patronage of royalty or nobility, the ecclesial management of the Order is placed under the jurisdiction of a provost.