January 29, 2017
What is a Vestry and what does it do. Why not just have a governing board?
The simple answer is the Vestry of an Episcopal Parish is the governing body or board, and it takes its name from the room in the church where the body met, the Vestry or the Sacristy. Vestries are different from governing bodies of other kinds of organizations, both for-profit and not-for-profit. Vestries, even though they are officially mandated to deal with the real property of the parish (i.e. buildings and grounds, bank accounts, endowments, etc.), have a spiritual component that is an essential part of their commission. That is why the head of the Vestry is always the ecclesiastical authority of the church as defined by the Constitutions and Canons of The Episcopal Church, USA, and the diocese in which the parish resides. Normally that authority is the Rector, but may be the Wardens and the Bishop, through the Interim Rector, in times of transition.
The importance of this body cannot be understated, and it grew out of the practices of the Church of England in England and Wales. In these countries under the monarchies of Edward and Elizabeth (yes, E1, or Lizzie, Rex), the parish was an administrative unit used by the monarch for the distribution of alms to the poor, the dissemination of Sovereign pronouncements or Parliamentary legislation. The subjects who could serve on the Vestry were "ratepayers," or those subjects who were on the tax roles for the land they owned. Practically speaking, ratepayers were prominent members of the community whose obligation and duty it was to assist in the real world needs of their parishioners.
The ecclesiastical authority is the head of the Vestry, I suppose, because of the church's official status, and the obvious religious aspects of caring for the poor and creating a tranquil and obedient community under the Monarch. These principals were transferred to the Colonies during England's period of exploration and colonialization from the 17th through the first part of the 20th centuries.
Colonies also used the church as a gathering place, not only for charitable action but for the dissemination of information, just as in England. Each Sunday, the local parish would announce business of the colony as well as the parish during the services. It was their duty as being part of the state church. When independence was won, churches did not immediately abandon their structure and nomenclatures. Therefore, Vestries remained in the former Anglican Churches which now reestablished themselves as disestablished Episcopal churches.
We continue that organization and tradition today with our annual elections.
The Rev. David Lucey