The Way Our Church Works Part 1: The Church Wardens

The role of Church Wardens

This is the second contribution to a series of articles about how things get done at St Mary’s and the roles various people and groups make.

The Ministry Team – the focus of last month’s article – is a relatively new model of collaborative ministry between clergy and lay people. The office of Church Warden is a much more historic one and dates back to the thirteenth century. It is one of the earliest recognised forms of lay ministry. Originally the role seems to have been one of
responsibility for aspects of the fabric of a church building and its contents. Even today the Church Wardens are the legal guardians of all the moveable goods in the parish and have to keep an up to date inventory of these items.

Over time, however, the role seems to have developed into one of being the Bishop’s representative in a parish, responsible to him – and by the time you read this, happily, her too – rather than to the Vicar or the PCC. This means that Wardens have a duty to report to the Bishop any irregularities in the Parish (such as clergy misconduct). They even possess the power to arrest people causing a disturbance to divine worship!
All churches are required to have two churchwardens and, in most places, these are both elected by the Annual Meeting. At some point in the eighteenth century, however, there was clearly a dispute about this at St Mary’s, the result of which is a legal opinion (a copy is framed in the upper vestry) giving St Mary’s incumbent the right of appointing one of the two churchwardens himself. So, at St Mary’s, the Vicar chooses a Vicar’s Warden and the Annual Meeting elects a People’s Warden. In reality, however, the Church Wardens at St Mary’s acts together with the Vicar to provide leadership, a sounding board and advice.

Church Wardens are appointed for a year and may only serve for a maximum of six (so I shall be appointing a new Vicar’s Warden this year, to succeed Sarah Macnab); by virtue of their office they sit on the Church Council and are active in decision making.
The role of Wardens varies from parish to parish. My last parish had a much more distinct role of church warden than St Mary’s does and, slowly, we are trying to establish clearer and more visible responsibilities for the wardens. They have a particular role to play when the Vicar of a parish leaves, taking overall responsibility with the bishop for the leadership of a parish when it is vacant and shaping the direction towards the appointment of a new
parish priest.
Perhaps the most important thing about the role of a Church Warden is to be a listener. It is  important that Church Wardens are available to listen to members of the church – not just when people are unhappy but as a conduit for new ideas and suggestions. Equally, I rely upon Church Wardens to keep their ear to the ground, to bring to my attention anything which needs looking at or addressing, and to provide constructive criticism and feedback to me when things don’t go as well as they might.

We should be extremely grateful for the time and service given by Church Wardens, past  and present. They do an important, and often overlooked job, in making a church work  through good communication, wise counsel and prayer.