A vestry refers to both a room in or attached to a place of worship, and the committees that meet there. In England in times past, these groups exercised considerable power, given the role of the Church of England.
A vestry is a room in a church or synagogue in which the vestments are kept, and in which the clergy and choir don these liturgical clothes for worship services. Valuable or sacred items such as communion vessels or collection plates may be kept there, often in a safe, along with official records such as those pertaining to marriages.
In Welsh chapels, the room is often the location of a tea served to the congregation, particularly family members, after a funeral, when the congregation returns to the chapel after the burial or cremation.
In the London metropolitan area, civil vestries were incorporated by the Metropolis Management Act 1855, distinct from the ecclesiastical vestries. Outside London, a system of elected rural parish councils and urban district councils was established in 1894, replacing the vestries for all administrative purposes.
The term vestry continues to be used for a body of lay members elected by the congregation or parish to run the secular business of the parish. Some provinces of the church may also have provision for appointment of members by the rector or bishop. The vestry may have additional functions, including selection of the rector of the church. The rector is usually an ex officio member of the vestry. In other Anglican jurisdictions, "vestry" may refer to all the members of the congregation meeting to conduct the business of a parish, usually annually.
In England, until the 19th century, the parish vestry was in effect what would today usually be called a parochial church council. Vestries were responsible not only for the ecclesiastical affairs of the parish but all the other administrative requirements of lay business. Records of parish business would be stored in a parish chest kept in the church and provided for security with three locks, the keys to which would be held by the incumbent and the churchwardens.
In 1835 more than 15,600 ecclesiastical parish vestries looked after their own:
- churches and burial grounds, parish cottages and workhouses, their common lands and endowed charities, their market crosses, pumps, pounds, whipping posts, stocks, cages, watch houses, weights and scales, clocks and fire engines.
- Or to put it another way: the maintenance of the church and its services, the keeping of the peace, the repression of vagrancy, the relief of destitution, the mending of roads, the suppression of nuisances, the destruction of vermin, the furnishing of soldiers and sailors, even to some extent the enforcement of religious and moral discipline. These were among the multitudinous duties imposed on the parish and its officers, that is to say the vestry and its organisation, by the law of the land.
The vestries spent not far short of one-fifth of the budget of the national government itself.
From 1837 the provision of support for the poor was no longer the direct responsibility of the vestry, but came under elected boards of guardians for single parishes or poor law unions. In the London area, civil vestries were incorporated by the Metropolis Management Act 1855, distinct from the ecclesiastical vestries. A system of elected rural parish councils and urban district councils was established in 1894, replacing the vestries for all administrative purposes.
Open or close or select vestries
A select vestry is also an administrative committee of a parish whose meetings would once have been held in that same room. This committee is also known as the "close vestry". The "open vestry", which selected many of those committee members, was a meeting open to the general public who were rate-paying residents.
Dating from the 14th century, the vestry was a parish parliament chaired by the parish priest or in his absence the churchwarden or, in the absence of both, an elected member of the meeting. Its powers grew with the decay of the hundredal and manorial courts system.
Vestries were either open vestries or select vestries, although in practice the division was somewhat blurred. Open vestries were rather like today's parish meetings, while select vestries acted more like the pre-Municipal Corporations Act 1835 borough councils.
An open vestry was a general meeting of all inhabitant rate-paying householders in a parish.
A select vestry or "close" vestry was the governing body of a parish, the members generally having a property qualification and being recruited more or less by co-option. The open vestry elected the bulk of the select vestry members or, if dissatisfied, could exercise their power to do so.
Origin of parishes and their vestry meetings
The original unit of settlement among the Anglo-Saxons in England was the tun or town. Initially simply an enclosure surrounded by a wall or hedge, the township became the area claimed by the town.
The organization of the township was carried on by the inhabitants and they met to carry out this business in the town moot or meeting. At this meeting, they appointed the various officials and the common law would be promulgated. Later with the rise of the shire, the township would send its reeve and four best men to represent it in the courts of the hundred and shire.
The reintroduction of Christianity and its development under Æthelberht of Kent required an organization for ecclesiastical purposes. From the Greek paroikia, the dwelling place of the priest, Archbishop of Canterbury Theodore of Tarsus applied to the township unit the ecclesiastical term parish. Generally the township and parish coincided but in the North some townships may have been combined and in the South, where populations were bigger, two or more parishes might be made of one township. Townships not included in a parish were extra-parochial.
The resistance of inhabitants to these changes led to a new form of township or parish meeting. It also dealt with ecclesiastical affairs. This new meeting was supervised by the parish priest, probably the best educated of the inhabitants, and it evolved to become the vestry meeting.
With the decay of the feudal system, the vestry meetings succeeded in acquiring greater responsibilities, they having the power to grant or deny payments from parish funds. They were later given the task of administering the Edwardian and Elizabethan systems for support of the poor. With their resumption of civil responsibilities, the ecclesiastical parishes acquired a dual nature and might therefore be classed as civil as well as ecclesiastical parishes. However, those described here as civil parishes are of a single nature, purely civil without any ecclesiastical responsibilities.
- The Vestries Act 1818 (58 Geo 3 c 69)
- The Vestries Act 1819 (59 Geo 3 c 85)
- The Vestries Act 1831 (1 & 2 Will 4 c 60)
- The Parish Notices Act 1837 (7 Will 4 & 1 Vict c 45)
- The Vestries Act 1850 (13 & 14 Vict c 57)
- The Vestries Act 1853 (16 & 17 Vict c 65)
- Webb, Sidney; Potter, Beatrice (1906), English Local Government from the Revolution to the Municipal Corporations, London: Longmans, Green & Co.
- Tate, William Edward (1969), The Parish Chest: a study of the records of parochial administration in England (3rd ed.), Cambridge University Press.
- The Short Titles Act 1896, section 2(1) and Schedule 2