A vestry refers to a robing and storage room in or attached to a place of worship.
It also referred in England and Wales to the committee for secular and church government for a parish which met in the vestry of the parish church, and consequently became known colloquially as the "vestry".
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, usually in a secure safe, along with official records such as registers of marriages and burials.
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.
Vestry committees in England and Wales
The vestry committees were not established by any law, but they evolved independently in each parish according to local needs from their roots in medieval parochial governance. By the late 17th century they had become, along with the county magistrates, the rulers of rural England.
In England, until the 19th century, the parish vestry committee was in effect what would today usually be called a parochial church council, but was also responsible for all the secular parish business, which is now the responsibility of a parish council.
The original unit of settlement among the Anglo-Saxons in England was the tun or town. The inhabitants met to carry out this business in the town moot or meeting. At this 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.
However, the independence created by the Saxon system was lost to the township by the introduction of the feudal manorial Court Leet which replaced the town meeting. The resistance of inhabitants to these changes led to a new form of township or parish meeting, which dealt with civil and 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. In England, until the 19th century, the parish vestry was in effect what would today usually be called a parochial church council, but was also responsible for all the secular parish 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.
The vestry had a number of legal obligations. The vestry was responsible for appointing parish officers, including churchwardens, overseers of the poor, sextons and scavengers. Depending on local arrangements the vestry could also be responsible for constables and nightwatchmen.
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.
At their most active, just prior to removal of Poor Law responsibilities, the vestries spent not far short of one-fifth of the budget of the national government itself. However, this was the high point of the parish vestry. During the 19th century the parish vestry progressively lost its powers to ad-hoc boards and other organisations, such as the loss of responsibility for poor relief through the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. 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, vestries were incorporated under the Metropolis Management Act 1855 to create civil bodies for parishes, which were distinct from the ecclesiastical vestries.
In another example, sanitary districts were established in England in 1875 and took these responsibilities from the parish. Such replacement boards were each able to levy their own rate in the parish. Consequently the church rate ceased to be levied in many parishes and became voluntary from 1868.
However, proliferation of local bodies led to fragmentation of local government responsibilities and became a driver for the Local Government Act 1894. This was expressed by H H Fowler, President of the Local Government Board, who said in the parliamentary debate for the 1894 Act....
|“||62 counties, 302 Municipal Boroughs, 31 Improvement Act Districts, 688 Local Government Districts, 574 Rural Sanitary Districts, 58 Port Sanitary Districts, 2,302 School Board Districts ... 1,052 Burial Board Districts, 648 Poor Law Unions, 13,775 Ecclesiastical Parishes, and nearly 15,000 Civil Parishes. The total number of Authorities which tax the English ratepayers is between 28,000 and 29,000. Not only are we exposed to this multiplicity of authority and this confusion of rating power, but the qualification, tenure, and mode of election of members of these Authorities differ in different cases."||”|
The secular and ecclesiastical duties were finally separated nationally when a system of elected rural parish councils and urban district councils was established under the Local Government Act 1894. This replaced the parish vestry with a parish council or parish meeting to manage all secular parish matters.
Open and select vestries
A select vestry or close vestry was an administrative committee of selected parishioners, the governing body of a parish. The members generally had a property qualification. The open vestry could elect the bulk of the select vestry members, but in practice many members were recruited by co-option.
Ecclesiastical use today
Following the removal of civil powers in 1894, the vestry meetings continued to administer church matters in Church of England parishes until the Parochial Church Councils (Powers) Measure 1921 Act. established parochial church councils as their successors on church matters. Since then, the only remnant of the vestry meeting has been the meeting of parishioners, which is convened annually solely for the election of churchwardens of the ecclesiastical parish. This is sometime referred to as the "annual vestry meeting". All other roles of the vestry meetings are now undertaken by parochial church councils.
The term vestry continues to be used in some other denominations for a body of lay members elected by the congregation to run the business of a church parish, such as in the Scottish Episcopal Church.
- 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)
- Parish Notices Act 1837
- The Companion to British History. Charles Arnold-Baker, 2nd edition 2001, Routledge.
- Parish Government 1894-1994. KP Poole & Bryan Keith-Lucas. National Association of Local Councils 1994
- Webb, Sidney; Potter, Beatrice (1906), English Local Government from the Revolution to the Municipal Corporations, London: Longmans, Green & Co.
- Arnold-Baker on Local Council Administration, 1989
- "Local Government of England and Wales Bill". Hansard 1803 - 2005. Parliament of the United Kingdom. 21 March 1893. Retrieved 2009-02-18.
- Tate, William Edward (1969), The Parish Chest: a study of the records of parochial administration in England (3rd ed.), Cambridge University Press.
-  - Parochial Church Councils Measure 1921
- "Churchwardens Measure 2001 No. 1". Legislation.gov.uk. Retrieved 24 August 2008.
- http://www.scotland.anglican.org/vestry-resources/] The vestry duties in the Scottish Episcopal Church
- The Short Titles Act 1896, section 2(1) and Schedule 2
- An overview of London Vestry committees at "London Lives".