With the warm glow of another successful annual Vestry meeting behind us here at All Saints’, there is no better topic to explore than what we actually mean by the term “Vestry.” Why exactly do we call our annual meetings a “Vestry?”
The term ‘vestry’ actually relates to the room where clergy put on their vestments prior to a church service. (Latin-speaking readers will, of course, recognize the root, vestire, meaning ‘to clothe.’) Also stored in the church vestry room would be valuable church linens, church communion items such as a chalice or paten, and other important items to be used during the church service. All Saints’ no longer has a formal “vestry room” but we do have smaller dry and wet sacristies (room names that certainly could be fodder for another article at another time!)
In the 19th century, when the church gained greater powers in local affairs, many decisions that needed to be made by the community at large (hiring a watchman, hiring constables or providing for the poor, etc.) were made by a group of appointed citizens led by the parish priest. Church vestries were known to be investing in fire pumps, weights for markets, whipping posts, stocks, and local burial grounds.
Where would local citizens meet? In many church buildings, the largest room not set aside for worship was likely the vestry. Over time, these meetings in the Vestry became less and less about the needs of the local municipality, though they continued to deal with the non-spiritual needs of the church community. Following the removal of all civil powers in 1894, the Vestry meeting slowly became the meeting as we know it today. It is the meeting where Anglicans consider the parochial needs of their parish. They discuss the cost of running and maintaining their building, they vote on issues of concern to their own parishes, and they elect wardens to represent their needs.
Though we’d be too large a group now to all meet in a parish vestry room, we continue to proudly use the term “Vestry” to describe the membership that conducts these meetings and to remind us of our pivotal role in community governance over the years.
~Bertie Weatherbottom, Notes & Queries Reporter for the 150th