The day job

It has occurred to me that in nearly two years of writing this blog, I have never yet posted about the day job. The one that isn’t actually a job.

Every Church of England church is supposed to have two churchwardens, even churches that don’t have their own vicar. It is also the current rule that normally churchwardens should not serve more than six years consecutively. These rules are often broken, because for some reason new churchwardens can be hard to find.

One would think from this that there must be a very large number of wardens and ex-wardens out there, far more than there are vicars. Yet (outside the church) churchwardens are practically invisible.

The hit TV show “Rev” managed to be praised as a realistic portrayal of the life of a modern clergyman without having a warden as a recurring character.

Where churchwardens do feature (in fiction) they are often bad or difficult characters. The vicars tend to say of some innovation, “I’d love to do that, but the wardens won’t let me.” Agatha Christie created a particularly unpleasant warden in “Murder at the Vicarage” – surprise, surprise, he was the victim.

One of the reasons why people don’t talk about wardens, outside the church, may be that their role is difficult to define. I have often been asked, “What does a warden do?” and my best response tends to be “make sure that things happen as they should.”

The definition quoted in the annual warden oath-taking ceremony (yes, there is one; technical title Archdeacon’s Visitation) is vague, but says

The churchwardens are officers of the bishop. They shall discharge such duties as are by law and custom assigned to them; they shall be foremost in representing the laity and in co-operating with the incumbent; they shall use their best endeavours to encourage the parishioners in the practice of true religion and to promote unity and peace among them. They shall also maintain order and decency in the church and churchyard, especially during the time of divine service….You have particular responsibility for the fabric and furnishings… You must ensure that alterations and repairs are only done by authorisation…


This means that the wardens are lay people. They are not ordained or trained, they don’t wear robes, they are not paid, they listen to sermons rather than preaching them, receive communion rather than giving it… and they have lives outside the church. In the days before PCCs and lay readers, they were probably the only lay people with any official role. (Apart from the patron, who was probably the lord of the manor and appointed the vicar!)

It means that they balance the interests of representing the congregation to the vicar, with supporting the vicar in his/her mission, with reporting to those outside. The warden is an officer of the bishop. If the vicar is having a breakdown, behaving inappropriately, or preaching heresy, it is the warden’s duty to make this known in the proper places. In the past it would have been for the warden to report treason, and one can imagine that during the 17th century this was a tricky balance indeed.

You will notice that the warden also has to take care of the fabric, and look on all alterations with suspicion. Vicars and others who find their wardens unreasonable about minor changes, such as nails in the woodwork, should remember that the wardens don’t make the rules – they’re just the people who will be held legally responsible if they’re broken.

The wardens are supposed to keep order, and possibly for this purpose they each have an official staff or “wand”. These are not often seen, let alone made use of, in most churches these days.

Basically a lot of it comes down to checking there’s someone to do the Bible reading; handing out keys to those who need them; and taking the vicar to the pub.

In good times, this is not a hard job, but it does require you to be there on Sunday! Wardens also these days have the invaluable support of PCCs (Parochial Church Councils), treasurers and fabric conveners to do a lot of the heavy lifting.

Being a warden will be different in every church, and different in any one church at every stage of that church’s life. I have always thought that a major part of my role (where I am and at this time) has been to support and encourage those around.

But if things go wrong in any way, or if the vicar moves on, the wardens have a more challenging position. My colleague and I have just completed eighteen months of being wardens-in-vacancy, which in theory means running the church. We didn’t have to preach (that’s another story) but it involved staff management, chairing a lot of meetings, attending other meetings in place of the non-existent vicar, organising sermon series, and being the people to whom everyone came with anything.

I don’t think that this is a role that anyone with a modern full-time working life should reasonably be expected to take on, but happily neither my colleague nor I at this time have a modern full-time working life. However, this may be the reason why many wardens are, and have long been, retired people. This again may contribute to their reputation as being old and crusty.

It’s something that the C of E needs to address.

I have been blessed in my nearly seven years as warden by an extremely supportive and loving church, and also by two colleagues who have a) been easy to get on with; b) had complementary skill sets to my own; c) approached the job and the church with a similar viewpoint to mine, and indeed to the vicar’s when we had one.

And now we have one again! Hooray!

I haven’t got any horror stories to tell. Nor have I got any funny ones really. I did once get up on a snowy day and appeal unsuccessfully for someone to build us a church snowman.

Love from the PPI Blogger

1 Comment
  • Judith Leader

    8th November 2017 at 10:30 am Reply

    The job of churchwarden sounds like a full-time job, although obviously it isn’t, neither is it a job that many of us would relish.
    I was struck by your comment that you do not make the rules you just carry them out. I was phoning DWP on behalf of a client at citizens advice, and I said to the adviser that they were punishing the person because they were appealing, the adviser then said to me, “I am sorry but I do make the rules I just have to carry them out”.
    I think sometimes we forget that although we do not like the rules or laws, we should not shoot the messenger.

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