Project Canterbury

The Parson’s Handbook

By the Rev. Percy Dearmer, M.A.

London: Grant Richards, 1899



If it is difficult to put up with the single vestry of an eighteenth-century church, it is still more inconvenient to find oneself in an ordinary country church where in accordance with the ancient custom there is often no vestry at all.[1] At the present day our architects are more liberal, and I shall in this chapter assume the existence of the three vestries near the east end of the church, which are almost indispensable when there is a surpliced choir, and convenient when there is not. These will be the Priests’ Vestry or Sacristy, the Choir Vestry, and the Churchwardens’ Vestry. In addition to these a room where large articles can be stored will be found most useful.

The Churchwardens’ Vestry, the smallest of the three, is primarily for the transaction of church business. It will promote a decorous spirit, as well as save time and money, if the little things which this room should contain are kept in a fixed place, and not in loose cardboard boxes. Besides the two or three chairs there will be a knee-hole desk, on which lies the Service Register,[2] an ink-pot of the office type, with [105] two or three decent pens; hard by on the wall will hang the Calendar, which had best be Dr. Wickham Legg’s ‘Churchman's Oxford Calendar.’ One of the drawers of the desk should be partitioned to contain such things as a box of nibs, pins, drawing-pins, and a rubber stamp, with a self-inking pad of the ‘effective’ pattern: other drawers will contain a stock of service and of notice papers, a tablet of scribbling-paper, some notepaper, envelopes, and cards for post; one or two will be reserved for the Churchwardens’ books, and one or two for the special books and papers needed for the Catechism. In a safe, or at least in a locked drawer, will be kept the baptism register, marriage registers, burial register,[3] banns book, and books of certificates for marriage, banns, and baptism. In this room will be a safe in which old registers and other articles of value will be kept. On the walls may be hung a map of the parish and any portraits or other pictures of parochial interest: it is really a good work to keep in this way a memorial of the past history of the church and of the various officers who have served it. A shelf or two will be certainly useful, here as in the other rooms. A small looking-glass in each vestry will be very convenient; and, if all the vestries are carpeted or provided with matting, everybody will find it easier to be quiet.

There should be a reliable clock in some conspicuous place. A large plain round clock on the wall will be found the most useful kind.

If possible there should always be a sanitary convenience adjoining the outer vestry. In a new church this should be a properly made lavatory, with reversible basins, and every convenience of the best sanitary pattern, such as any architect can secure.

The Sacristan’s cupboard had best be in the vestry [106] nearest the church. This cupboard may have a few shelves in the upper part, and drawers of different sizes in the lower. There should be two very deep drawers, one for candle-ends, and one for dusters and polishing leathers; two long drawers for candles, of which a good stock should be laid in at a time, as wax improves by keeping. Supposing the cupboard to be a small one, 4 ft. by 5, the two bottom drawers may be 23 in. long and 9 in. deep (for dusters and candle-ends), the next two 6 in. deep and the whole length of the cupboard (for candles), the next two stages might contain six short drawers 11 in. long and 4 in. deep, and the remainder shelves, the space between the two lower shelves being divided into wide pigeon-holes by partitions.

On one of these shelves may be kept the box for the incense; a square tin canister, such as is often used for a tea-caddy, will do best. It should hold a pound of incense easily.

As for the incense itself, it is wisest to avoid compounds. Nothing is so good as simple Gum Olibănum, which is indeed ‘frank’ or pure incense. It can be bought at any large apothecary’s for about 1s. 5d. a pound, and is cheaper as well as pleasanter and fresher than the compounds, which are for the most part rather sickly and stuffy. Sometimes two oz. of Gum Benzoin and one oz. of powdered Cascarilla bark are added; but, beyond doubling the cost, they make little difference.

The Incense Boat and Spoon should be kept in the pigeon-hole next to the Canister. If the boat is broader than the usual shape, less incense will be wasted; the lid should lift up at both ends. The spoon will be less apt to spill if it is made more like an ordinary teaspoon than is usual, and less like that used by Primitive Man.

Next to these should stand a covered earthenware jar for the charcoal. The plain brown jars that are [107] used for cooking purposes are very suitable, and can be bought of a good shape at any china-shop. The packets of charcoal should be emptied into this, and not kept loose near the vestries, as they make dirt. If a pair of small tongs is kept near the jar, the thurifer can do his work without soiling his hands. The charcoal can be heated in a minute if the lumps are put into a wire spoon with a wooden handle, and held over the gas. As little charcoal should be used as possible; for charcoal fumes are not pleasant.

A good plan, when there is room, is for the thurifer to have a narrow cupboard of his own in which to keep these articles. In this case the cupboard should be divided by a partition from the top to within twelve inches of the bottom. One side will be for the censer, which will hang free from a long peg; the wire spoon and tongs can hang near it on small pegs. The other side will be divided horizontally into shelves for the boat, canister and jar. At the bottom of the cupboard will be a deep drawer, in which extra packets of charcoal may be stored; for charcoal is cheaper if bought in large quantities. If there is no cupboard for the censer it can be hung on an iron bracket about six inches long, with a crook at the end. Or it may hang from a hook on a small shelf, on which the canister and charcoal-jar can stand. This is the simplest arrangement. But in any case the censer should hang quite free, touching neither the wall nor the ground.

The Choir Vestry should be as large as possible, and very long for its breadth; so that the choir can form up in a double row. A card with the word ‘Silence’ may advantageously be hung on the wall. Large shallow cupboards will take up most of the walls; these will contain separate pegs for each cassock and for each surplice, each pair of pegs bearing the owner’s name and number. If there is not a shelf over the pegs on which hats can be [108] placed, another row of larger pegs must be provided elsewhere for this purpose. Every cassock and surplice should be numbered; and a lady should be found who will take charge of all the surplices, send them to the wash, and keep them in repair.

An inventory of every bit of linen belonging to the church should be carefully made, and kept up to date.

The Sacristy. When many vestments are kept, a Press will be wanted; though some small churches may find two or three wooden yokes, hanging in a cupboard, sufficient. They hold chasubles and copes very well, and can be bought through a tailor or an ironmonger for a few pence.

The number of presses will depend upon the size of the Sacristy and the number of services. In churches where there is a high Celebration every Sunday, it is convenient to keep the vestments for this service in one large press, 9 feet long or more (to enable the three ministers to vest at it), but divided by a partition into two sets of drawers. A smaller press can then be reserved for low Celebrations, for which separate chasubles, etc., will be needed.

An ordinary press maybe 3½ ft. high, 4 ft. 9 in. long, and 2 ft. 9 in. broad. The drawers should be shallow (2 in. inside), so that only one set of vestments may be kept in each: this saves time and spares the vestments. If, in ordering a press, the parson has twice as many drawers made as he seems to want, he will be glad of the provision before very long. The veils and burses should be kept with the vestments of their colour. The top drawer will be found useful for apparelled amices; and, if there is no cupboard for the priests’ albes, they can be folded in the bottom drawer if it is made, say, 6 in. deep. A cupboard for the priests’ albes and girdles is a convenience, but in towns it must be as nearly air-tight as possible. [109] A cedar-wood lining to the drawers keeps away the moth, and a lining of cloth dyed in saffron preserves gold embroidery. A piece of white cloth or stout linen laid over the vestments in each drawer will help to keep the dirt from them. Heavily embroidered vestments will need cotton-wool under the folds when they are put away. Sometimes presses have a folding lid on the top to keep the vestments clean when they are laid out. A cheaper plan is to cover them with a piece of white cloth. The top of the press where the vestments are laid out should have a piece of white cloth or linen fixed on it with drawing-pins. The vestments should be laid out in the following order:—chasuble, stole, maniple, girdle, albe, and on the top of all the amice. If there is a procession, the cope will be laid above the chasuble, unless there is a cope-stand.

A Cope-stand is extremely useful. It consists of a wooden upright, about 5½ feet high, resting on a firm base, and having a well-rounded yoke on the top. After the procession the cope is slipped on to the stand in a moment, and the morse fastened. It can then be folded up at leisure after the service. If there is a large air-tight cupboard copes can always be kept thus on their stands with a linen cloth over them.

A crucifix should hang above the press. Under it may be placed the hymn, Come Holy Ghost and the 43rd Psalm Judica me, which were formerly appointed to be said while vesting.

A basin, if possible fitted with a tap and drain, should be provided for the parson to wash his hands therein before celebrating. Near it will hang a jack-towel.

A little square basin, hanging on a bracket under a filter, should also be provided for the purificators. After each service the purificator can be rinsed in this basin, and then put by for the wash in a special basket or on a rail. The basin should be emptied in [110] the piscina. The filter will also supply the pure water for the Eucharist.

A Safe for the vessels is almost a necessity. When there is none, a niche for the chalice and paten must be made in the hanging Altar-cupboard. This small cupboard should be fixed to the wall at a convenient height, and near it may be a bracket where the vessels under their veil can be placed before service. There should be at least two shallow drawers in the cupboard, and two shelves, one divided by partitions. In one drawer will be kept the clean purificators and napkins, in another the spare corporals. Lavender in these drawers is not only pleasant but serves also to keep away insects. In the niches of the partitioned shelf will be kept the cruets, the two boxes for the breads, the small ewer and basin, the shell for baptism, if one is used; the top shelf might be tall enough to contain the spare bottles of wine. It may be divided into three niches, one large for the stock of wine, one narrow for the altar-books, one large enough to take the chalice and paten. An extra shelf and drawer will generally come in useful: stoles may be kept in the drawer.

Near this small cupboard may stand a larger one for altar-linen. An ordinary bedroom shape may serve; but it will be better if it is made with shallower drawers. The two top short drawers of the bedroom type will be useful for storing such things as frontal apparels and Lenten veils; but, as they will in that case be seldom used, they may be more advantageously at the bottom. One drawer will be needed for the spare linen cloths of the high altar (one fair linen and two undercloths will suffice); another drawer for the linen belonging to other altars; another will be found useful for keeping the sets of vestment apparels that are not in actual use. If there is no chest for the frontals, and if they can be folded, space may be found for them here.

[111] The Frontal Chest will stand in some convenient spot near the altar. If the frontals are stretched on frames, the chest should open at the top and be large enough for twice as many frontals as are in use. A chest that is only large enough for the colours in use, will prove a nuisance when somebody presents a new frontal.

If the frontals are not stretched, a cupboard should be provided with shallow shelves large enough for each frontal to be folded in four, with a shelf for frontlets, and some spare shelves.

A special Cupboard should be reserved for the servers’ albes, etc., their cassocks and shoes being kept elsewhere. Two pegs at least will be needed for each server, one for his albe and girdle, and one for his surplice or rochet: a shelf above can be kept for the apparelled amices. If a succession of boys serve at the week-day services a surplice or rochet had better be hung for them somewhere else. Washing is a very expensive item, and if the servers’ cupboard is kept locked from Sunday to Sunday, and is nearly air-tight, the albes, etc., will keep clean twice as long as they otherwise would.

Yet another cupboard will be that for Music, which should be divided into large pigeon-holes. If each set of music is kept strictly in its place by the Librarian (who must be a responsible person), and duly inventoried, tidiness will be gained and much money saved. Each set of music should be kept in a brown-paper bag, or, in the case of special services seldom used, in a cardboard box. Special hymns, carols, etc., for congregational use, should be carefully stored in the upper shelves. Everything in the music-cupboard should be clearly labelled.

It is obvious that many churches have not room for all the cupboards which I have described. In this case, composite cupboards will have to be made. But, in any case, care should be taken that there is [112] really a place for everything, even if cupboards and chests have to be put up in the church itself (which was the usual ancient practice). Wherever a cupboard is, it should be painted a pleasant colour, or stained green. Varnished pitch-pine, and imitation-wood stains, are almost as destructive of warmth and beauty as is oak-graining. The usual practice is to make cupboards somewhat at random when other places overflow; but, if the parson will consider, before he calls in the carpenter, exactly what the requirements of the church are likely to be, I do not think he will regret a consideration of the hints I have given.

The Duties of the Sacristan. The best proverb for the parson is, that if you want a thing well done you must get other people to do it. He had much better not spend his time fussing about the accessories of divine service, nor will he find one helper sufficient. The whole responsibility should be laid upon the Sacristan, who had much better be a layman. The sacristan’s position is a most important one, and he must be devout, sensible, and even-tempered. Generally it will be found that he also makes the best Clerk. He need not do a very great deal himself, but he must see that everything is done, which means that he must be kind and pleasant in manner as well as careful.

He will see that a list of servers is posted on the wall for every service in the week; and when any one is to be away he will fill his place. He will see that everything is ready five minutes before service begins on Sunday—the vestments laid out, the candles lit by the torchbearer, and the charcoal heated by the thurifer. He will gently superintend the band of helpers, who are needed if everything is to be kept as the things pertaining to God’s worship ought to be kept. For nearly all these duties I have found women to be best, only they need to have their realms [113] well defined and protected, and unless they are responsible to the sacristan there will sometimes be trouble. One lady should be found to put out the vestments every day. Her work will require much neatness of method. She may also be responsible for washing and mending the albes, etc., of clergy and servers. Another will be needed to polish the brass work and to trim the candles, which require two or three visits a week (a lad may clean the brass, but women are more reliable). Another to dust the high-altar and see to the altar-cloths, another to see to the chapel. Often another lady may be found, who has not much time to be in and out of the church, but can undertake the useful task of washing the purificators. The Verger is generally the best person to change the frontals. If there are several helpers, each responsible for his or her own piece of work, and all responsible to the Sacristan, and through him to the Parson, the most perfect cleanliness and order can be secured, a good deal of money will be saved, and those who work for the church will love it better and use it more.

It is impossible to lay down rules for washing, etc., but the following hints may be found useful:—

Times.—Wash the fair linen cloth of the altar once a month, the undercloths once a quarter.

Strip the altar entirely twice a year on a fine day, from morning till evening, so that everything may be well aired; and thoroughly clean everything connected with it.

Wash the corporals once a month. (This will not always apply to those in the green and violet burses.) The towels once a week.

Let a responsible person,wash the purificators (see p. 96) every Saturday.

Let all the linen be clean on the greater festivals.

Wash the chalice and paten once a week with soap and water.

[114] Rinse the cruets every day, and wash them thoroughly once a week. Clean brass every week.

The Verger will generally be responsible for dusting the church; seeing that the font, pulpit, lamps (which need hot water), etc., are clean.

Methods.—Wash the linen in warm water, with white soap. To take out ink-spots, dip the part into melted tallow before washing. To take out wine-stains, hold the part in boiling milk.

To remove wax from stuffs, cover with a piece of blotting-paper and iron with a hot iron. To remove grease, clean with a flannel moistened with turpentine. Wax can easily be removed from the tops of candlesticks if they have been rubbed with a little oil.

To clean brass, rub with polishing paste, and polish afterwards with a leather. A drop of oil of vitriol in the paste will remove tarnish. It is much less trouble if it be kept clean every week.

Lacquered brass never looks nearly so well as polished brass. It is best, if any one can be found to see to the polishing, to remove lacquer, which may be done with oxalic acid.

To clean silver, use whiting, polishing afterwards with wash-leather. Sweet oil removes burnt incense from silver thuribles.

Painted wood-work, especially if it be covered with a coat of varnish, can be easily cleaned with soap and water.

Stone should be cleaned with brush, soap and water, but never hearthstoned.

To clean wax candles, wipe them with a cloth damped with spirits of wine or turpentine.

Stains may be removed from printed books by a solution of citric acid. Old altar-linen should be burnt.


1 The practice in the average parish church of the middle ages was to keep the vestments in chests about the church. They were put on the altar before service, and the priest vested at the altar. This might still be done in some very small churches: but our modern habits are against it.

2 Canon 52 orders the names of all strange preachers to be entered in a book kept for that purpose.

3 Canon 70 orders a parchment book for christenings, weddings, and burials to be kept in a ‘sure coffer’ with three locks and keys.

Project Canterbury