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The Right of Women in the Diocese of South Carolina to Election as Members of Vestries.

By R. A. Meares.

Columbia, South Carolina: The R. B. Bryan Company, 1917.



November 4, 1917.


I agree with you in the conclusion which you have reached in your article on the right of women to sit on vestries. To those of us who believe that the time is past for the antiquated notion that women labor under an inherent disability, it is gratifying to know that so strong an argument can be made upon historical grounds as you have made.

Your article ought to be published. * * *

Very truly,


MR. R. A. MEARES, Ridgeway, S. C.


1. Vestry, the Term, and Its Meaning:

Originally, in the Church of England (from which the American Church has derived by inheritance its laws and customs, except as otherwise abrogated or changed by specific enactment or unavoidable circumstances incident to the separation of the churches as brought about by the establishment of our civil government) a Vestry is defined as "a meeting of the parishioners to consult and determine on parochial business." Vestries were either--

1. Ordinary, i. e., in which "every parishioner paying poor rates has the right to participate."

(As late as 1888 complaint is made in public print that "the local vestries keep the roads in wretched repair.") Or,

2. Select (or, by the custom of London), in which there is a representative number chosen of the body of parishioners, with, of course, similar powers and duties. This is the character of vestry existent in the Church in America.

It is easy to understand how this latter style of vestry should have evolved in a busy inhomogenous body of business people in a large city like London, in lieu of a general meeting of all the parishioners; and it may also be worth consideration in connection therewith that this, the Select Vestry form, was adopted in America because our colonial ecclesiastical system for some time prior to the Revolution was in charge of the Bishop of London as the Diocesan of the American Colonial churches.

2. The Office of Vestry: It is a comparatively modern institution in the English Church. And it is well to keep in mind, as bearing upon the subject matter discussed herein, that there is nothing connected with it of a divinely appointed or otherwise sacred character, but that it simply came about as a necessity in the management of the affairs of the English parochial system--an ecclesiastical system of government that has no counterpart in any other branch of the Catholic Faith. While this is the case, however, from a purely legal standpoint, it is well for vestries to have in mind that "their trusteeship has a spiritual bearing, and should work in and with, and be in subservience to, the [3/4] great object of parochial organizations, to wit, the ingathering of souls into the fold of Christ."

In general, the history of the origin of the vestry system simply is, that in more ancient times the bishops had sole and exclusive control of the temporalities of their churches as well as spiritual jurisdiction, but with the growth of populations and multiplying of churches temporal matters involved were of necessity placed more and more under the management of the laity.

In England the duties and responsibilities of vestries are first fully and with particularity defined in the Canons of 1603, in reign of James I.

3. The Vestry in America: Under our system of ecclesiastical organization parishes are incorporated under the title of the Rector, Wardens and Vestrymen. These three distinct parts collectively constitute what we term a Vestry. These parts, each with distinct responsibilities and powers, when constituting jointly the Vestry, are concerned with solely the temporalities of the parochial organization, the spiritual affairs being exclusively within the jurisdiction of the rector in his individual capacity as a priest, in subordination to the diocesan.

This business status of the vestry is, perhaps, the reason that the custom is (or formerly was) not generally observed or made a matter of obligation to restrict the office of vestrymen to communicants, however the rule is enforced in the case with the wardens. The subjects pertaining to the office of vestrymen are mainly so purely matters of business detail that any business man or woman interested in the churches welfare may, with propriety, take them in charge. These subjects are embraced under these heads, to wit:

1. As trustees, the duties of the vestry are to have the custody and administration of the corporate property, real and personal, and the revenues accruing, under the limitations of the charter, the statutes of the State and the canons appertaining thereto.

2. To erect the necessary buildings for parish use, to alter and repair the same, and to keep them, with the enclosure thereof, in order.

[5] 3. To elect, with the concurrence of the diocesan, a rector, and to supply a vacancy occurring in the rectorate. This duty and power are taken as a matter of course in our communion; in the English Church, the parishioners or their representative body have in this matter little or no power or participation.

4. And to fix the rector's salary. When elected and installed, however, the rector is above the power of the vestry to remove him or to deprive him of his office, in which he has a property right enforcible by process of law in the Civil Courts. The dissolution of the tie when once formed between priest and people may not properly be severed, either by the vestry attempting to "discharge" the rector, to revoke the "call," or "starve" him out by withholding due payment of his salary as stipulated in the contract. The canonical abrogation of the official connection between a rector and his parishioners is solely within the jurisdiction of the diocesan, under clearly defined regulations as to the procedure of canons, general and diocesan.

4. Qualifications for Election to Vestry: Our diocesan canon requires of wardens (as above intimated) that they be communicants. With this exception, qualifications in this diocese for election from the body of qualified voters in the annual parochial meetings are left to the by-laws as adopted for the local self-government of the parochial organization.


Of Vestries.

Section 1. In every parish there shall be an annual election on Easter Monday, or on such day thereafter as may be appointed, of two church Wardens, and not less than three nor more than seven Vestrymen, to continue in office for one year, and until their successors are appointed. The Wardens shall always be communicants.

Sec. 2. The election shall always be by ballot, and its details, and also the qualifications of those elected shall he regulated by the Articles of Association, or By-Laws of the Parish.

[6] Sec. 3. The church Wardens and Vestrymen thus elected, together with the Rector, if there be one, and if not, then themselves, shall constitute the Vestry, and shall be the official representatives of the parish or church. The Rector shall preside at all meetings, and in case of his absence one of the Wardens shall preside: Provided, That the provisions of this section shall not interfere with existing laws and usages of established churches.

Sec. 4: The Vestry shall have charge of the temporalities of the church, and it shall be their duty to provide for all repairs, salaries and current expenses, and to take all necessary steps to raise the funds required, and to keep a proper account of the same. They shall also execute all duties which are now, or may hereafter be, imposed upon them by any General Convention or Council of the Diocese.

Sec. 5. It shall be the especial duty of the Wardens to provide whatever may be necessary for the due celebration of divine worship (as books, vestments, etc.); also for the decency and comfort of the church building and furniture, books for church records, and the elements of the Lord's Supper, and to put down all disorder during public worship. They shall be ready to collect "the alms and other devotions of the people," and in case the parish or church is without a minister, shall disburse them; and also provide for public worship by occasional Clerical services, or by lay reading, as circumstances will permit. They shall also, during such vacancy, take charge of the church plate, records, etc., and shall present to the Bishop, at each Annual Council, a report of the parish. It shall also be their further duty to aid the Rector or Minister in all agencies and efforts for the advancement of the Church--as Sunday Schools, etc.--and they may report to the Bishop any irregularities in the mode of conducting public worship, and all offenses by their Minister, or by any other officiating for him, against Rubrics or Canons, faith or morals.

Sec. 6. The pastoral connection shall not be dissolved except as provided for by Canon IV, Title II, of the General Digest.

[7] Sec. 7. When a parish is vacant, it shall be the duty of the Vestry to notify the Bishop of the fact, and also to elect and invite a Rector; but not without due regard to the ascertained wishes of the congregation, and the opinion and advice of the Bishop.

This Canon (which is essentially a recapitulation of many of the Canons of 1603 upon the subject of Church Wardens) appears first to have been enacted in 1875, when the Church, as well as the State, was in the throes of Reconstruction. Up to the period of the War Between the States, the parochial organizations proceeded upon the lines indicated in the civil statutes as applicable, and under the ancient provisions of the Canons of 1603, which still were and are of force except as abrogated ex necessitati rei, or by express enactment.

"As a general rule, only a qualified voter is eligible for the office of Vestryman." (Willock on Corp., Pt. 1, Sec. 480.)

It may be argued from this citation that unless by expressed exception in favor of the male sex (and there is no such exception in the Diocese of South Carolina, as we have shown) a woman, if a qualified voter, on the face of it is eligible for the office.

To make a stronger argument in favor of woman's eligibility, as a fact in most other dioceses the only required qualification is that a member of the vestry should be a male voter.

In the absence of any such limitation imposed upon a congregation in the Diocese of South Carolina, combined with the affirmative provision that each parish may decide the matter of qualifications for itself through its by-laws, a fair inference is drawn that a matter of sex could not be an impediment in the case of a woman otherwise qualified as a member of the vestry; unless, indeed, it may be considered that the mind of the church at the time of adoption of our diocesan regulations of the subject was, that it was lawful and to be considered possible, as an universal custom, to choose only males to this office. But, on the other hand, if this be so, why should so many dioceses, some as ancient as [7/8] our own, provide by specification that males only may serve upon the vestry? By this action of theirs, it is made almost impossible to consider it to have been, with them, inconceivable that a woman should so serve.

On the contrary, as a matter of fact, it is to be fairly presumed that vestries were restricted in former times to male membership for the reason, mainly, that females were not recognized in the civil law upon an equality with the other sex. Hence, the vestry system of administration, implying rights of ownership and alienation of realty, of contract and of responsibility for performance of duty, was with propriety devolved upon males only.

However this argument is taken, it is not questioned in this generation that women have rights, and that they carry responsibilities equally with men in civil affairs, while in a sense today the work of the church is largely a matter devolved upon women where their special qualities of usefulness render them, even if not recognized officially, so esteemed.

This official recognition, however, has recently been made a question in the highest tribunal--the House of Bishops--in Convention assembled.

In the Journal of the General Convention of 1916, page 40, it appears that the Bishop of Maine presented a proposed constitutional amendment, to accord to female communicants full rights, responsibilities and privileges as male communicants possess. The Committee of Reference reported that the rights of women as members of vestries and delegates to Diocesan Councils are matters already solely within the legislative powers of the respective dioceses.

This being adopted as the sense of the House puts this question under discussion squarely up to us.

And, in conclusion, it is worth while repeating that the Diocese of South Carolina, while restricting the right of election of a delegate to Council to male members of parishes only, nevertheless has wisely left open the question of the fitness of women to serve the Church in their respective parishes in an official capacity upon boards of vestries to the judgment of those thus locally concerned, and none other.

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