We are preparing to elect four new members to our vestry next Sunday at our Parish Meeting. I am so grateful to our current vestry, its outgoing members, and to our new nominees. Serving on the vestry is a large commitment of time, but it is so very important to the life of this parish. The current vestry and I recently completed something called a Mutual Ministry Review. You’ll be hearing more about that, but it just serves to highlight that ministry—service to God and others—really is mutual. The vestry and rector TOGETHER serve as the leadership of this parish. The vestry system is unique to the American branch of the Anglican Communion (The Episcopal Church). During our colonial period, the Church of England operated in the American colonies under the direct authority of the Bishop of London. There were no bishops on American soil until after the American Revolution. There were also no seminaries, and the colonies eventually experienced a dire clergy shortage. The vestry system developed out of this necessity. In order for parishes to survive, they needed to have strong lay leadership. Especially in colonies like Virginia where the Church of England was the Established Church, parishes were not just church communities, they functioned as geographical entities (similar to the old system of counties and parishes in England). The parish vestries that developed, then, did not just administer the temporal affairs of the parish church, but also, in many cases, served as civil administrators of the entire geographical parish. From this history, our contemporary vestry system has developed. Unique in Anglicanism (and also to Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and many “Mainline” denominations), a vestry in the Episcopal church is tasked with hiring a rector in consultation with the bishop.
Vestries are a testament to a fact just as true today as it was in colonial America, and indeed everywhere at every time: the church’s backbone is strong lay leadership. The New Testament puts this in theological terms. All baptized Christians are called to be the “priesthood of all believers” (1 Peter 2:5). We are all ministers of the Gospel and essential parts of the Body of Christ, the Church. Our role as priests, under Jesus the Great High Priest (Hebrews 7), is to pray for and bless this world, and by our lives to bring this world closer to God’s Kingdom. That’s the cosmic picture. The local picture seems more mundane. Don’t be fooled. It is just as profound, essential, and beautiful—committed, loving members of this local congregation quietly doing God’s work day in and day out. I am so grateful.