Merry 12th day of Christmas and Happy New Year! Today is the last day of Christmas, which means tomorrow is the feast of Epiphany. At Epiphany, we celebrate the “the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” The Gentiles in question are the wise men who came from the East being led by a star to Bethlehem. Epiphanytide, the season surrounding this celebration, is all about the light of Christ manifesting itself in various ways in our lives and in the world around us.
In the life of this parish church, Epiphanytide is when we prepare to hold our annual business meeting. At this meeting, the entire congregation will ratify the church’s operating budget, and will elect three new members of the vestry. Because of inhibitions caused by the reflooring project, our annual meeting has been pushed back to February 2, 2020, which is also the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and marks the end of Epiphanytide. Fun fact: some hardcore liturgy nerds keep their Christmas decorations up until the Feast of the Presentation, also known as Candlemas.
In preparation for our annual meeting, I want to briefly write about what a vestry is and what a vestry does. The vestry system is fairly unique to American Anglicanism (the Episcopal Church). In Colonial America, there was an enormous clergy shortage in our churches because the Archbishop of Canterbury refused to send a Church of England bishop to the 13 Colonies. This meant that any clergy persons would either have to come from England or make the arduous journey to England and back in order to be ordained. This created a situation in which lay leaders had to take a bigger part in the administration of the church than was common in that day. As a result, our system of church governance is a hybrid between the congregational model (think Baptists, UCC, Quakers) in which individual local churches have complete authority over their affairs, and the hierarchical model (think the Roman Catholic Church) where bishops or other authorities have complete control over the affairs of each parish. The Episcopal Church incorporates both models. Individual congregations have some power to determine their affairs, but they are by no means autonomous from the bishop and the wider church structures. When it works, it’s a great compromise which avoids the problems and extremes of both models. Churches that are too autonomous have no support and no accountability. Absolute hierarchies run the risk of being disconnected from what is actually happening at the local level of a parish church, and of disenfranchising the laity who need to take an active role in the affairs of their church. The vestry system is meant to strike a balance between the two.
Parish churches in the Episcopal Church, through their vestries, have the responsibility to call their own priest instead of having one appointed to them. Vestries are also charged with the responsibility to manage the temporal affairs of the church—the finances and the buildings. By local custom, our vestry organizes and oversees much of the other ministry that happens in the church such as outreach, fellowship and Sunday School.
The vestry of Holy Apostles is comprised of nine lay members, all of whom are to be confirmed or received into the Episcopal Church. The vestry meets once a month. The Rector usually sets the agenda and presides over the meeting, but does not have a vote. All spending over $500 has to be approved by a motion of the vestry. There are several committees which are made of both vestry and non-vestry members who make recommendations to the vestry, especially on matters of finance and property. While the vestry often takes up important practical matters, it is actually a spiritual calling. With the Rector’s guidance, the vestry helps to shape the vision and future plans of our parish, and this important work needs to be done in the context of prayer and reading Scripture. It’s a big job but it is also rewarding and empowering.
This is your church, and God is calling each of you to take part in it. St. Paul reminds us of this when he writes that the Church is the body of Christ, made up of many members. Each member has their own job to do and unique gifts and talents to bring to the task. If you are interested or if you feel God is calling you to offer your unique gifts to the task of being a vestry member, please let me know!