The Vestry – a Virginia Innovation

In the thirty years following the Jamestown landing, efforts to settle an English bishop in the colonies failed three separate times. Without a bishop, the Church of England in the colonies had to improvise a system of church governance under lay authority. In about 1642, the General Assembly enacted a system of vestries, under which laymen assumed powers unknown in England, the greatest of which was the right to “elect and make choyce of their ministers.”

The vestry system was compatible with emerging principles of democracy and self-determination, and the system spread beyond Virginia. Today, lay people have a greater role in the governance of the Episcopal Church than they do almost anywhere else in the Anglican world. Within the Episcopal Church, the Diocese of Virginia is still known for its tradition of strong lay leadership and strong vestries.

In the Diocese of Virginia, vestries still call rectors (with the consent of the Bishop), and manage the temporal affairs of the parish, but they also share in ministry. According to the canons, the vestry is to “cooperate with the Rector in promoting the spiritual welfare of his cure.”