by Martyn Offord
Anyone present at the Licensing of our new vicar last April would have been awed by the spectacle of two venerable churchwardens, clutching their ceremonial ‘wands’, escorting the Bishop into the church.
Of all the voluntary roles that have kept Crich functioning over the centuries, that of churchwarden is probably the most ancient, having legal recognition from at least the 13th century. The word ‘legal’ is significant because we often forget that when people take on voluntary roles they also take on responsibilities, some of which are legally accountable, as with school governors, or trustees, for instance.
In the days when the parish was an administrative area, the warden had an important function answerable to government. Now we have a separation of the Church Parochial Church Council and the Parish Council, but that was not originally the case. Being a villager himself, the warden would play a part in poor relief, identifying those in need, administering various charities, assessing the populace for poor relief taxation and overseeing the workhouse in Chapel Lane. This assessment for local taxes could also extend to bridge and highway maintenance. The warden also monitored and helped enforce church attendance – and a number of absentees was reported in 1634, probably Roman Catholics. Wardens were elected at a parish meeting as guardians of parish morals and trustees of the church’s moveable goods. In Crich it is recorded 300-400 people voting in proper booths. So contentious were the elections of 1883 during the incumbency of our notorious vicar William Acraman, that the police had to be called and various charges of assault were subsequently brought.
As well as being legally responsible for the church treasures, the wardens must ensure the good order of the churchyard. So they were in trouble in the 1850s when it was reported that bones were scattered about because of graves being re-used without proper disposal of the previous occupants.
A ‘terrier’ is a charmingly archaic word for the logbook recording all the church’s possessions, details of insurance and all sorts of other data for which the warden is responsible. At St Mary’s, an invaluable team sorts out lots of these issues, including maintenance of the fabric, health and safety, safeguarding and so on. But ultimately the wardens must ensure all is in order and periodic ‘visitations’ by the Archdeacon check this.
The maintenance of ‘good order’ in the church and churchyard is important and a warden can prevent troublesome individuals from accessing the church. He or she also makes sure all is ready for services. During the recent interregnum (ie, no vicar), the wardens, as officers of the Bishop, were responsible for ensuring services happened as well as for the appointment and licensing of the new vicar. Thankfully they had a lot of help and support, but the good parishioners of Crich must be relieved that the wardens are too busy to be out disciplining those whose moral behaviour merits rebuke.