What is a warden?

When I was elected people’s warden by the cathedral chapter this year, I was honored, but also immediately started wondering, “what have I gotten myself into?” I realized that I didn’t have a very clear picture of what a warden does in the Episcopal Church. So, in addition to talking with the dean, and some previous holders of the office at St. Paul’s, I started to do a bit of research. Since I suspect some cathedral congregants don’t know any better than I did what a warden does, here’s a summary of what I’ve found out.

“Warden” is used here in its meaning as “guardian,” and etymologically, the words are related, both deriving from the Old French “guarden.” The OED dates the first use to 1439, when “the wardeyns of Seynt Austyns chirch” were mentioned in a will. Traditionally, they are responsible for the “fabric and finances” of the parish, and for maintaining order in the church and churchyard. Translate “fabric” as buildings and grounds. The legendary Percy Dearmer, writing in the early 20th century, noted their role in supervising church cleaners, and truly that was (and is) their function in small churches without paid staff.

According to the bylaws of our own cathedral, there are three wardens at St. Paul’s: the dean’s warden (appointed by the dean), the people’s warden (elected by the chapter), and the bishop’s warden (appointed by the bishop).

At St. Paul’s our governing body is the chapter (called a vestry in parish churches), and because of our status as cathedral, in addition to the members elected at our annual meeting, the by-laws state that there will be two additional chapter members elected by diocesan convention, and a third, appointed by the bishop, who is known as the bishop’s warden. The current bishop’s warden is Mr. Scott Crispell of All Souls’ Church.

An only slightly longer section of the by-laws describes the duties of the dean’s and people’s wardens. They are the first and second vice-presidents, respectively, of the corporation, and are called upon, in order of seniority, to preside over all meetings of the cathedral and chapter, and to act in place of the dean, should the dean’s position be vacant, or if the dean should be absent or unable to act. In other words, to function as “guardians.”

Despite this brief description of the wardens’ duties, both the dean’s and people’s wardens at St. Paul’s accept responsibilities at the cathedral reminiscent of the more traditional definitions of churchwarden, including participation on various committees and boards dealing with the “fabric and finances” of St. Paul’s. Dr. Russell Okihara is the current dean’s warden, working most closely with Dean Scott Richardson, and I serve as people’s warden this year.

Traditionally, the people’s (or junior) warden represents the interests of the people of the congregation. We’re blessed at the cathedral to have a supportive and approachable staff, and I encourage you to talk directly with staff members if you have a concern. But if there are issues of “fabric or finances” that you find difficult to discuss, or don’t know the appropriate contact, you are invited to let me know, and I’ll be happy to live my way into the traditional role of churchwarden and make the necessary connections, reporting back to you – and maintaining your confidentiality. I’m also planning to blog reports on chapter meetings, so that everyone will have a better idea of what the cathedral’s governance group is up to. Please don’t hesitate to contact me at mlestersd@sbcglobal.net if you have a question or concern. Thank you for the opportunity to serve you this year!

Mark Lester

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