CHURCHWARDEN, in England, the guardian or keeper of a church, and representative of the body of the parish. The name is derived from the original duty attached to the office, - that of the custody or guardianship of the fabric and furniture of the church, - which dates from the 14th century, when the responsibility of providing for the repairs of the nave, and of furnishing the utensils for divine service, was settled on the parishioners. Churchwardens are always lay persons, and as they may, like "artificial persons," hold goods and chattels and bring actions for them, they are recognized in law as quasi-corporations. Resident householders of a parish are those primarily eligible as churchwardens, but non-resident householders who are habitually occupiers are also eligible, while there are a few classes of persons who are either ineligible or exempted. The appointment of churchwardens is regulated by the 89th canon, which requires that the churchwardens shall be chosen by the joint consent of the ministers and parishioners, if it may be; but if they cannot agree upon such a choice, then the minister is to choose one, and the parishioners another. If, however, there is any special custom of the place, the custom prevails, and the most common custom is for the minister to appoint one, and the parishioners another, and this has been established by English statute, in the case of new parishes, by the Church Building and New Parishes Acts 1818-1884. There are other special customs recognized in various localities, e.g. in some of the larger parishes in the north of England a churchwarden is chosen for each township of the parish; in the old ecclesiastical parishes of London both churchwardens are chosen by the parishioners; in some cases they are appointed by the select vestry, or by the lord of the manor, and in a few exceptional cases are chosen by the outgoing churchwardens.
In general, churchwardens are appointed in Easter week, usually Easter Monday or Easter Tuesday, but in new parishes the first appointment must be within twenty-one days after the consecration of the church, or two calendar months after the formation of the parish, subsequent appointments taking place at the usual time for the appointment of parish officers. Each churchwarden after election subscribes before the ordinary a declaration that he will execute his office faithfully.
The duties of churchwardens comprise the provision of necessaries for divine service, so far as the church funds or voluntary subscriptions permit, the collecting the offertory of the congregation, the keeping of order during the divine service, and the giving of offenders into custody; the assignment of seats to parishioners; the guardianship of the movable goods of the church; the preservation and repair of the church and churchyard, the fabric and the fixtures; and the presentment of offences against ecclesiastical law.
In the episcopal church of the United States churchwardens discharge much the same duties as those performed by the English officials; their duties, however, are regulated by canons of the diocese, not by canons general. In the United States, too, the usual practice is for the parishes to elect both the churchwardens.
See Prideaux's Churchwarden's Guide (16th ed., London, 1895); Steer's Parish Law (6th ed., London, 1899); Blunt's Book of Church Law (7th ed., London, 1894).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)