CHURCHWARDENS are parish of ficers, who by law have a limited charge of the fabric of the parish church, of the direction and supervision of its repairs, and of the arrangement of the pews and seats. Certain other duties are imposed upon them on particular occasions. There are usually two churchwardens in each parish, but by custom there may be only one. It is said by some authorities, that by the common law the right of choosing churchwardens is in the parson and the parishioners. This is however by no means universally the case, as a custom prevails in many parishes for the parishioners to choose both, and in some both are elected by a select vestry. The eighty-ninth canon of 1603 directs that "churchwardens shall be chosen yearly in Easter week by the joint consent of the minister and parishioners, if it may be ; but if they cannot agree, the minister shall choose one and the parishioners an other." It has however been questioned how far these canons are binding upon the laity, even in matters ecclesiastical.
The usual duties of churchwardens are, to take care that the churches are suffi ciently repaired ; to distribute seats among the parishioners, under the control of the ordinary ; to maintain order and decorum in the church during the time of divine service ; and to provide the furni ture for the church, the bread and wine for the sacrament, and the books directed by law to be used by the minister in conduct ing public worship. In addition to these ordinary duties, the churchwardens are by virtue of their office overseers of the poor, under the statutes for the relief of the poor; they summon vestries ; they are also required to present to the bishop all things presentable by the ecclesiastical laws, which relate to the church, minister, or parishioners. They act as segues trators of a living. They are also re quired to perambulate the bounds of the parish. In large parishes there are some times officers called sidesmen (synodanzen) or questmen, whose business it is to assist the churchwardens in inquiring into offences and making presentments.
Churchwardens and sidesmen were for merly required to take an oath of office before entering upon their respective duties ; but by a recent statute, 5 & 6 Will. IV. c. 62, § 9, it is enacted that, in lieu of such oath, they shall make and subscribe a declaration before the ordi nary (the bishop of the diocese, or the archdeacon, official, or surrogate) that they will faithfully and diligently per form the duties of their offices. This is done at the archdeacon's visitation. It is said by various old writers that the churchwarden might act before he was sworn ; but 5 & 6 Will. IV. c. 62, re quires that the declaration should be taken first. The old churchwardens usually act until the archdeacon's visitation, about the month of June, though their suc cessors are appointed at Easter.
If churchwardens are guilty of any wilful malversation, or if they refuse to account to the parishioners at the termi nation of their period of service, they may be proceeded against summarily before the bishop by any parishioner who is in terested, or the new churchwardens may maintain an action of account against them at common law ; in which action the parishioners, other than such as re ceive alms, are admissible as witnesses. (3 Will. III. c. 11, § 12.) On the other hand, in all actions brought against them for any thing done by virtue of their office, if a verdict be given for them, or if the plaintiff be nonsuited or discontinue, they are entitled to double costs by 7 Jas. I. 0. 5, and 21 Jas. I. c. 12.
Under the 59th Geo. III. c. 12, § 17, churchwardens and overseers are em powered to take and hold lands in trust for the parish as a corporate body ; and by a decision under this act, they can also take and hold any other lands and here ditaments belonging to the parish, the profits of which are applied in aid of the church-rate. (Burn's Justice and Burn's Ecclesiastical Law, tit. " Church wardens.")