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ON THE OATHS OF CHURCHWARDENS.
I know nothing in which the obligation of an oath is so egregiously trifled with, or rather in which that obligation is so entirely overlooked, as in the office of a churchwarden ; and in no part of their duty is this inadvertency more observable than in the answers which are returned in the book of articles. It does not seem to occur to the apprehension of churchwardens that this is a business in which their consciences are at all concerned, or to which their oath extends. I must entreat, therefore, my Reverend Brethren, your concurrence with me in endeavouring to remind your respective churchwardens of this branch of their office, and your and their attention for a few minutes, whilst I attempt to show how churchwardens stand obliged by their oath in filling up, as it is called, the book of articles, to deliver careful, well considered, true, and explicit answers to the questions proposed to them.
The churchwarden's oath, after some controversy and much deliberation between the best civilians and common lawyers of the age, was settled in its present form, with a view, on the one hand, of binding the churchwarden to every thing that properly belongs to his office, and with due caution, on the other, not to leave it in the power of the ordinary to cast upon him what burthens he pleased. The concluding clause of this oath is that by which the churchwarden swears, according to the best of his skill and judgment, to present such things and persons as are presentable by the laws ecclesiastical of this realın;' but lest his skill and judgment should not be sufficient to inform him what things are and what things are not presentable by the laws of the realm, a book of articles is put into his hands to supply that information; so that it is, in truth, a book of instruction to the churchwarden in the discharge of his duty. A conscientious man, who remembers that he has sworn to present such things as are presentable, will be led in the first place to inquire what things are presentable; and this inquiry the contents of the book of articles satisfy, by enumerating and disposing, under different titles, the matters which are ordinarily presentable, and to which, consequently, his oath extends.
Emergent cases may arise which are not comprehended in the book, but they are few; the plain account of the connexion between the oath and the articles is this; the oath obliges the churchwarden to present such things as are presentable, the articles let him know what these things are. There are a few chapels within this district which do not receive books of articles at all. I am sorry there are any such ; for since the chapelwardens of these places swear to present such things as are presentable, unless they can take upon themselves to judge what things are presentable, and will frame presentments according to that judgment, they ought not to refuse the assistance that is held out to them; it is not consistent with their oath to do so. It was expected, I have no doubt, that they should resort to the mother church, and return their presentments in the general articles of the parish; but this is neither convenient nor often practised. Suppose, for instance, there being any irrepair in the fabric of the chapel, the fence of the chapel yard, or of any of the buildings belonging to its estate, or any insufficiency in any article employed about divine service, such defects are things presentable; yet how is the chapelwarden to present them, if he neither receive a separate book of articles, nor join in answering the book sent to the parish church, nor return written presentments of his own ? The expense
of a book of articles is trifling, and what the chapelwarden is undoubtedly entitled to bring into his accounts.
These instances, however, are not numerous. A subject of much more general complaint is the heedlessness and negligence with which answers are returned; upon which account I wish to impress upon the minds of churchwardens this one weighty reflection, that every answer they give is an answer upon oath. I am afraid this is little attended to, or hardly indeed understood to be the case, by reason that the oath is not taken at the same time that the answers are put down, and because the churchwarden is not separately sworn to the truth of each answer ; but where is the difference, in a view of religious or moral probity, whether a person swears distinctly to the truth of each answer, or swears beforehand and once for all, that he will make true answers to the questions that shall be asked him ; or where is the difference whether this oath be taken at the time or some months before ? Now observe how this applies to the case of a churchwarden ; upon his admission to his office he solemnly swears that he will present such things and persons as are presentable, according to the best of his skill and judgment.' Near the conclusion of his office, at
the distance of almost a year, but still under the continued obligation, and as it ought to be, under the consciousness of his oath, he comes to make his presentments, by subscribing answers in the margin of the book of articles, when the several matters presentable are enumerated, and proposed to his consideration in distinct interrogatories. Can any thing be plainer than that the force of the oath attaches upon these answers ? and that every false, and, what is a species of falsehood, because it is a suppression of truth, every imperfect answer that is returned, must be deemed, in the consideration of reason and religion, and why may we not say in the sight of God, a violation of the oath ; and moreover, that every heedless or negligent answer that is returned, though certainly not to be placed upon a level with deliberate misrepresentation, is yet heedlessness and negligence under the most solemn of all human obligations. I should not willingly believe that this point is known to churchwardens, when I remark the irregular, unconsidered, and defective returns that are made in the book of articles, or the slovenly hurried manner in which the business is executed; sometimes, I believe, in the very morning of the visitation, or at setting off upon their journey to it, in a few minutes when the churchwardens can be got together, or at the close of a parish meeting, without time, without inquiry, without consultation. Is this the conduct of serious men under the obligation of an oath, or of men concerned for the honest discharge of their duty ? The effect of this inadvertency I have frequent occasion to witness. To many articles, and sometimes to whole pages or to whole titles in the book, no answer whatever is returned. This is always wrong, for if things are as they should be in the matter inquired after, there can be no objection to the saying so; if they be not, of which this silence indeed is a negative confession, they ought to present, at once; that is, the case ought to be stated fully, truly, and exactly as it is. At other times a short answer of yes or no is given, when a circumstantial specification is necessary to convey the information that is sought for by the inquiry; this holds particularly of those parts of the inquiry which relate to the state of the church, of the churchyard, of the articles employed in the celebration of divine service, or of the buildings upon the glebe. At other times the question is not answered by the reply, but eluded; such as by saying ' as usual,' “ as it has been,' as formerly ;' from which it is impossible for the ordinary to form any correct opinion, much less to sound upon it any judicial cognizance; all which arises, partly from
the easiness with which men sign what they would not say ; partly, as hath been observed, from their unconsciousness of their oath; and partly from the fear of bringing blame or trouble upon themselves, by giving occasion to further proceedings; motives which cannot be justified upon any principles of moral integrity.
Amidst the various duties of churchwardens, that which more particularly belongs to the design of my visitation, and that indeed which composes one of the most useful, at least one of the most practicable parts of their function, is the care of the church, and of the decency, order, cleanliness, and sufficiency of every thing within it and belonging to it. To this branch of their office the provisions of law are perfectly adequate; there is neither any defect in their powers, nor any obscurity in their duty; the whole of both may be comprised in almost one sentence. Repairs the churchwarden may always make of his own authority, and the parish in vestry assembled is bound upon his requisition to lay an assessment to defray the expenses, and if they refuse, he may lay one himself, and the persons charged may be compelled by the process of the Ecclesiastical Court to pay their quota. Under this word repair, is included every thing that is necessary to keep up, or restore to their former condition, the fabric of the church, its roof, windows, plaster, floor, pulpit, reading desk, and seats, where the seats are repaired by the parish at large, and also the fence of the churchyard; likewise the replacing of books, surplices, bier and bier cloth, communion cloth and communion linen, plate, chalices and cups, when any of them are damaged or decayed. For the supply of these, as occasion requires, the churchwarden wants no authority but his own; and for the defect, if they be not supplied, he is personally answerable, and subjects himself to ecclesiastical censure. Alterations and improvements stand upon a different footing; before these can be undertaken, the consent and resolution of a vestry must be had, and it must be a general vestry of the parish, assernbled in pursuance of public notice, specifying the occasion upon which they are to meet ; but even here a majority binds the whole. In strictness and for the purpose of enforcing the payment of the rate to any alteration, the faculty or consent of the ordinary is further necessary; and where the alteration is either considerable of itself or likely to be opposed, that consent, in prudence as well as regularity, ought to be applied for. The example of many
, parishes in this diocese, in some of which churches have lately been rebuilt, and in others new seated, newly fitted up, shows
that these improvements are so sanctioned and countenanced by law, as to be entered upon with ease and safety by the persons who engage in them; and also shows that there is not entirely wanting amongst us a sense of religious decency and decorum, and a disposition to have the public worship of Almighty God conducted with reverence, solemnity, piety, and order.
ON PARISH CLERKS.
My REVEREND BRETHREN,
I DESIRE it to be distinctly understood, that the delay of the visitation, which, I am sensible, must be attended with inconveniency, both to the churchwardens who have been detained in their office, and to all who attend here at this advanced season of the year, is occasioned solely by the change that has taken place in the see; which change frustrated the late bishop's intention of visiting the diocese himself in the course of the summer, and suspended my authority to hold any
visitation at all.
As it hath been usual upon this occasion to notice any alterations that may have taken place in the laws relating to the church or to religion, I mention what, no doubt, is well known to most of you, that in the last session of parliament an act passed in favor of the Roman Catholics, which, upon the condition of their taking an oath therein prescribed, consolidating what may be called the civil part of the several oaths of allegiance, abjuration, and supremacy, places them nearly upon a level with other dissenters from the established church, except in the capacity of voting for members of parliament, or of sitting in either house of parliament themselves. It repeals the penal laws which passed against them in the reigns of Elizabeth and William and Mary ; which laws had been dictated by the fears that were entertained, in one case for the reformation, in the other for the revolution. It authorizes their public worship, and their places of worship, in like manner as the meetings of dissenting congregations, provided the places be what is