Anglicans like to claim that bishops and vestries are checks against clergy who abuse their authority. In reality, people selected for these roles are filtered out before election and are almost always good “company men” (and women) who will seldom, if ever, stand up to the rector. Add to that the fear of being seen as a troublemaker in public settings and you have a recipe for why vestries are usually no better than the “Moses Model” practiced by Calvary Chapel. Some clergy are known to remark that they can get the vestry to approve whatever they want them to approve.
Some may argue that the vestry’s elected nature and canonical responsibilities ensure its independence. While these formal structures exist, they often crumble under the weight of social dynamics and informal power structures. The rector’s influence extends far beyond the pulpit, shaping the very composition of the vestry and, by extension, its decisions.
This power imbalance is more than an internal issue; it affects the entire congregation and undermines the democratic ideals of church governance, as outlined in Christopher L. Webber’s “The Vestry Handbook: Third Edition.” The rector’s role in selecting vestry candidates, the recurring service of the same individuals, and the vestry’s tendency to execute the rector’s wishes all contribute to a governance model that needs urgent reform.
Why do rectors seek such control? The motivations can vary, including a fear of being challenged, a desire to maintain a tight grip on church operations or even narcissistic tendencies that make shared leadership difficult. Some rectors may believe their vision for the parish is the only correct one, leading them to sideline the vestry to avoid dissent. Others may feel that controlling the vestry is the most efficient way to get things done in a large parish. Regardless of the reason, the outcome is the same: a compromised governance structure.
In short, episcopal government is no better than any other form of government when it comes down to it. It all depends on the people in the roles, and if they are cowardly, there is nothing you can do about it.