The Role of a Parish Clerk

And of a Sexton and a Churchwarden

N.B. These notes concern the nature of the job carried out before about 1907. The role of the modern parish clerk is now very different – the modern parish clerk is the clerk to the parish council and is part of the local government organisation.

A Parish is an area of ecclesiastical jurisdiction containing a church. It may have several townships or tithings.

Parish Clerk – “They should be at least 20 years old. Known to the parson as a man of honest conversation and sufficient for his reading, writing and competent skill in singing” Canon 91(1603).

Functions of a Parish Clerk

  • reading the lessons and epistles
  • singing in the choir
  • giving out the hymns
  • leading the responses
  • serving at the altar
  • and other like duties, opening of the church, ringing the bell, digging graves if there be no sexton.

Sexton – usually combined with the parish clerk in country parishes. They are the sacristan, the keeper of holy things relating to divine service. Responsible for the care of the church, vestments and vessels, keeping the church clean, ringing bells, opening/closing doors, digging graves and care of the churchyard. When there was a death in the parish, the sexton would toll the “passing bell” – nine times for a married man, eight for a bachelor, seven for a married woman, six for a spinster, five for a boy and four for a girl, then once for each year of a the deceased´s life.

Churchwarden – since 1672, a woman has been permitted to carry out the duties of Church Warden, Sexton, Overseer of the Poor or Rate-Collector (but the index also lists a few female parish clerks as well!). I have specifically noted these in the entry.

Functions of a Churchwarden

    • Hold a key to the parish chest (usually three keys – other keys held by incumbent and the parish clerk)
    • Keep accounts of income and expenditure
    • Care for parish property and income
    • Maintain church fabric e.g. chancel and churchrails
    • Allocate pews for worship
    • Assist with maintenance of parish records
    • Ensure regular attendance at church
    • Arrange the burial of strangers and baptism of foundlings
    • Attend Archdeacons (or Bishops) visitation courts
    • Report failings by incumbent e.g. absence, frequency of church services, etc.
    • Present offenders at ecclesiastical courts e.g. for non-attendance at communion, non-payment of church rates, immorality, lewd women, bastardy, incest, drunkedness, etc
    • Represent parishioners if required
    • Supervise education and relief of the poor
    • Care for parish arms and pay the soldiers
    • Responsible for extermination of vermin
    • Appoint dog whipper
    • Witness ecclesiastical orders served on parishioners

Session Clerk – In Scottish Presbyterian churches  the session clerk takes minutes for the Session and maintains all of the church’s ledgers of membership, births, baptisms, deaths, and elders. 

Vestry Clerk –  one who keeps the parish accounts and books and also a record of proceedings during a business meeting of parishioners in a parish.

Further Reading – the following resources have been used for reference and may provide further information on the role of the different parish officers

    • The Parish Clerk, PH Ditchfield (Metheun, London, 1907
    • The Parish Chest, W.E. Tate
    • The Compleat Parish Officer, By “G.J.”. Edited by Rosemary Church. 104 pages. ISBN 1-898714-21-5 (Facsimile of 1734 Edition)
    • Parish Clerk, Raymond J. Skinner, Family Tree Magazine, Nov 1989