In the Church of England, Churchwardens have a long and distinguished history as senior lay officers in a church, dating back to at least the fourteenth century. The nature of their office and role is well described in this article from Churchman. Different churches conceive of the office in different ways today, and though legally it remains a temporal office, responsible for the fabric and good order of a church, wardens are also members of the Parochial Church Council (PCC) charged with assisting the spiritual mission of the church.
In Herbert’s day, the wardens were also charged with “presenting” offenders, and enforcing both the Poor Laws, and the Recusancy Laws (whereby non-attenders at church were fined).
Herbert urges pastors to choose the best people they can for such a position, on the basis that it is a great honour to serve God and his people. They are then urged to carry out their commission impartially before God, having taken an oath to do so, even if that was personally difficult for them.
The Parson with his Churchwardens
The country parson does often both publicly and privately instruct his Churchwardens what a great charge lies upon them, and that indeed the whole order and discipline of the parish is put into their hands.
If he himself reforms any thing, it is out of the overflowing of his conscience, whereas they are to do it by command, and by oath. Neither has the place its dignity from the ecclesiastical laws only, since even by the common Statute Law they are taken for a kind of Corporation, as being persons enabled by that name to take moveable goods, or chattels, and to sue, and to be sued at the Law concerning such goods for the use and profit of their parish: and by the same Law they are to levy penalties for negligence in resorting to church, or for disorderly carriage in time of divine service.
Wherefore the parson suffers not the place to be vilified or debased by being cast on the lower rank of people, but invites and urges the best unto it, showing that they do not lose or go less, but gain by it; it being the greatest honour of this world, to do God and his chosen some service; or as David says, to be even a door-keeper in the house of God (Psalm 84:10).
Now the Canons being the Churchwardens rule, the parson advises them to read or hear them read often, as also the Visitation Articles, which are grounded upon the Canons, that so they may know their duty, and keep their oath the better. In which regard, considering the great consequence of their place, and more of their oath, he wishes them by no means to spare any, though never so great; but if after gentle, and neighbourly admonitions they still persist in ill, to present them — yea, though they be tenants, or otherwise engaged to the delinquent — for their obligation to God, and their own soul, is above any temporal tie. Do well, and right, and let the world sink.