Friday, July 15, 2011

Thinking Parochially

Some years ago, while attending a conference in London, I was sharing a table at breakfast with a priest of the Church of England. In the manner of making casual small talk with a relative stranger, he inquired, "Tell me, Father, how large is your parish?" I proceeded to talk about the number of baptized members on the rolls, the number of communicants in good standing, and the average Sunday attendance. From his puzzled expression, I learned very quickly that this wasn't at all what he had in mind when he asked his question. He wanted to know, how large is the geographical area within the bounds of my parish, and how many people live in that area? Not how many of them considered themselves members of my parish church, but how many lived within the parish.

I was being typically American and Episcopalian, of course, and he was being typically British and C of E. Despite the bonds of affection that we share, those are two very different ecclesial environments.
The Church of England, being (still for a while yet, I expect) the legally established church of the realm, is heir to the ancient structural apparatus that evolved in a time when there was but one church, and everyone residing in the country was presumed to be a member thereof. There are two provinces--Canterbury in the south and York in the north--each comprised of its various constituent dioceses, with each diocese being divided into parishes. Parishes have definite boundaries, and if you know your address, it's easy enough to find out what parish you live in. You might be Methodist or agnostic or Hindu, but you live in a particular parish.

In the proverbial days of yore, every parish had one--and generally only one--church. Nowadays, there has been a good bit of consolidation, so many parishes have multiple churches. Each of these churches has a name associated with a saint (or saints) or one of the mysteries of the faith. But that's the name of the church, not that of the parish. The parish is denoted by its geography, generally either a rural village or an urban neighborhood. And even the church is often referred to by the name of the parish--e.g. Stepford Parish Church. This custom can be seen even in America, in places that date back to colonial times and were settled by Anglicans. One thinks here of the relatively well-known Bruton Parish (and Bruton Parish Church) in Williamsburg.

Of course, every parish has (or had, at any rate; the times they are achangin') a "parish priest", often, in the C of E, styled the vicar. The vicar is in charge of making sure Sunday services happen in the parish church (or churches), that people are instructed in the faith, that baptisms, weddings, and funerals all take place appropriately as needed. But the vicar's pastoral responsibility is not confined to those whose names appear on the voting rolls of the parish church, or who donate money to the church, or who even just occasionally walk by it reverently. It is to every soul that lives within the bounds of the parish. Indeed, in England, C of E clergy are legally obliged to preside at baptisms, weddings, and funerals whenever such services are requested by anyone living within the bounds of the parish, whether or not they are or have ever claimed to be Anglican.

By contrast, outside of those few vestiges of such a paradigm in older parts of Virginia, Anglicans in America have evolved rather different ways of thinking and acting. For the most part, we tend to use the words "parish" and "church" and "congregation" interchangeably (hence, my response to the breakfast question I was asked). Interestingly, our canons do make provision for the establishment of parish boundaries. But while there may be places where such boundaries are known about and observed, I could not tell you where any of them are. When Episcopalians speak of a "parish" they are usually referring to a particular church building along with the community that habitually gathers in that building for worship, instruction, and fellowship, and all of that together with the institutional infrastructure that support said building and said community.

As a result, we have grown comfortable in thinking of ourselves as a denomination--which is ultimately just another way of saying brand name--rather than as a church. That may seem like a distinction without a difference. Perhaps it is. God knows (literally), the institutional trappings in which our Church of England cousins operate are indeed something of a sham, given the minuscule percentage of their countrymen who actually worship in an Anglican parish church on any given Sunday. And, if I am suggesting that American Anglicans imitate the Brits by thinking of themselves more ecclesially and less denominationally, is that not just a bit pretentious, given the actual multiplicity of Christian brand names in this country?

Ah, but that is precisely what I am suggesting. And while it probably is pretentious, it is also, I think, salutary, at least from a missional perspective.

As the Episcopal Church has evolved, each diocese is less of a "local church" (in the Vatican II sense of that term) organized for mission into parishes that cover the landscape, as it is the regional subdivision of a denomination, with inward-turned clubs whose clubhouses dot the landscape. But what would it look like if we recovered a robust understanding of the geographic parish? What would it look like if a bishop could walk into the parish hall (think about that expression) and ask the clergy and lay leaders, "How are things in your parish?", and the clergy and lay leaders then spoke knowledgeably, not about attendance statistics and finances, but about all the households located within a half-mile of the church building, and could rattle off the median income, the poverty rate, the high school graduation rate, and the percentage of those who are not involved in any church community, and what social strata such persons come from, and what the church community is doing to connect with the lives of those fellow parishioners of theirs? In other words, what would it look like if every square meter in the bounds of the diocese was known to be within one particular parish or another, and the church community (or communities) in that parish understood it to be their missional responsibility to be connected, incarnate, and invested in everyone else who lives in the parish, even those whom they know will never darken the door of the parish church?

Honestly, I don't know what it would look like! But I have a strong suspicion that it would look very different than things look now, and that, in this case, different means better.

Language is important. Parish has too rich a history as a word to let it be co-opted into referring merely to a denominational club that meets in a denominational clubhouse. Sometimes something as small as a change in language unlocks substantial changes in attitude and behavior. As a network of denominational clubs, we're dying fast. As an aggregation of local churches (dioceses) organized for mission into geographic parishes, the gates of Hell itself will not prevail against us.