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.


Fr Mark Clavier said...


Yes, it's an entirely different world, as I'm only beginning to discover, in these English parishes. One of my surprises is that, in a sense, the Church of England is very much alive and well. I've been more involved in more walks of life during the past month of ministry than I ever was in the States: public events, community fundraisers, the schools, various boards and meetings, and all the usual rounds of ministry (but with a multitude of Sunday services!).

Of course, all this also presents difficulties: one is pulled at from many different directions and by all sorts of interests and it can be hard to keep the private life sheltered from the public.

I suppose the most frustrating thing, though, is there's a general sense among people--church-goers and non, that they can expect the services of the church without any active participation on their part. There is often an unhealthy sense of entitlement among the people that is unhealhty both for them and the church (both in terms of attendance and income).

Anonymous said...

Your vision could be a way of living out the radical Christian love Jesus calls us to, where we love our neighbors as ourselves and see every person as created in God's image. If we take the time to get to know those in our community where they are, in their own neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and homes, and are willing to share our time, talent and treasure with them whether or not they are ready, willing or able to return our love, we can hope to plant a seed and offer them a taste of the Christian life. Jesus assures us that with faith, nothing is impossible. Mark 11:23

Fr. J said...

On one level, I definitely agree. A recovery of a sense of the geographical reality of a parish might help us to envision ourselves as part of a community rather than as a religious group that just kind of parachutes in. However, given that in the Episcopal Church today not every parish offers shall we say a robust teaching of the faith, it's hard to avoid having a parish community that is made up largely of refugees from other places.

Bishop Daniel Martins said...

Fr J, you're quite right. But even refugees who live in Parish A and worship in Parish B could still be colonists, participating in the effort to be deeply incarnate in the geography of Parish B.

Fr. Bob said...

Bishop - I want to take up the bit about thinking of TEC as a denomination. When I came into the Episcopal Church and through it Anglicanism (out of American-Evangelicalism), what impressed me greatly was the notion of being part of the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church connected truly through time and geography - being something other than just another denomination.

My sense in these days is that a good many within the Church’s leadership would be just fine being nothing more than simply another denomination. This concerns me greatly. That attitude is very American, but not particularly Anglican.

Considering a geographically based parish system: what actually happens (attitudes, vision, works, etc.) in various congregations of whatever stripe can in the end can lead to the same outcomes regardless of the structure, parish-based or otherwise.

If we cannot reclaim, rediscover, or simply be convinced that it is fine to convert in order to find God through Christ (whether through blatant evangelistic proselytizing or by witness through doing good works in the name of Christ, etc), then I think it makes little difference what "system" or structural configuration we have or eventually adopt.

Here in Brooklyn, my sense is that most priests still have a sense of geographical, neighborhood "parishes," and my experience tells me that most are aware of the area demographics. Many of them simply do not know how to minister within the changing contexts. What too many of us don't want to do any longer, however, is convert people to Christianity, to the Christian life. Too many of us no longer know how to do this or are too uncomfortable doing so, thus it is easier to eschew the responsibility or explain it away. That is the significant issue, IMHO.

Bishop Daniel Martins said...

Fr Bob,
Yes. Certainly. Structure is not by itself effective for much. We need content as well. I agree that we need to recover the notion that, on balance, people are going to be better off knowing Christ in the communion of his Church than otherwise. That idea is not in vogue at the moment. That doesn't make it untrue.