An old paradigm for a new day: reinstituting the parish system

In my ministry as a military chaplain, I find myself with a few hundred souls who are my parishioners whether they want to be or not. I minister to them all. With some, I celebrate the sacraments; with others, I listen to their struggles. To all, I share friendship, concern, and compassion. I’m not perfect, of course, but I try to minister to all of them pastorally.

This model of ministry in the military reminds me of the old parish system. Most Anglicans seem to remember it and assume we still have it, but it doesn’t really exist, at least not in the United States. Yes, we have a parish system of sorts, but these “parishes” are composed only of those persons who attend our local churches. What about the old system that held that everyone within a certain geographical territory belonged to this parish? What about the old system that held that clergy ministered to every soul in that territory, regardless of whether they were Christian or not?

I hope to explore this idea more in a series of short articles here. In reflecting on the old parish system and how it should apply today, I suspect that I shall reach some conclusions that offend today’s milquetoast sensibilities that seem to abound in the Church. However, I can’t help but think that the Church of C.S. Lewis’ day, or even earlier, though not much later, was a Church which had much to offer the world. In our striving toward ignorant politeness, have we lost the prize?

I suggest that the old parish system is a suitable way of thinking and working for the Church today. Let the Church’s priests take up this forsaken system, this “outdated” paradigm, to honor God in the world. Join with me, reader, in reflection and meditation on this topic; join with me, priests, in becoming, as St. Paul, “all things to all men”.

6 responses to “An old paradigm for a new day: reinstituting the parish system”

  1. Fr.Jeff May Avatar
    Fr.Jeff May

    Father,your proposal runs so much against the grain of American church life of the last thirty years.I love it!Talk about a paradigm shift, I think chaplaincy,either military or healthcare or institutional expresses that paradigm well.However western religious consumerism mitigates against the parish concept and most pastors are either planning the next church growth project or out playing golf to be interested in the mundane ministry of pastoral care and presence to the least,the lost or the lonely.Please do explore this further because the church so desperately needs this kind of new/old reformation. Fr.Jeff+

  2. Daniel J. Sparks Avatar
    Daniel J. Sparks

    Fr. May, thanks for your response. I am sick of the "old" contemporary way of doing things in the Church. Maybe we should return to the models of Jesus and the apostles. I believe we left behind aspects of ministry when we threw the parish out with the bath water. Whatever happened to being salt and light to the world? Jesus was a friend of sinners, but he challenged them with truth. We must be and must do no less.

  3. Ven. Sam Seamans Avatar
    Ven. Sam Seamans

    Fr. Sparks,I could not help but think of one Anglican priest's words when I read this. Fr. John Wesley is often credited with saying, "The world is my parish!".I think you are spot-on with this and I intend to read the entire series. I believe that another result of this view of the parish as our entire community is the fact that it usually leads to more Christians in the pews at our home churches (also called parishes in the definitions that you included).When we see our whole community as a parish people are inevitably brought into the Church via the contacts that we make serving outside the church walls. Though never consciously naming this approach, I have functioned in it ever since I left TEC and we started St. Thomas. I am now thrilled when asked to deliver the Invocation or Benediction at the local college graduation ceremony. I willingly bury the dead when asked by their families, regardless of whether or not they are Anglicans or even know where St. Thomas is located.I purposely attend community functions and make myself available (which is indicated by the collar I wear in service to Christ and the world).There is no doubt that you are on to something that we all need to read and heed.I'm looking foward to the next in your series.God Bless, The Ven. Sam Seamans                 Archdeacon of the Ozarks, UECNA

  4. Daniel J. Sparks Avatar
    Daniel J. Sparks

    Fr. Sam, I agree with you and Fr. Wesley–the world is our parish, indeed. When we engage the community, the community with be transformed by the hope of Christ's redemption. I hear many complain about invocations and benedictions at civic functions; I see these as another opportunity to interact with the community in the name of Christ. I'll write more about this later in the series.

  5. Alice C. Linsley Avatar
    Alice C. Linsley

    Evangelism is in the Priest's job description ("Feed my sheep") and his mission field is first and foremost his parish ("Behold the fields are ripe…").

  6. Daniel J. Sparks Avatar
    Daniel J. Sparks

    Alice, I certainly agree. However, I would also say that evangelism is the entire church's responsibility. The focus of ministry for the priest and the congregation should be the local community, i.e., the parish.