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 Let the Church’s priests take up this forsaken system, this “outdated” paradigm, to honor God in the world.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”.

This article is part 1 of 2 in the series Parish Ministry.
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Fr.Jeff May
Fr.Jeff May
May 18, 2008 11:38 am CDT

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+

Ven. Sam Seamans
Ven. Sam Seamans
May 26, 2008 9:55 am CDT

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… Read more »

Alice C. Linsley
Alice C. Linsley
May 31, 2008 5:37 pm CDT

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…").

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