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 Let the Church’s priests take up this forsaken system, this “outdated” paradigm, to honor God in the world.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

What is a parish?

In reflecting on Anglican congregations and their connections with their respective geographical communities, we must look at the meaning of the term “parish”.

The American Heritage Dictionary offers this definition, which I have abbreviated to the relevant portions.

  1. a. An administrative part of a diocese that has its own church in the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and some other churches.
    b.The members of such a parish; a religious community attending one church.
  2. A political subdivision of a British county, usually corresponding in boundaries to an original ecclesiastical parish.

In the traditional sense, definition 1a is the best description. It was out of the church-established parishes that the government subdivisions, of definition 2, grew. In the contemporary sense, definition 1b is the one most used in the United States. I believe it is a corruption of the traditional sense of the word which has come about because of the historic lack of an established church in the federal system of the United States (realizing, of course, that there were established churches in some states in an earlier time and in the colonial era). The open market of religious beliefs has led to a lack of demarcation of geographical areas based on religious affiliation. Though some denominations are strong in certain areas, no single religious body has maintained absolute control over communities in the same way that has existed in the English church for centuries.

The Catholic Encyclopedia offers this definition, which I have also abbreviated:

A parish is a portion of a diocese under the authority of a priest legitimately appointed to secure in virtue of his office for the faithful dwelling therein, the helps of religion. The faithful are called parishioners, the priest parochus, curate, parish priest, pastor. To form a parish there must be (1) a certain body of the faithful over whom pastoral authority is exercised; the ordinary manner of determining them is by assigning a territory subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the parish priest.

I believe this would accord with the traditional view of the parish system in Anglicanism. Essentially, there is a geographical area, recognized by the bishop, which is led by a priest, and who ministers to those within the area. The impetus for forming a parish is the existence of a certain number of Christians who desire a parish church.

Consulting the trusty Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (third edition), I find this definition, which I have again shortened:

In England, an area under the spiritual care of a C of E clergyman …, to whose religious ministrations all its inhabitants are entitled.

Though there are many more things that could be said about the background of what we have come to know as a parish, these definitions (particularly that from the Oxford Dictionary) give us a succinct vision of what the traditional parish looks like. The parish from the English system is a territory whose residents are entitled to the spiritual care of a priest assigned to the area church. To expand this idea slightly, the ministry of the local church is not limited to those persons who attend that church’s services; instead, the local church ministers to the community at large, some of the inhabitants of which participate in the religious services of the church.

This is certainly a different idea of the parish than most Anglicans have today. Instead of viewing our ministry as being oriented to the community, we see our ministry as being oriented to those who attend Sunday services. I contend that the responsibility of ministry does not stop at the boundary of the church precincts, but that it extends to the territorial limits of the community.

This article is part 2 of 2 in the series Parish Ministry.