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Why a parish?

31 January 2014

Desmond Ryan asks whether parishes are in a position to adapt effectively in order to address the spiritual energy of their parishioners

"WHAT is a parish for?" It is an easy question to ask, but an impossible one to answer. "Parish" has always been a derivative idea, emanating from, and established by, the Church, especially after it came to dominate medieval Europe through its near-monopoly of thought and writing, in rivalrous partnership with Christian monarchs.

Western or Eastern, Roman Catholic or Protestant, the Church is the whole; the parish is the part. Hence, constitutionally, the parish has been organised, and still functions, to serve the Church.

In spiritual terms, its life derives from its membership (in the fullest sense) of the Church as the Body of Christ. As every parish was an organ of the Body of Christ, every individual was a parishioner - a notion still subscribed to by the established Churches of Northern Europe, and by the Roman Catholic Church for its faithful, who are entrusted by the bishop (charged, as successor to the Apostles, to "Feed my sheep") to the care of the parish priest.

What is most significant about the parish today are the functions it is not performing. The legacy of resources in a single location inherited from a thousand years of geography, architecture, cultural prescription, and social policy is insufficient to tame and exploit the powerful currents flowing through the homes and public spaces within the parish bounds.

Professor Linda Woodhead's Religion and Society project has revealed just how much intensely spiritual energy is to be found in every corner of the country. It is common knowledge that little of this is powering new waves of vitality in parochial churches.

HOW can this be? How can spiritual energy not seek expression in religious institutions? By way of (a necessarily brief) answer, let me propose a working distinction between two forms of spiritual energy, utilising two quintessentially Christian concepts: the Body of Christ, and the Kingdom of God.

Commandeering them for sociological purposes, I distinguish them as follows. The Body of Christ is institutionalised, established by authority of the supreme author, Christ himself. It is historical and hierarchical, with recognised legal instruments and defined social roles. It lives through cult and prayer, and liturgy and sacraments, hence it almost always uses specially constructed buildings, authoritative books, musical instruments, and other materials. It organises the day, the week, and the year.

It is, in principle, inclusive, but is built on continuing membership of a social community, lifelong and stretching forward down the generations. This membership gives a socially accepted religious identity, and is made visible by attendance at corporate worship, and by receiving the sacraments.

The community is focused on, served by, and responsive to, a pastor, ordained to that position by the Church, who builds the community as a replication and continuing outflow of Christ the good shepherd's loving service to others.

The community reproduces itself "ecclesiogenically" through family membership, education, and local recruitment - nowadays distinctly low-key, judging from my research in the Roman Catholic Birmingham archdiocese in 1991 (The Catholic Parish, Sheed & Ward, 1996).

In short, the energies that build up parishes as the Body of Christ work locally through enduring networks of individuals with specific social identities, social positions, and local residence - for many it may well be their "second home".

BY THE "Kingdom of God", in contrast, I mean those spiritual energies that are diffuse rather than embodied; which "blow where they will" and touch people unexpectedly, and in unpredictable ways; which bring them to self-awareness, and self-questioning; which disrupt established patterns, and commitments, and set people off down new paths, often radically different from what went before.

These energies empower them to make contact with others for one or more stages of their journey, albeit that such contacts are relatively fleeting. It is a journey of permanent transition, fuelled by the search for meaning and truth - for each individual - and by the power of the word, in a plethora of scriptures and hymns, often transmitted through recordings and on the web.

The journey takes people through a succession of learning experiences - especially meditation, and other centring practices - but also such occasions for self-discovery as ashrams, retreats, Enneagrams, Myers-Briggs, Ignatian spirituality, the Diamond Approach, and myriads more.

Compared with the parish, often the beneficiary of centuries of donations from believers, this journey can be financially expensive. Most of these occasions for personal spiritual growth make their fruits available through the market, and, while few are frankly exploitative, preachers and teachers have a living to make.

Healers, too; one of the distinctive things about these energies is their lack of specificity, as likely to manifest in practices of the body as of the soul, in a desire to be whole as much as a desire to be "saved". It is not the least significant feature of complementary and alternative therapies that they attract to their studios, as both users and practitioners, refugees from both the religious and the health-care systems of late modernity.

To sum up: those pursuing the "Kingdom of God" as here presented do, indeed, seem to be living in a quantum and relativistic world of discontinuous "events" that exhibit process and change:

"For the modern view process, activity and change are the matter of fact. . . Thus, all the interrelations of matters of fact must involve transition in their essence. All realisation involves implication in the creative advance."(Nature and Life, A. N. Whitehead, CUP, 1934).

THIS contrast of cultural forms taken by spiritual energies is necessarily a caricature. But some such extreme statement is required to make clear what I believe to be the case: that we have been living through an explosion in "the creative advance" of social relationships, cultural expression, and spiritual values which has already made this era into the most rapid, intense, and fundamental "reformation" there has ever been.

And it has passed the parish by. The parishes of the hierarchical and Established Churches of the UK are failing to bring to parochial earth spiritual energies that saturate their social space. Theological purists may dismiss these energies as "wacky", or of doubtful origin; but, surely, so much rebirth and connection, such vitality and desire for fullness of humanity, cannot be evoked by forces that are completely spurious?

Theological indifference to these "anthropogenic" energies prompts the fear that the Church's lack of theory of its general social context makes it effectively blind in that environment.

To the parish as the local embodiment of the Christian Church we should apply Reg Revans's axiom: that "for any organism to survive, its rate of learning must be equal to, or greater than, the rate of change in the environment." Failing such learning, contextual change causes "extinction" of life-forms as, in effect, adapted to yesterday's environment. Is the parish such a life-form?

Dr Desmond Ryan is an Honorary Fellow in the School of Health in Social Science, University of Edinburgh.

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