"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
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
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
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
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
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.