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A little world made cunningly: in defence of the parish

15 September 2017

Next month, St Mellitus will host a debate asking whether the parish has had its day. Priests from across the country told us their answers

Andy SalmonThe Vicar of Sacred Trinity, Salford, Canon Andrew Salmon

OUR church is effectively in the city centre of Manchester. Our population during the 20th century shrivelled away to almost nothing, but has now grown again to several thousand. These people are mostly young professionals in their twenties, living in privately rented apartments. We also have an area that is still dominated by social housing. We see great wealth and immense poverty side by side: we have two managers of Premiership football teams living in our parish, and homeless people living under railway arches.

As a church, we are absolutely committed to serving our parish, meeting need, and sharing the love of God in Jesus Christ with those who live here. The parish system does still give us focus, and ensures that all those in our parish have a church that feels responsible for them.

At the same time, we recognise that contemporary life is full of complex networks that are not geographically limited. We host various groups and events at church that draw from a wide area. We are a growing church, but, while we try to grow locally, we seem to keep attracting people from further away. People who start off locally often move, but sometimes maintain their commitment to our church. We have some people who are quite engaged with Sacred Trinity through social media but whom we have never met.

Agencies working in the area are always keen to talk to us, and we will speak for the community in various forums.

I wouldn’t want to see the parish system abandoned, but we do need to recognise the complexities of contemporary life. We need to be locally rooted, but welcoming of all.


Heather ButcherThe Rector of the Launditch and Upper Nar Group, Canon Heather Butcher

SIXTEEN months ago, I moved from a Norwich suburb to 17 parishes in deep rural Norfolk, to work with a Team Vicar colleague. If I ever doubted the parish system, I am wholeheartedly committed to it now.

Those looking in might imagine it to be a vast nebulous rural area that might easily be run as a single parish. On the ground, one soon becomes aware of each parish and community having a very real sense of its own identity. I feel like the Vicar in the old sense, seen as part of each community, attending fêtes, parish-council meetings, the Guides and Brownies, having a drink in the pub, and visiting the sick, whether churchgoers or not.

Of the four primary schools and one high school in the benefice, only one is Church of England, but all welcome input from the clergy and seek it. The funeral directors, for the most part, are family firms. We have strong relationships with them, and we are usually the first port of call: fewer services are taken by civil celebrants

We retain a strong sense of having the cure of souls for all the parishes. My colleague and I are called on by non-church-attenders in times of difficulty. We still take funerals for people who have lived in a village their whole lives, and the church is filled by villagers. Weddings are another point of contact with non-churchgoers, and another wonderful opportunity to preach the gospel.

For me, the parish has definitely not had its day. It is the means by which the Church continues to have contact with non-churchgoers. We believe that the foundations we are laying will aid the mission and growth of the Church, but we live our lives not as number counters but as those who want to spread the love of Christ.

The parish system, to my mind, is under threat from those who think that large eclectic churches are the only way forward. I would like the value of rural parish ministry to be recognised as hope for the future. We need confidEnt, energetic priests in the country as well as in the city.


Abi ThompsonThe Vicar of St James’s, Clifton, the Revd Abi Thompson

LAST Monday, 70 children poured into St James’s, Clifton, a red-brick church on the East Dene estate, Rotherham, for our seventh annual summer musical project. Some were regulars of our junior choir, others had heard about it through school. The women-only Eid lunch, held the previous week in our church hall, had alerted others. Anxious mothers wearing headscarves waved goodbye to their confident children, who were totally at ease in a building that they had visited regularly with their classmates. I welcomed and reassured all.

One mother was quietly lighting a candle in the corner of the church. She had dropped her eight-year-old off to take part in the activities, but was going back to the hospital where her three-year-old son was awaiting major heart surgery. “Will you pray for Jake?” she asked.

Later in the week, children arrived during the eucharist. “What were you doing?” one little girl asked. “Can anybody come?”

“Yes,” I smiled at her. “Everyone is welcome.”

Being the parish church gives you the incredible right to believe that everybody belongs here. People trust you with just about anything. It’s understood that you are here for everybody who lives in your parish: everyone is a member.

Has the parish had its day in Rotherham? Absolutely not — in fact, the need is greater than ever. Is it exhausting, demanding, all-consuming, and difficult? Yes; but Jesus never promised an easy life.


Andrew LightbownThe Rector of the Winslow Benefice, the Revd Andrew Lightbown

I am pleased that the question has been asked; for it allows me, as a parish priest, to answer with a resounding “No.” The parish system isn’t perfect — no system is — but it does provide the opportunity for the Church to connect with as many people as possible in a geographically defined area. In our parish, we are able to preach the gospel afresh for this generation in schools, nursing homes, and the market square, as well as in the building.

One of the challenges for parishes is learning how to become smarter in the digital age. Parishes also need to make sure that they understand and adapt to the changing nature of modern life. Parishes need to manage the twin challenge of tending to the needs of the week-by-week congregation, while responding to those whose expectations of church may be very different. In our parish, we have adopted the hash-tags #LivingTradition and #InclusiveTradition as an articulation of our desire to meet the challenge head-on.

So, yes, the parish has challenges that need to be recognised and managed. Paradoxically, the biggest temptation facing the parish church is adopting insular, comfortable, and congregational modes of being. So long as this temptation is recognised and overcome, the parish remains an excellent platform for preaching the gospel afresh. The best for the parish may be yet to come.


Ali and Steve TaylorThe joint Vicars of St James’s, Alperton, the Revd Ali and Steve Taylor

WE FIND the notion of parish very permission-giving and holistic. We do not have to love, understand, intercede for, and reach every person, culture, language-group, or business in the country — just the ones in Alperton.

The parish system is boundary-setting for us, in that it stops us becoming too subjective, too narrow in our focus, or too thinly spread. Alperton is known locally as Little India, owing to the large Gujarati and Tamil populations who, by and large, do not know the name of Jesus, have not heard the Christian narrative, and do not know what a dog collar or church is.

As a result, the cure of souls for every person in the parish is an important missionary imperative, which means that we can resist pressure from church members to be simply chaplains to the already converted.

As clergy, we could let congregational matters take up all our time. Church members have high expectations here, as they have anywhere. We love our Christian community, and they are the answer to most of their own expectations — including those of mission.

Perhaps a drawback of the parish system is that ours covers 23,000 people, some of whom are very transient. Trying to minister to our parish can feel demoralising and overwhelming — it is just so big. You end up trying to be meaningful to so many different people, and it is an impossible task.


Richard WoodThe Vicar of Bro Madryn, the Revd Richard Wood

A parish is a place; a place in which the Christians of that place consider themselves to be particularly held together. Those gathered Christians bear witness in their community to the presence of God.

In Bangor diocese, in the Church in Wales, parishes have become “Ministry Areas”: technically, united parishes. Some parts of the Province are taking a slower journey in that direction, and each diocese is doing it differently. It’s more than a name change: things are being done more collaboratively, and with fresh purpose and intent. Sometimes, a Ministry Area’s size and staffing make it unwieldy and awkward, especially when people don’t “get it”. But the basic principle is the same: the gathered Church, bearing witness to Christ.

The concept of “parish” has long been synonymous with the parish church. As we have seen some of those close or disappear, it is as if the Christian presence in that community has faltered, died, or left. The parish has been allowed to delegate that role to the building.

Our Ministry Area, Bro Madryn, currently uses nine buildings. In the past, there were more, but the Christians who worship in the remaining churches are growing together to offer ministry and engage in mission both beyond the buildings themselves, and beyond each of the villages in which they lie. When summer comes and we are flooded with holidaymakers, the parish widens.

Even if it looks different, the whole parish is ours in which to proclaim what we have seen, heard, and received.


Andy WaltonAndy Walton, churchwarden at St Peter’s, Bethnal Green

This is clearly one of the biggest questions the Church of England faces. Can we carry on as we are? In some places, yes: things are going quite well. In our little corner of east London, we are seeing new people through the door, and we are reviving old traditions of the parish while innovating in various ways through parish nursing, and Spear (the employment course started by St Paul’s, Hammersmith), and in other ways.

Yet we all know hard-working clergy (and laypeople) who are struggling to cope in areas where the parish system is stretched to breaking point. Freeing them might be the only viable option in some places. But our experience in the parish of St Peter with St Thomas, Bethnal Green, is that place, if not parish itself, is very important.

Our older members have been here for generations — some even during the Blitz. This is their church, and the fact that our parish retains heritage such as the parish charity, and links with other countryside parishes, and other parishes in the deanery, is important.

Our younger members have the option of the bright lights of central London and the big gathered churches there. They choose to be part of our congregation because we are different: we’re local and proud of it. If the parish system were to end, we wouldn’t lose our commitment to the local area, but it would be harder to define.

As a church-plant, we are even more keenly aware of not wanting to “parachute in” and tell local people what’s good for them. We want to join in with what God’s been doing here for 175-plus years. The parish system gives us plenty of ways of doing that locally, and we’d be sad to see it go. But, if it does, we’re planning to still be here in another 175 years’ time.


The parish in historical perspective


The Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris

THERE is nothing uniquely Anglican about the parish. Scots Presbyterians have parishes; so do Continental Lutherans, and Roman Catholics in Spain, Italy, and France. The parish is simply the local unit of ecclesiastical administration, reflecting the settled condition that Western Christianity achieved in the early Middle Ages. The powers and responsibilities of parishes vary from country to country, but the basic idea of an area for which a priest with a church is pastorally responsible is practically universal.

In England and Wales, the parish system had largely come into being almost 1000 years ago, after several centuries of development. The geography of parishes — their size, distribution, and shape — was influenced by many factors, including population density, terrain, and the local economy. Village communities defined themselves over time through their parish boundaries. Civic and religious responsibilities overlapped; clergy and parish officers were often the only local government “officers” that people might encounter in person.

At the Reformation, little of this changed in substance, despite radical changes in doctrine and worship. What did persist was the “Catholic” order of parishes organised into dioceses under the oversight of a bishop.

The civil wars and Commonwealth shook that settled order to the core. Bishops disappeared, for a time. The Reformers’ goal of enforcing religious uniformity through a common liturgy failed in the face of Presbyterian and Independent demands for greater congregational autonomy. The pastoral services of marriage and baptism suffered attenuation. At the Restoration in 1660, much was put back, but uniformity by then could not be reimposed.

The existence of permanent Dissenting congregations thereafter became a standing rival to the parish system, representing rival gathered congregations.

Wesley’s attempt to reinvigorate the Established Church in the 18th century was never intended to subvert the parish, but some parish clergy did not see it that way, and the effect was eventually to add the new Methodist movement to those Christians who gathered for worship and community outside the parish church.

Industrialisation represented the greatest challenge. It took hold especially in the north of England and in Wales, where parishes were larger, fewer, and unwieldy. Rapid urbanisation strained parish organisation, allowing more mobile Dissenting and Roman Catholic congregations to grow. Eventually, the Church of England, through legislation and immense voluntary effort, undertook a massive programme of church-building, with parish subdivision.

For all this, the parish remained the primary tool of mission. But the damage was done none the less. Growing rivalry between church “parties” of Low, Broad, and High led urban residents to ignore parish boundaries and go to the churches they liked — if they went at all. And, by 1851, more than half the population was urban; the proportion increased steadily thereafter. Parishes remained relevant for pastoral offices even in the towns.

But, in the 20th century, declining attendances and declining numbers of clergy forced further change: closure of churches, amalgamation of parishes, ministry teams, and revision of marriage law. Increasingly, the assumption of local settlement was called into question.

So the threat of mobility and fluidity is nothing new. Despite the assumption of settlement inherent in the very idea of a parish system, British society has lived with significant demographic mobility and social change for centuries. The parish has kept the Church in communities that it might otherwise have abandoned, regulated church administration, encouraged churchpeople to look beyond their own congregations, and given local communities a visible religious centre.

It is church decline that has added fresh pressure, along with changing patterns of religious belonging, and the motor car. Can the parish survive another thousand years? Can we afford it for another hundred?


The C of E numbers

  • 12,510 parishes
  • 15,685 churches
  • 20,440 ordained priests
  • 3749 single-church parishes (29.9 per cent of the total)
  • 6403 single churches in multi-church benefices (51.1 per cent of the total)
  • 5697 multi-church parishes in multi-church benefices (18.9 per cent of the total)
  • 1.2 — average number of churches per benefice in London
  • 7 — average number of churches per benefice in Hereford
  • 3510 — population per church on average
  • 3.2 square miles per church on average
  • 61 per cent — children living in poverty in the parish of St Peter’s, South Shore, Blackpool: the most deprived parish in the country
  • Five per cent — Children living in poverty in the parish of St Mary’s, Twyford, Winchester: the least deprived parish in country


“Has the parish had its day?”, a Moral Maze-style debate, will be held at St Mellitus College, London, on 9 October. Tickets at www.churchhousebookshop.co.uk/parish-event or call 0845 017 6965

Forthcoming Events

20 September 2021
Online book launch: Black, Gay, British, Christian, Queer
Author Jarel Robinson-Brown in conversation with Rev. Winnie Varghese.

25 September 2021
Festival of Faith and Literature: Food for the Journey
With Stephen Cottrell, Peter Stanford, Lucy Winkett, and Rowan Williams.

More events

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