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A kind of belonging

02 June 2017

Andrew Rumsey argues that the origins of the parish system could be the key to its future flourishing

Cover Images

Outside the city walls: Christ as paroikeo or “stranger” in On the Road to Emmaus, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-11

Outside the city walls: Christ as paroikeo or “stranger” in On the Road to Emmaus, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-11

AT THE dimming of Easter Day, a stranger draws alongside two companions, dragging their feet along the Emmaus Road. Followers of Christ, they seem entirely un­­aware that they are now walking alongside their Lord. The outsider asks to hear the news from Jerusa­lem; so they respond: “Are you a stranger that you don’t know what has happened here?”

“What things?” he persists — and the story unrolls.

Amid this familiar mystery from St Luke’s Gospel is hidden a radical vision for the local church. The risen Christ, it suggests, is not found only in the living word and broken bread, but is also grounded in a definite kind of local encounter. The word Luke uses for “stranger” — paroikeo — is one of several points in the New Testament where the term appears, from whose same stem grows our word “parish”. An altern­ative rendering of the conversation might, then, be: “Are you a parish­ioner that you don’t know what has happened here?”

In ancient Graeco-Roman society, paroikia described the com­­­munity of people who lived either physically beyond the city bound­aries (literally “those beside the house”), or as non-citizens within the walls. They were those who lived near by, but did not quite belong. The effective transition in meaning from “stranger” to “friend” came about when the Early Church adopted “parish” (much as it had done with another political term, ecclesia) for its own local organ­isa­tion. The Christian paroikia were those who did not belong in a worldly sense, but had found their place in the community of Jesus.


WHEN, in the late sixth century, Roman Christianity returned to England with the arrival of August­ine on the Kent coast, this pa­­­­rochial idea came ashore, too. Gradually (only becoming a national system by about 1200), the parish grew into the essential building-block of English society, and the nucleus of all local government.

Only in my grandparents’ lifetime did the parish concede to secular local authorities this historic re­­­spons­ibility, not only for souls, but schools, roads, welfare, and myriad other details of communal life. Glance at the minute-book in my church vestry, and, until the turn of the 20th century, the discus­­sions are mainly about drainage.

This legacy could, of course, be remarkably oppressive (think “God is Love” emblazoned above Oliver Twist’s workhouse), and so it is unsurprising that parochialism em­­erged as a curiously ambivalent word: both a communal ideal to aspire (or return) to, and an utterly stifling place from which one must, at all costs, escape.


AT THE heart of the parochial tra­dition has thus been a refusal of what Thomas Arnold, in his defence of the national Church, called “the pre­tended distinction between spiritual things and secular”. This blurring of secular and sacred space is not a mere accident of political and social history, but reveals an ecclesiology that cannot conceive of a church without its corresponding neigh­bour­hood.

If common prayer is the congre­gational heart of social ethics, its parochial counterpart may be de­­scribed as “common ground”: the field of nearby social relations in which the Christian ethic of love for neighbour is realised. As such, the kind of place produced by the parish system over 12 centuries represents an extremely rich theological inher­it­ance.

It has also proved a surprisingly resilient and adaptive one: perhaps the most important (and welcome) discovery of studying parochial history. Each well-documented loss of ground due to urbanisation or secularisation — even what one writer has called the “local disesta­b­lish­ment of the Church of England”, the Parish Councils Act of 1894 — proved an opportunity for the parish’s reinvention, not its demise.

Whether in developing the parish guilds — essentially a kind of medi­eval social network — or in the negotiation of parish boundaries, which were far more negotiable be­­fore the advent of modern map­­ping, the easy caricature of the English parish as ossified and in­­­flex­ible is a long distance from the truth. This is worth recalling, because, if the parish system is to survive in our time, it may well need to recover its pre-modern origins and become a little less systematic.


WHILE its record is mixed, to put it mildly (an over-identification with landed interest, and the cor­­­respond­ing entrapment of the labour­­ing poor are grievous blots on the parochial landscape), the parish has never­theless epitomised a particular kind of settlement that affords it an unrivalled place in the English im­­agination — one that is increas­ingly voiced by a new generation of nature writers, such as Robert Macfarlane.

Because notions of “belonging” and “home” tend to be harnessed to the pastoral idyll, they are easily tugged back nostalgically, which is why the more negative connotations of parochial outlook are often as­­sociated with a certain kind of re­­actionary politics.

For Christians, though, these aspirations are also a vital clue to our restlessness for a heavenly home. The tension between Eden (our “lost” home) and the New Jerusalem (the home we hope for) has been format­ive for English culture — a fact that is easy to over­­look in a secular age, but which reinforces the present case for the Church’s eschatology to form and inform its local practice.

The parish has, without question, been the primary embodiment of Anglican social space. To assert this truth is not simply to bolster the parochial system against likely assailants — as if it represented a kind of ecclesiastical Rourke’s Drift that must be held at all costs — but to inspire both a fair appraisal of its worth and, it is hoped, its renewal.

The challenges are colossal, of course: the sheer unsustainability of its built heritage; the need to ac­­com­­­­modate new forms of min­istry in response to unprecedented mis­­sion­ary and cultural challenges; and what might be called the “end of entitlement” for the Church of England within the nation. What­ever evolving form its established status takes, there can be little doubt that the long recession of the Church’s worldly power is likely to con­­­­­­tinue, which affords an op­­portunity for parishes to develop a more radical local praxis, especially in a period of accelerating devolu­tion and localism.

Certainly, when ecological and political debate is increasingly hom­ing in on less centralised, more com­­­munitarian solutions, any moves towards dismantling the parish system would appear fatally short­­-sighted. As the “New Parish” and related movements gaining momen­tum among North Amer­ican churches clearly indicate, paro­­chial organisation has such resur­gent social capital at the present time that, if it no longer existed, the parish would have to be reinvented.


LOSS of power usually equates to loss of place. Undoubtedly, the proprietorial style in which An­­glicans have, for various reasons, “possessed the land” is liable to a kind of territorial arrogance that is unsupportable, unless the legacy can be reframed as a contribution to­­wards the common good. A humb­ler part for the parish to play may thus find the seeds of renewal in its classical origins, as the society beside the boundaries, the paroikia.

That the Church employed and adapted a term essentially denoting those who do not belong to describe a new kind of community is as enticing a piece of ecclesio­­logical paradox as one is likely to en­­­coun­ter: it brims with potential for imaginative reinter­­pretation.

The usual translation of paroikos and its variants into English scrip­tures as “stranger” has served to keep this exegetical jewel sur­­pris­ingly well hidden. Nevertheless, the image with which we began, of Christ as parishioner, without a city wall — the alien and accidental neighbour — offers a key to restor­­ing the parish as a place of radical settlement and welcome.

Bishop Edward Stillingfleet, writing in 1702, explained the great advantage and edifying power of the parochial system to be its capacity for making “a broken, divided people” to be “one body within certain bounds”. It does this only by drawing near those who were once far off — and by seeing “neighbour­hood” as something offered especi­ally by and to the outsider.

It is not a little ironic that “paro­­chial” has come to epitomise in­­sularity and self-containment, when its original meaning is far closer to our contemporary defini­­tions of interloper or refugee; but this, at least, is an irony that we can work with to great benefit.


The Revd Dr Andrew Rumsey is Team Rector in the Oxted Team Ministry, in Southwark diocese. His new book, Parish: An An­­glican theology of place, is published by SCM Press on 30 June.

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