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.