ANDREW RUMSEY is heir to a succession of parish priests over a very long period, and this remarkably learned and imaginative book is dedicated to exploring what has been involved in the idea of the parish both as the basic unit of sacred and secular organisation over many centuries and as representing the national Church at the local level.
The status and role of the national Church have been attenuated over recent years — for example, in ceding the organisation of charity to the welfare state. Nevertheless, the parish remains a primary focus of neighbourhood and neighbourly endeavour. It does so on what Rumsey calls “common ground” in terms of relationships of mutuality realised in territory that has from time to time been carefully and even forcefully demarcated. What those mutual relationships mean is best brought out in times of crisis when people become willing to articulate what it is to be “members one of another”.
Of course, the parish as territorial unit takes numerous forms, not necessarily demarcated by natural features. Moreover, parishes are literally cross-cut by major arteries of communication, and Rumsey poetically evokes how these break up his Oxted parish on the edge of the North Downs, with the M25 going laterally as the “periphérique” of London, and railways taking commuters to the metropolis. He poetically evokes these features because he is not afraid of the very dangerous genre of poetic prose.
Priests-in-charge find themselves servicing different social constituencies, such as (for example) attractive villages mostly inhabited by retired people, and working families on new estates. The social geography of neighbourhood is realised in many different configurations, and there are different understandings of who is a long-term inhabitant and who is an incomer.
Rumsey places some emphasis on the linguistic origins of the word “parish” as indicating people who are on the margin of intimate belonging, but who should, none the less, be included and accepted as part of the community. At the same time, each “precinct” defines itself by maintaining a border in relation to those who belong to another precinct. Rumsey quotes Robert Frost as finding that good relationships with his next-door neighbour depended on a wall of demarcation. That is the instinct that has historically been realised by beating bounds and establishing boundaries.
Rumsey is anxious to bring out how his present Oxted parish differs from his previous parish in Gypsy Hill, south London: in Oxted, communal occasions such as Remembrance or Rogationtide have considerably more resonance than in Gypsy Hill. There is also, perhaps, a deeper and more ancient sense of place, conveyed by a medieval church tower and the sacred regenerative marker of ancient yews. This theme of the ancient marker relates to the Christianisation of the landscape and of its pagan roots.
Perhaps Blake can be invoked here as well as Wordsworth: Blake because there is simultaneously a celebration of the land with echoes of Israel, as well the eschatological vision of building New Jerusalem; and Wordsworth because of a sense of Bethel, the particular place where God makes his presence known, al-
though we did not initially realise it.
The Christian dislocation of the Jewish sense of territory and place by a potent metaphor whereby earthly journeys become spiritual ones is set against the faith of the incarnation, whereby Christ is found everywhere, here and now. Christ is in every place, wherever that may be, and our response to place is mediated through that reality.
Rumsey argues that any understanding of the Church of England, nationally and locally, requires ecclesiastical geography as much as it requires ecclesiastical history. Sociologists of religion, by concentrating on the congregation, omit this crucial dimension.
The Revd Dr David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.
Parish: An Anglican theology of place
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