At heart, the decline of the parish system is a neo-Platonic view of the world that has shadowed Christianity for two millennia. The modernist project of reducing humans to their mind and reason jettisoned Christianity’s anthropological conviction that we are embodied creatures, leaving in its wake a church with nothing to say about the emotions, about beauty, and about place. This is part of what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor refers to as the excarnation; a disembodied Christianity that seperated the "physical" from the "spiritual".
Admittedly there are mitigating circumstances for this development. The transitions of cities from the original space you could move around by foot to suburbia, not only allowed for the sprawl of mountains beyond mountains of suburbs with no end in sight, but also gave people for the first time freedom to chose where they work, live and play. At the same time as the 20th century saw the construction of countless miles of freeways, customary geographical loyalties began to breakdown. No more were you bound to buy bread from the shop around the corner. No more were you bound to play sport for the team of your local area, let alone support them. I grew up supporting the Balmain Tigers in Rugby League, without ever living within traditional Tiger territory.
Churches adjusted to this commuter consumption, competing against each other to have the better preaching, the better children’s ministry, the better whatever itch I want scratched. And in the process they frequently severed the connections with the local community, drawing upon an ever expanding area to draw members from. One consequence of this was the emergence of homogenous congregations based around age, culture, or occupation.
The result was that at a time in Western history when the church was becoming increasingly marginalised from society, individual churches sat in an uneasy relationship with their local community. And whether intentionally or unintentionally, what this mode of church communicated was a disinterest in space, in place, in locality. As if life in the Christian community and mission could be conducted without any reference to these three things. It exhibits a staggeringly unreflective attitude towards matter, having more to do with a disembodied dualism that one would struggle to find in Scripture: the Christian is focused upon the God who is named as the maker of all things, the same God who took on flesh and blood, becoming incarnate when his creation was placed in bondage. This same God triumphed over his enemies that had sought to oppress and destroy his good creation, rising from the grave and sending his church out into all the world, making disciples of all gentiles. And the Christian hope is firmly fixed on the day when God will come and dwell amongst his people and creation is set free from sin, death and evil once and for all. Thus New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham can describe the Christian narrative as driven towards the universal realization of God's kingdom in all creation.
“God identifies himself as the God of Abraham, Israel and Jesus in order to be the God of all people and the Lord of all things. Moreover, in the narrative world of the Bible the people of God is also given its identity in this movement from the particular to the universal, an identity whose God-given dynamic we commonly sum up in the word 'mission'. God, God's people and God's world are related to each other primarily in a narrative that mediates constantly the particular and the universal."
The often heard objection to the parish system is that locality is irrelevant. The argument is made that in today’s mobile and transaction world, people are more closely tied to social and professional networks beyond their local neighbourhood. However this is a highly contested assertion amongst sociologists and demographers; researchers have found that in contemporary western societies social networks are still significantly embedded in local places. Geography is a massively important feature of people's experience of life (cf. Bauckham). The local neighbourhood remains a central space for community.
The Parish and Creation
Stanley Hauerwas has recently stated that “The parish is the ecclesial form that has tied the church to place.” The assumption behind the parish system was the belief that “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!’” Working from this assumption, the whole world was organised into dioceses and parishes. The purpose behind this was not territorialism or factionalism; that was be a disaster. Christ's victory includes a victory of the principalities and powers, the elementary forces of the world that divide and enthral humans. The parish system was neither about dividing up the world for the sake of drawing boundaries on a map. The intent of the parish system was that in every part of the world, there would be a church responsible for proclaiming the gospel in that area and ministering to local the community – the cure of souls as it was once described.
There have many problems with the parish system over the years. This has been particularly true when (the sometimes arbitrary) lines on a map are treated as sacrosanct for all time, like the law of the Medes. But even then, this problem is symptomatic of the failure of churches to trust one another and work together. Nevertheless, the parish system was a design intended to point the church outwards to the world. It has stood as a reminder that churches do not exist for themselves, but are a part of God’s mission to bring all things under the lordship of Christ. It is a design that reminds us that salvation is for all people; that, at least in the Anglican context in which I come from, we are not attempting to reach only the rich, the poor, the cool, the young, the old, the professional, the tradie, the culturally homogenous etc. The diversity of any particular parish church would reflect the diversity of the church universal, and in doing so reflect the unity of both the universal and local church that confesses on Lord and one God. Reflecting on the Sydney Diocese's Connect09 campaign, Andrew Nixon had this to say:
"I know the parish system (or more accurately parochialism) presents many difficulties for our diocese. Whenever you form people into tribes and draw lines on maps you just know that sin will be crouching at the door. Yes, there are problems. But I pray that we can address and overcome them together...What is wonderful about the parish structure is that it is suited to local mission; it covers everyone. It says that together, we will take responsibility for every soul in our area, every square inch of our city. Even the hard places."
Surprisingly, the word parish has its origins in Koine Greek. The word as we have it today is first attested to in the thirteenth century, derived from medieval French paroisse, which in turn from Latin, paroecia. But there is good evidence that parish was first introduced into England during the late 600’s by eighth Archbishop of Canterbury Theodore of Tarsus. Theodore referred to Anglo-Saxon towns as paroikia, a term which comes directly from the Septuagint and the New Testament (πάροικος – adjective; Acts 7:6, 29; Ephesians 2:19; 1 Peter 2:11. παροικία – noun; Acts 13:17; 1 Peter 1:17). In the New Testament πάροικος and παροικία are both used by the Apostle Peter to describe the identity of Christians. They are aliens and strangers to those they live alongside, living as exiles in the world. This transient nature of Christian living feels as far removed from the sense to parish as you could get. Yet πάροικος carries with it a sense of permanence about it too. It is the word used in Acts to describe Israel's 400 year stay in sojourn in Egypt before entering the promised land. Likewise Peter’s description is not of temporary aliens; the Christians he writes too are long-term sojourners in a foreign land. That is how the term was used in early Christian literature, such as 1 Clement:
“From the παροικοῦσα of the Church of God at Rome, to the παροικούσῃ of the Church of God as Corinth…”
The early Christians saw themselves as colonies (that is the word used for παροικοῦσα in the Stamforth translation) of heaven, living in the world in anticipation of the new creation.
In fact, this is at the heart of classic Anglican missiology. Although unmentioned by the Articles of Religion and The Ordinal, and generally assumed by the Book of Common Prayer, the parish system remains the Anglican missiology – seeking to serve all people. This is part of Paul Barnett’s “Ten Elements of Historic Anglicanism”, namely that "‘historic Anglicanism’ affirms both creation and society. It is concerned with the common good, for the ‘welfare of the city,’ to use Jeremiah’s words.” The parish system grounds the church’s mission in the creation that is groaning, awaiting the unveiling of the children of God. It stands as a reminder that churches do not exist for themselves, but are a part of God’s mission to bring all things under the lordship of Christ.