Why the Parish?

Why the Parish?

Fr. Lee Nelson

The Rev. Lee Nelson, S.S.C. is a priest, church-planter, and catechist. He is currently planting churches in Waco and College Station, Texas with the aim of making disciples on college campuses through the planting of Anglican churches. For the last several years, he has served on the Catechesis Task Force of the Anglican Church in North America which produced To Be a Christian, an Anglican Catechism. As a part of this work, he is currently developing a catechetical consulting practice, aimed at coaching and training clergy and laypeople for the work of catechesis.

Many people coming to Anglicanism from other Christian traditions are surprised by the use of the term parish. They had always referred to their church as simply “church” or “congregation.” But now, this word parish is used. What is a parish? It it different? And if so, how? And why?

Let’s lay out two understandings of what defines a parish. The first is a canonical designation, referring to how a congregation is treated under standing church rules. The other, which is certainly more interesting, is the theological concept – how the parish serves in the Kingdom and Church.

The Parish as Canonical Entity

First, the boring stuff. The canons (rules under which our church and dioceses operate) hold that a parish is essentially a self-supporting congregation, able to pay a priest (the head priest of a parish is called a rector, from the Latin for ruler, director, governor, and guide), and pay for all the things which it needs to serve the people in its care. The parish has a board of lay leaders called a vestry which manage the financial affairs of the congregation on behalf of whole membership. The diocese doesn’t send any support and in fact, the parish sends the diocese funds to support the bishop, new church plants, and other ministries. The parish has the prerogative to call a priest with the bishop’s consent, and that priest can stay in place as long as the parish maintains their canonical status and as long as two of the three parties (the bishop, the vestry, and the priest himself) agree that he should.

The Parish as Theological Entity

But, the thing I get excited about in talking about this idea of a parish is how it speaks to a great need for today – constituent units of the whole body of Christ living and acting as the local representative of the Church. For many local congregations, they have nothing above them save an idea of the Church as a universal body, but without any sense of solidarity with anything greater, or a sense of themselves as subsidiaries of the whole. The idea of a parish is, in fact, a middle term between the whole Body of Christ and the individual Christian. Indeed, it is even a middle entity between the Church and the world. This is supremely necessary if we are to have any greater idea in our heads than the Church as merely individual Christians claiming a minimal parity in faith. Further, it is necessary if in the Church’s activity in worshiping the Lord and making disciples, we seek to root men and women in the life of the whole Church as the living Body of Christ. In short, for us as Anglicans, congregationalism simply won’t do!

The term “parish” comes from the paroikos, meaning “near the household.” The bishop in the ancient Church, as opposed to occupying an office, occupied a household (oikos) in which members of the Church gathered in a common life. This was how clergy were trained, service to the poor was rendered, and how the lonely were brought into community. In this, the bishop maintained his status as that of the Latin pater familias, a head of a household of 50 or so people. As the need for more local communities of Christians arose, the bishops placed clergy from the household in charge of these local congregations. Their nearness to the household maintained a bond to the bishop, and through the bishop, to the whole Church.

Saint Cyprian says of this:

the episcopate (the body of bishops) is one; it is the whole in which each enjoys full possession. The Church is likewise one, though she be spread abroad, and multiplies with the increase of her progeny: even as the sun has rays many and one light.”

The Church mirrors the dual natures of Christ – both human and divine – in that she is a body both human and divine, a divine humanity in which the Holy Spirit dwells. Thus, the Church is both visible and invisible, made up of human members, but at the same time – the body of Christ. She shows forth the Gospel in the world because she is not purely an “idea,” but a living body, increasing not by individual conversion, but by the establishment of local churches in her communion, what we should readily call “parishes.”

Planting in the Catholic Tradition

Martin Thornton, a wonderful author and priest once wrote:

the parish is the Catholic Church in microcosm. This Church, moreover, is threefold. The holy concourse in paradise and in heaven does not split itself up into insular parties of patrons-per-parish. If the whole body is complete at every altar, the whole communion of saints are in attendance at every altar. As the Lady Julian saw all creation in a hazel-nut, so her hazel-nut comes to universal size. When parochialism is organic and when ye are the body of Christ, it is the antithesis of narrow because it is, in place the Catholic Church.” (The Heart of the Parish, A Theology of Remnant)

What the world needs are not more congregations of varied theological interests and convictions, with authority that is merely local, but local parishes in solidarity with the whole Church, yes with their individual charisms and cultural contexts, but constituent membership in something greater than themselves. This presents to the world not only a unified vision and witness, but to the Church’s members the stability of that consistent witness, especially in the midst of a mobile society.

Thus, we at AnglicanPastor have set out to inspire clergy and people to establish congregations that not only represent this church or that church, but of the whole Church, here and abroad, alive and at rest, African, Asian, and American, “no Jew or Greek, slaves or free.” (1 Cor. 12:13) We also seek to provide an opportunity for clergy to think together about how such a unified witness can be brought to reality. Thus, though we are Anglican in every sense of this word, this identity does not preclude catholicity – membership in the whole Church, professing the faith of the whole Church. We are committed to planting parishes which will in turn plant more parishes planted in solidarity with not only our own churches, but the whole Church universal. So, let us pray that, as our work continues, the Lord will see this through!

Photo: Chris Downer [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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