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‘Parish’ Ministry Outside English Parishes?

Eavesdropping on British conversations, I find the future of the parish system is a common topic of discussion there. Entwined as it is with the changing public role of the Church of England, the historic unit of the parish has been repeatedly, as now, called upon to justify itself. Andrew Rumsey’s 2017 book Parish: An Anglican Theology of Place has helped orient me to the discussion, bringing together Anglican history with ecumenical theologies of place, rooted in Christology. For me — one who has moved from place to place far too often — the book engages my previous reflections on the importance of attending to locality. I resonate with the hope that by belonging and worshiping in an Anglican parish, Christians are equipped for a particular mission of loving our neighbors — one I hope might even inspire us to work against the political polarization that divides our communities.

Not being in England, however, I have to reckon with the fact that I simply don’t have a parish — at least not in the same sense. As fellow Covenant author Mark Clavier recently put it in conversation, Anglicanism outside England and Wales “has been replicated in the nonconformist model, the gathering of the faithful,” rather than in the form of churches that have included the entire public in a particular place. Parish and congregation are nearly synonymous for us, and the publics to which we Americans belong assume that our church is simply a matter of personal choice.

So can it be true, as Rumsey implies, that parish is the groundwork for an Anglican theology of place, and not merely an English one? What can it mean for an American Episcopal parish? What would it look like to live out a full-throated Christology — in which God is present everywhere because he is present here — in Bristol, Tennessee?

On one point, at least, the changing status of the Church of England helps me imagine some common ground. Rumsey points out that as the status of Anglicanism in England recedes to a level nearer its status elsewhere, as one option among many, Anglican parishes and priests have continued to see themselves as existing for the whole community. To continue its existing duty of the care of souls in its area, the church in many places has had to develop a stronger muscle for mission. This is a challenging and positive example for Episcopal congregations to follow. In the Episcopal Church, we have always known that other options existed; our congregations are small, and often getting smaller. It is a great temptation to see the church as existing for the sake of the spiritual and (even more?) social needs of current members. To think of the parish as the foundation for a pan-Anglican theology of place would be to rediscover our identity as being for our neighbors — with mission as integral to our identity.

A second way Rumsey’s explication of parish can extend to Anglicans everywhere builds upon the first. How is it that a declining established church continues to exist for the sake of the whole community? What may seem like the least it can do is, to Rumsey, theologically profound: taking up space. By occupying physical space in this world, the church witnesses to God’s involvement in physical space and historical time. By being the local church, we recognize that God is “with us” through the very particular incarnation of Jesus Christ. Christ is present in the universal church because Christ is present in the local church.

If we understand the call to “hold space for God” as a maximal calling, not a bare minimum, we will end up putting our whole lives into it. I suspect this means, for starters, being consistently present at our churches — witnessing God and bearing witness to God through our regular worship; receiving Christ in the Eucharist; and holding space for each other by truly seeing and hearing each other in all manner of circumstances. In these ways we must continually affirm that God is in our midst.

But if this “holding space” is to be something we do on behalf of our entire communities, and as an invitation to them, we will need to put concentrated effort into knowing the communities beyond our congregations. Who lives here? What groups do I, and other members of the congregation, rarely encounter? What is the local economy like? What history shapes the people here? What current issues in this neighborhood concern us all together? To accept as our duty the task of lifting our communities to God, we will devote attention to knowing them in detail. Here is an excellent opportunity for a church to articulate lay vocation: a priest cannot know and love the entire community alone, though the priest can set the tone. Here is where the whole congregation can be involved in the priestly work of the church, by paying close attention to the nooks and crannies of a community and representing them in the prayers of the people.

Community, however, doesn’t capture all the meanings of the old concept of parish, which means a specific territory entrusted to a Christian people as sacred. If Anglican parishes outside Britain are to learn and live the theology of place Rumsey says is Anglican, we will need to start paying attention to the geography beyond the church property. We may not go so far as to start “beating the bounds” like English parishioners once did on Rogation Day. But is it too much to ask for neighboring parishes to work together to agree on the neighborhoods and lands they will accept as their particular charges for prayer and service?

Might we borrow a page from charismatic churches and embark on periodic prayer walks in our neighborhoods? A more characteristic Episcopal version (equally powerful) would include the forests, prairies, waterways, and industrial areas, lifting up God’s local creation in prayer — and lifting it into our attention, perhaps for the first time. Local history tours and visits to key economic sites would be appropriate, especially if done with prayer that treats all these spaces as part of God’s concern and mission. To know the land around us, with its beauty and its troubles, is to join Adam’s priestly work of lifting up God’s beloved creatures by name.

As parish priests often do in England because they are still seen as public figures, priests and congregations in other parts of the world can express a parish mindset when we partner with others in our communities in the care of “our” land and people. Collaboration can be ecumenical, with other Christian congregations; it might include government officials or school boards; it might be interreligious; it might include nonprofit organizations. The Christian vocation will be distinct in Anglican congregations, however, since we will locate our desire to serve neighbors and care for the land as something other than a generic call to serve “others.” For us, service will be a proclamation that Jesus is present in all places because we know Jesus is present here.

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