Off the back of my recent post redesigning my Parish church after reading about the tradition of the Church of England when it came to the Lord’s Supper I’ve been thinking about how Parishes, Dioceses, and potentially Provinces could be organised. What follows, I think makes sense, but I’m not under any illusions that there aren’t good reasons for things being done the way they are currently, at least in the UK where our dioceses go back to the 6th century.
This is based partly on my own experience working with a major UK retailer having to adjust to todays Digital Age and a recent reading of Leon Krier’s “Architecture of Community”. In particular one key idea he had that really resonated with me. That of the “10 minutes” walk.
Growing up my Father was a quiet man but the one thing he did have a strong opinion on was that we should walk to Church. We lived 5 minutes from our Church and 10 minutes from its mother Church. Now I’m 31 I still believe that and have always walked (even if it took an hour at times in the past) and live about 5 minutes from my local Parish Church today.
Krier’s argument is that instead of the sprawl we see in so many modern cities, which creates congestion and is an inefficient use of public infrastructure (road and rail) it is more efficient (and enjoyable) to build local hubs where you can have your doctor, school, workplace, and worship all within 10 minutes walk. This is building off a much older argument and he draws on this explicitly elsewhere:
Monsters and midgets define the limits of normality; one by excess, the other by insufficiency. In order to define a normal measure it is thus sufficient for us to indicate limits, that is to say, the maximum and the minimum.
But measure does not only concern the geometric dimension of spaces and objects of the city and its quarters, but also the size of human communities. Like a tree or a man, a human community cannot exceed a certain dimension without becoming a monster; either a giant or a dwarf. As Aristotle said: “To the size of cities there is a limit as is the case with everything, with plants, animals, tools; because none of these can retain its natural power if it is too large or too small, for it then loses its nature or it is spoilt” (Aristotle, Politics).
Similarly, Galileo maintained that a man of 100 meters in height made of flesh and bone would imprison himself and would be incapable of living on this planet. The Pythagoreans taught that evil belonged to the realm of the limitless and that good belonged to that which was limited. Aristotle made this truth the foundation of everything: philosophy, ethics, and by consequence, of politics and culture.
Just as proper measure is the condition of all life, so the vitality of a community overdevelops or atrophies according to the number of its inhabitants; a city can die by an abnormal expansion, density or dispersion. And just as a family does not grow through the swelling of the parents’ bodies but through the birth of children, so an urban civilization cannot with impunity grow beyond the exaggerated swelling of human agglomerations. “A tree grows freely –“, wrote the progressive German industrialist and anti-Nazi statesman Walther Rathenau, “— that doesn’t mean that it is going to decamp or for that matter grow up to the sky“.
The free and harmonious growth of an urban civilization cannot be accomplished except by the right and judicious geographical distribution of its cities and communities, which have to be autonomous and finite. Only then will cities know how to respond to the economic functions of a community and satisfy the highest aspirations of the spirit.The City Within a City By Leon Krier
This old thread by @wrathofgnon unpacks this approach to urbanism pretty well and at a popular level.
What follows is then a reflection on the nature of how the Church should organise in a place. Again I’m thinking specifically of my own inner city parish, I imagine Rural ministry would vary but the same broad principles, historically speaking I think would be pretty timeless given they are predicated on the norms of how humans have tended to congregate.
Family As Foundation
The bedrock of society, as I’ve written elsewhere, is the family. It is the smallest self-replicating social unit. I think any vision of society, secular or sacred, must ultimately start with attending to this most basic building block.
Those families wherein this service of God [family worship] is performed, are (as it were) little churches, yea, even a kind of Paradise upon earth.William Perkins, Household-Government, in Works 3:670
It’s pretty common to find that many Churches, when starting out, have their origins as a House Church of sorts. How many does that need to function? Christ said in Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”. Again therein the family we find the first perennial and enduring unit in which Christ is present. Yet what happens when families come together to worship?
The Church As Voluntary Society and A Family of Families
The first Churches we know of were often converted homes yet the Church, whilst made of families, also broken them down to reforge new ones. The Early Church in particular drew heavily on the existing Greco Roman notion of voluntary societies within the Empire as a model for Church:
Contrary to the social struction of the period which was based on genealogy, property and hierarchy, Christian ekklesia likewise the voluntary associations offered its members a more egalitarian platform. Additionally, many features such as fraternity between members, internal administration, charitable activites and collective meals were shared by both ekklesiai and voluntary associations.Ahmet Oncu Guney, Investigating The House-Church In Dura-Europos: Production of Social Space. p23
Which inevitably meant that when a Church reached a certain size having space devoted explicitly to the ends of Christian worship creates the opportunity for its development both in terms of depth and scope. This is what Ahmet Oncu Guney calls the ‘second phase’ in the life of a social organisation like a Church. The private becomes public, better defined, and set aside as holy for the ordering towards the end of the worship of God. The tent becomes a temple. This ideally isn’t instead of the family worship of the home church but to complement and build upon it.
The Parish therefore is the context in which a community, a village, might come together to worship. The Parish exists to support the Home worship of the various families it represents. It also provides a means for repetition and sophistication in ones worship: this could be liturgy, it could be something as basic as scheduling a consistent time to meet. The community begins to meet at ‘the’ place rather than ‘a’ place and this creates grounds for shared public identity.
Parish to Parish Interaction
This is the ideal unit. Yet the parish can only grow a certain extent until it begins to become deformed. It might draw so many people who travel from so far that it begins to abstract people from their own community and those around them. Instead of giving birth to a child it grows to become a monstrous giant. Once the parish is saturated, or as Krier explained ‘reaches its natural limit’ it becomes important to reproduce the parish. Historically, and ideally this is within walkable distance of those attending – the parish therefore should be an emergent property of a community already in a place, not an imposition.
The next thing, therefore, is to supply a means for one parish to engage with one another. To coordinate or even support one another early on or in times of struggle. This necessitated a class of individuals who, as in the case of a secular society like a guildmaster regulated teaching, access, and conduct between bodies. A super-intendant for watching over the ‘birthing’ of new churches and curation of existing ones. To comment too much on this is to digress but this is, to my understanding, was the advent bene esse of the Bishop in the Church.
The Minster and Cathedral
As the relationship between these different parishes is negotiated the architecture of this inevitably needs an expression and base. The rationale that gave rise to the Parish Church gives rise to successive hubs that are the base of the interactions and resourcing of the local parishes, regions, and even nations. From a societal perspective just as the Parish Church was an expression of the local community, another iteration on this will inevitably represent the regional community. This might have been a Minster or Cathedral ‘Megachurch’ that could in turn signal boost and resource the regional community.
So what started off with family worship and a house church scales up to something with successive degrees of complexity. Yet despite the issues with the potential of stagnation and stratification this complexity creates it’s possible to turn this pyramid upside down and see that all of these things work in order to facilitate the Christian household within the context of a progressively ‘Christianised’ nation state. This is the idea someone like TS Eliot talks about in his lectures on “The Idea of a Christian Society”. A Minster or Cathedral is a national monument and inevitably has an impact on the area where it is found. The kind of society which allows something like that to be built will be very different to the one that doesn’t. Each of these manifestations speak to a corresponding level of public life in a nation. A similar pattern can even be applied to guilds, public services, and utilities.
The takeaway from this should be that our Churches and Church planting should be defined in relation to the other Churches around us of our own communion. I think a lot of experience of Church is highly atomised in that we have little awareness or sense of ownership regarding where our particular church sits within the architecture of our own tradition. This is partly because that architecture for so many is abstracted wherein if you saw it, interacted with it, and could simply place it on a map that’d do much more to realise your position in relation to the broader institution. Thats the scale we are used to operating on.
Krier argued that each self-sustaining portion of a metropolis (or polypolis) should be occupied by its own local public buildings and I think Churches are to be included in that. You should be able to walk to Church. Yet what do we do in a nation where our Church is in decline?
Hub and Spoke as Mission
A few years ago I was doing some work for a major UK retailer. They were being squeezed by competitors on the Internet and were struggling to know how to respond. The strategy they came up with was to utilise the one advantage they did have. A huge transport network and real estate.
The retailer came up with a Hub and Spoke model wherein larger regional stores could supply and stock, sometimes restock within a day, smaller local stores and concessions. These concessions could be within other stores or even underground stations. This is an example of a ‘brownfield’ institution changing how it operates in leaner years and whilst the context is different, the Church doesn’t sell a product once, but is trying to build a society centred on a relationship with Our Lord Christ, but some parallels can be found.
The idea of having a central resourcing church isn’t a new idea. The Church of England is already doing this in some areas. A central church supports and invests in new and existing congregations to build them up. This is a positive example of the institution investing in the local body.
Yet one of the problems with this approach is that it has the potential to tread on or come into conflict with the historic domains of parishes and dioceses as they exist today. Resourcing Churches and those Network Churches attached to Bishop’s Missions Orders can create a fair degree of tension among existing structures. Yet this seems an inescapable problem of most mission efforts today.
Family as Mission
Another way of looking at the issue is to go back to basics and look at the family again. A lower cost, admittedly more modest approach would be to invest in building up and promoting the idea of the Christian family distinct to your tradition, how it worships, the shape of its devotional life, its confession, and how it fits into the broader ecclesial structure of the Church. Perhaps as part of a society within the society of the Church the way Monastic Orders with Roman Catholicism have operated historically.
I would then encourage those Christian families particularly interested in the value of a common life and the notion of the Church as what Ahmet Guney called a ‘voluntary society’. Then look at putting interested families and individuals in contact with one another in the interest of forming a common life together with the idea of forming self sufficient society ‘parishes’.
The Church could practically support this in a number of ways, namely giving opportunities for people to train to become ‘Tentmakers’ capable of sustaining themselves in this. Also, making it easier for people to be on-boarded and trained into ordained ministry without abstracting them from their communities would help too. Currently someone is trained, ordained and abstracted from the context in which they heard the call to ministry – shouldn’t we try and contextualise this more?
Extracting this from the main parish structure, like Resourcing or Network Churches, and letting it develop in a more organic, grassroots manner I think could be really important. By developing a para-church institution, admittedly I think ideally with its own sacramental ministry in due time, could be a way to negotiate how these communities could interact with a local parish of dioceses on a case by case basis. They would differ from an ordinary parish in that they exist to specifically cultivate local ‘opt-in’ communities of people committed to one another and are organised largely from the ground up yet loyal to the Church. In software development, when you try something new, you create a branch of your main code base so that if it goes wrong it doesn’t affect your main repository, you don’t make destructive edits. A society centred on the recreation of parish life, primarily in the church but working that across all of society, from the grassroots at a human scale could be a ‘branch’ worth exploring. If you do get communities interested, offer them an abandoned parish church in the countryside or an inner city estate to rehabilitate and some help retraining to make a living if interested. I’d take that given the opportunity.
If it works, then when it matures you can look at incorporating it into the main body of the Church. Yet I believe by starting with the family, supporting it, protecting it, and encouraging it to grow and create space for its neighbours is a big part of how the Church originally got started. Build your base and the rest will follow.
One thought on “Reimagining the Parish and Beyond”