Reclaiming the Parish as Neighbourhood: An Anglican Tradition Worth Preserving

 on October 25, 2022

I don’t remember much from my seminary days, and the things that I do remember would, I suspect, surprise those who said them. One professor, for example, said that if we wanted to understand Christianity better, we would need to learn to appreciate geography. Geography? Not history, or liturgy, or ministry? How weird. However, as a result of that suggestion, I bought a Bible Atlas, which I still use to this day. And yes, it really does help with understanding the Bible. I just searched on Amazon for “Bible with maps,” and got 10,000 references, so I’m not the only one. Maybe my eccentric seminary prof was right. How about that?

Geography has traditionally been important for Anglicans. The term parish—is there a more Anglican word?—originally meant the geographical area in which a church was located, and for which the church took pastoral responsibility. In the days before denominational divisions, there would be one church per parish. On that piece of geography lived the people for whom the church felt a sense of responsibility, practically and spiritually. On the next bit of land, beyond the parish boundary, lay another parish, with another church to serve it. In many Anglican settings in the UK—and some parts of New England—there is an annual ceremony called “Beating the Bounds” in which a liturgical procession walks around the parish boundary to remind everyone of the geography which the church is there to serve.

Parish: introverted or extroverted?

My family has been in Canada for over forty years now, but I remember well what a shock it was to realize that for most Canadian Anglicans, that’s not what “parish” means. Somehow the word has been divorced from geography, and—as you well know—usually means “the people who come to our church,” even if those people drive in from some miles outside the official parish boundary. If the wardens decide they want to send a financial appeal to “everyone in the parish,” they certainly don’t mean every home within the parish boundaries!

What happened to undermine this idea of the geographical parish? Well, mobility happened, and denominational diversity happened. If I have no choice but to walk to church, and if there is only one church around, well, that’s where I will go. But if I have a car, and there are lots of churches around, even of the same denomination, with different styles of worship and different shades of belief—well, I will go wherever suits my fancy. It’s consumerism applied to religion. As a result, the only thing that many neighbourhoods know about the church building on the corner is that on Sundays a lot of cars arrive and clog up their streets for an hour or two. Whoever those visitors are, wherever they come from, whatever they are up to, all we know is that they are religious—and that they are not interested in us or our neighbourhood.

Why does this matter? Just this: If “parish” means “the people who come to church,” our responsibility for caring is primarily to insiders.  If on the other hand “parish” means “the geographical area God has called us to serve,” the focus is much broader—more challenging, certainly, but also healthier, both for us and for our neighbour.

Geography and mission

Well, you may say, I suppose this is slightly interesting, but does it really matter? What made me sit up and pay attention is the realization that, as we Anglicans have narrowed the meaning of “parish,” other denominations, which have not normally used the term, have begun to adopt it, because they realize its missional importance. Exhibit A is a book called The New Parish: How Neighbourhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community, by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight Friesen.

Here’s a sample of why they are drawn to this idea: “When the word parish is used in this book it refers to all the relationships (including the land) where the local church lives out its faith together. It is a unique word that recalls a geography large enough to live life together (live, work, play, etc.) and small enough to be known as a character within it.” (page 23, italics original)

What does it mean to take the environment of the parish church seriously? The answer will vary as much as the geography, so there is no quick formula. But it will probably involve such things as:

  • Looking at the diocesan map to see where our parish boundaries are;
  • Prayerfully walking the streets and back lanes of the parish, and seeing what God draws our attention to;
  • Encouraging church members to join the local neighbourhood association and attend meetings;
  • Talking to the local councillor regularly about the changing character and needs of the neighbourhood.

After that, who knows? One church that was unavoidably a commuter church delivered a small potted plant to every home around church to thank them personally for putting up with the parking on Sundays.  In another case, the city councillor began to call the pastor when there was a need in the ward that existing systems couldn’t handle—for instance, an elderly widow whose basement had flooded, and who couldn’t afford professional help.

Would they miss us?

I remember a student who was preaching at the church where she was an intern. As she concluded the sermon, she asked, “If this church disappeared overnight from the neighbourhood, would the neighbours miss it?” It’s a great question. But the response of the congregation was very revealing: “Why would it matter? Why are you even asking the question?”

We are asking the question because, as the authors of The New Parish realize, it’s about transforming mission, discipleship, and community. To put it another way, it’s about the Gospel: “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighbourhood.”

  • John Bowen

    John Bowen is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism at Wycliffe College in Toronto, where he was also the Director of the Institute of Evangelism. Before that, he worked a campus evangelist for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. For over thirty years, John has been a popular speaker, teacher, and preacher, on university campuses, in churches and in classrooms, and at conferences, across Canada and the USA. His most recent book is The Unfolding Gospel: How the Good News Makes Sense of Discipleship, Church, Mission, and Everything Else (Fortress 2021).

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