I recently went to my actual parish church (not pictured left) for the first time since moving here nine months ago. I found it mostly, if not entirely, composed of people who were 60+. My guess is that the other Christians living nearby don’t go to this church partly because of the service time, partly because they go to one of the younger, hipper churches in the city centre, whether C of E or otherwise. Maybe some go to the Anglo-Catholic churches in the centre. Some of us would go if our sons napped at a different time, though!
But imagine, if you will, a world where we allowed the parish churches to do what they were designed for. Imagine we didn’t decide that anywhere a bus/car can take us was part of a smorgasborg of Sunday morning options but were members of the neighbourhood congregation.
This is what parish churches were meant for, in a pre-automobile age. When the church started out, the local gathering of Christians was small enough, and most Mediterranean ‘cities’ were the size of modern villages, so all the Christians went to the same church. It was within walking distance.
In bigger cities, and especially after Constantine and the growth of conversion, it became necessary to develop a network of local churches that could service other neighbourhoods — but that were still part of the same acknowledged body of believers as the original ‘founding’ congregation. Eventually, these smaller manifestations of the original central congregation spread to the countryside.
These churches served the paroikia, the area where people lived nearby. That’s the etymology of parish.
The idea of the parish church, then, is that everyone can walk to church. There is a priest attached to your church who can preach, administer sacraments, and counsel you in need. There are deacons and deaconesses to help you in practical ways. All the Christians of the neighbourhood come together to pray, to worship, to learn, to encounter God in a meaningful way.
Now, the following scenario would only work if we did it en masse.
Imagination if we all switched membership to the nearest church in walking distance.
The charismatics would raise their arms next to the genuflecting Anglo-Catholics. The evangelicals would demand hard-core Bible teaching. The liberals would cry out for social justice.
If we started on Advent 1, we’d all be dead by Christmas.
But if we lived on into Lent, with the Anglo-Catholics shrouding the cross and the charismatics reminding us that repentance should lead to joy, while the liberals pointed out that the fast the Lord calls for is to do acts of mercy, and the evangelicals told us that none of this matters without entering into real, personal discipleship with the Lord Jesus — maybe we’d be better for it.
Rubbing shoulders with different ways of being Christian. Fighting for the Gospel side by side rather than scattershot and undirected.
And think what it would do for making disciples in our neighbourhoods.
‘What church do you go to?’
‘Hey, so does that other Christian I met.’
‘We all do.’
That’s a sign of Christian unity, as opposed to: ‘Oh, well, I didn’t like the way they sing Psalms at St Aidan’s, so I go Grace Church.’ ‘I really like the immediacy of the worship with the Vineyard.’ ‘The Bible teaching at King’s Church inspires me.’ ‘St Oswald’s has the best music besides the cathedral.’ ‘Christ Church takes a good line on evangelism.’ ‘Only the Orthodox have a clue what it’s all about.’ ‘All Saints cares for the poor.’
Or, even worse: ‘I had a fight with the minister.’ ‘I hear they’re shallow at that other church.’ ‘They compromise the essentials of the faith.’ ‘They’re not real Christians.’ ‘They aren’t open enough to the Holy Spirit.’ ‘Cathedrals are just about putting on a show.’ ‘They’re too casual at that church.’ ‘Oh, them. It’s all just ritual, from what I hear. No relationship with God.’ ‘You can only hear so many sermons about penal substitutionary atonement before you want to shoot someone in the face, I always say.’
Worshipping God and making disciples together.
That’s the idea of the parish church.