Parish or Perish?
It’s common these days for words to end up attracting a meaning that is the opposite of what was originally intended. “Wicked” for some now means “fantastic” and something can be both “cool” and “hot” depending on the crowd you’re with. It might come as a surprise that the Church has been at this sort of thing for years.
The word “parish” is currently defined as “an area having its own church and clergy” (OED). The image is static: geographical boundaries, a building and paid leadership. The origins of the word lie elsewhere. The etymological route is through Middle English, via Old French, back to ecclesiastical Latin, and finally reaching its destination in the Greek:
• paroikos – stranger, alien, sojourner
• paroikia – the stay or sojourn in a strange place of someone who is not a citizen
Rather than static, the image is thoroughly dynamic. The OT concept is of God’s people as “sojourners” in this world, even when they are in the Promised Land. It is about identity and dependence. The people are not to find their identity in the land God gives them, but in Him and His statutes (e.g. Ps 119:54ff). God is not confined by earthly boundaries – land, temple, etc – and the people are to follow Him wherever He leads just as their forefathers did.
“Home” – where one dwells – is to be found in God not a geographical place. The true meaning of “parish” is much more aligned with the Tent of Meeting (God’s people on the move with Him at the centre leading the way) than the Temple in Jerusalem.
It doesn’t take much to see the dangers in the shift of meaning to something more “static.” There is the danger of growing to depend on earthly things rather than on God, and the consequent attention paid to them. “Church” more easily becomes associated with buildings not people; physical boundaries create a mindset which restricts vision and responsibility; God’s followers begin to find their identity (how they define themselves) in things other than simply following God; and ‘maintenance’ can have greater influence than ‘movement.’ The word “parochial” comes from the same Greek root, yet today it is defined as, “local, narrow or restricted in scope.” How consistent is this with the dynamic of a people following God wherever He leads?
The original concept behind “parish” suits the pace of the 21st Century world more than at any other time in Church history. The challenge for all Anglicans is to recapture the true meaning of the word “parish” because the failure to do so is to be aligned more with “perish.”
• How does one truly lead a “parish”?
• If geographical boundaries and buildings do not define us as a community, how and where do we “do church”?
• What things do people in your parish see as making up its identity?
• How much energy does your parish invest in the “static” rather than the “dynamic,” in “maintenance” rather than “movement”?
• How does the current “parish” system limit the capacity of God’s followers to be more “dynamic”? Is “parish” more mental than physical?