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Rediscovering the Anglican parish model


In the booklet, “Fundamentals of Transitional Ministry”, published by the Interim Ministry Network, there is a section on “differentiated leadership”. We will ignore the horror of the term “differentiated” and use the concept in something of a different manner than that employed by Robert W Johnson, the author of this section. To Johnson, self-differentiation applies to individual leaders, lay or ordained. Johnson defines the term as “The ability to understand yourself and to use your capacity to think, feel, and act with internal freedom to make choices is called self-differentiation and is critical for effective leadership Whether you lead a large congregation, manage a group, consult with a system, or are a professional helper, achieving your optimal effectiveness demands the ability to act independently, often in the midst of chaos and pressure from the group or organization”

Johnson cites two scriptural passages from the Gospels to bolster his thesis, one describing Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, (Matthew 23: 37) and the other of Jesus driving the merchants from the Temple, (Mark 11: 15 – 17)

While this concept is an integral part of the Anglican approach to individual pastoral ministry it may be instructive to contemplate this theory as it relates to the entire parish or mission. In his book, “Love Took My Hand” the Spirituality of George Herbert”, Philip Sheldrake, a sympathetic Roman Catholic scholar notes that the Church of England inherited the parochial system from its past:

“It continued to stand for a ‘community’ model of church rather than for the gathered or associational model that inevitably came to be the norm for dissenters, whether Puritan or Roman Catholic. Again, the Church of England model of priesthood was not something which existed in its own right in splendid theological isolation but was grounded or located , in relationship to a specific community where the Word of God was preached and the sacraments celebrated. In a more general way, Anglican identity from the very beginning was not based on tightly defined core doctrines or innovative and distinctive structures but rather on a shared history and a sense of continuities and present connections. In other words, Anglicanism has a great deal to do with community life, which means people and places –indeed, people in places.

A sense of place, its relationship to individual and corporate memory, and its impact on human identity, have become major preoccupations in contemporary Western culture. This is a spiritual issue of great importance. One of its central features is the search for ‘home’. A vision of home, family and household is an important theme in Herbert’s “The Country Parson”.

One of the unavoidable weaknesses of interim ministry theory is that it fails to differentiate between Anglican and non-Anglican concepts of parish and parish priest. This point is not made to draw invidious comparisons between different churches. It merely points to a fact about Anglican parish self-perception and thus mission. It also affects that part of interim ministry in which the relationship between parish and diocese is studied. This is described as: “Renewing and reworking the congregation’s relationship with the Diocese so that each may be a more effective resource and support to the other.”

If such a subject is addressed merely in terms of “resource” or even “support” as these are usually defined, the whole matter of the deeper theological and spiritual relationship between the two entities is ignored or even damaged. After all, a parish may decide, for what ever reason, that it does not get its moneys’ worth out of resources or support! The definition opens the way for a subjective valuation of both entities.

Again, without a viable and empowering self-identity, neither parish nor diocese is able to be self-differentiated or “unique”. May I dare say, that both entities become merely “systems”.
As Episcopalians love law, and church law in particular – what would St. Paul have thought of that? – I’ll cite Title 1, Canon 13, section 2 (a,b) and section 3, (a,b). The Canon defines a parish as a territorial unit, defined where not in law, by action of the bishop and standing committee. To such areas parish priests are afforded parochial “Cure”.

Many seem to think that territorial ministry has something to do with the Church of England and “establishment”. However the parochial system was until fairly recently a part of Episcopal life and is so in most of not all Provinces of the Anglican Communion.Others worry that the territorial concept demeans the ministries of other denominations working in the same area. Indeed it is possible for such a system to produce arrogant clergy and congregations, living in splendid isolation from other churches. Again it is objected that in a consumer society, churches are bodies chosen by individuals on the basis of their utility or ability to provide that for which an individual is looking. As the parochial ideal stresses locality and mission rather than attraction, it may not meet the needs of contemporary society. This may not necessarily be the case, for locality, place, “the village” are capable of many manifestations. However if one points out the negative side of systems, one would believe nothing and do nothing!

After the Reformation, Anglicanism found itself in internal debate about the nature of the church. It had inherited a diocesan and parochial system possibly introduced by St. Theodore of Canterbury in the 7th century, at a time when no English state existed and establishment was a thing of the future.

Puritans objected to the idea of an inclusive church, embracing the entire village. They sought to establish a gathered or denominational church, open only to the called and elect that embraced a certain theology, and conformed to its rules and lifestyles.

Anglicans won the argument. The church was to be inclusive. There were to be no doctrinal “tests” at least for the laity. The parish church was to continue as the center of ministry for the community, that is to and for whoever sought to avail themselves of this ministry, lay and ordained. In other words the parish is an area. It’s church building and facilities exists not for those who attend, the membership, but rather the membership, the covenanted priestly body, incorporated in baptism, exits for others to God and for God to others.

Similarly the diocese, in our case West Virginia, exists not for its membership, not as a resource or support unit, but it exits in and through the bishop, clergy and members for a territory defined as West Virginia to God and from God to that area.

If we are all members of a Royal Priesthood, we cannot by definition, exist for ourselves. Priests exist for others and for God, they are “to” others and “to” God. But the bare truth is that the self-perception of most of our parishioners is that the church exists for them, as a resource and support system, to be judged subjectively on such terms, and the diocese, exists, again for the parishes, as a separate and discreet “organization” to provide resources and support. It is to be judged on such terms.

While the structural organization of many denominations may promote such a self-perception, Anglicanism proposes something entirely different. It suggests an organic relationship between the diocese and parish, as each lives in unity as the priestly mission to the territory assigned.
This self-perception or self-differentiation radically challenges and enables the sense of identity of parish and diocese and transforms its mission from something inward and self-serving, or something “denominational” and exclusive.

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