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OF PARISHES CHURCHES AND CONGREGATIONS 2

Largely through my own fault it has been assumed that my essay on the two Virginia parishes in some measure argued for their property rights, or against Dr. Gunderson’s thesis that these parishes were re-founded or restored by the Diocese of Virginia in accordance with the Canons.

I have no quarrel with that conclusion. My point was that if we abandon our claim to be a territorial church and instead become a gathered church, we have no right to complain about others invading our territory. We would have no territory other than real estate. A map of any present diocese would look rather like a proposed Palestinian state on the West Bank!

If a modern Episcopal “parish” is in practice the people on the rolls and the real estate they use and if an Episcopal rector or priest is merely charged with looking after people who call themselves Episcopalians and leading some form of recruitment,what one has is a denomination or a sect and not a Church.

This was not the thinking of our church, at least until fairly recent times. Read the lives and biographies of 19th Century bishops, High and Low, to discover how deeply their investment was in the heritage of Anglicanism to be the Church locally expressed and not a club for people who like that sort of thing.

It is because we have lost our concept of “churchmanship” -would someone propose another word? – that we have encouraged the creation of “parishes” which recruit partisan congregations.

Of course there have always been church parties, and parishes with distinct flavors, but never before has the influence of secular political practice invested such parties with such a partisan and divisive spirit. This is true of both conservative and liberal congregations and their alliances.

Never before has our church embraced the concept of majoritarian rule mindless of the susceptibilities of minority groups. Never before in our history have we rejected comprehension in such a thorough manner. For centuries we have guarded the rights of mutually exclusive groups within the Anglican symbiosis. Thus individual parishes and their networks now threaten the older structure of dioceses and territorial parishes, and the obsession is centered on what we Episcopalians want, rather than on our mission to the world. There is something slightly deranged about obsessions.

OF PARISHES, CHURCHES and CONGREGATIONS

I am grateful to Dr. Joan Gunderson for her essay on the histories of Truro and Falls Church parishes. I hesitate to take her on in an area in which she shows great learning. However there’s something dangerous about her conclusions.

Dr. Gunderson begins on firm ground. The Colonial legislature divided Virginia into geographical parishes. Anglicanism was not only the Established Church but a territorial church. Thus it claimed to have a mission in place. It did not regard itself as an ecclesial organization which drew to itself those who thought of themselves as Anglicans, but rather as the Church locally placed with a mission to all who lived in the geographical parish. At this point it is easy to assume that such a territorial mission had something to do with Establishment. This is not so. It had everything to do with the notion that the Anglican Church was the old church reformed and not some new model, created at the Reformation with the power to draw to itself adherents who liked the liturgy or the metrical psalms.

After the Revolution the Episcopal Church enshrined in its Constitution and Canons the continued notion that at diocesan and parochial levels it inherited and continued its self-perception as a territorial church. The Canons then and now describe the parish in terms of territory and also describe how that territory may be sub-divided to form new parishes and missions. Indeed I shall go on to argue later that if such a self-perception is abandoned, the Episcopal Church has no right to grumble when other overseas bodies plant themselves near an existing Episcopal parish or indeed take over at least the property dedicated to the territorial parish.

The newly formed Diocese of Virginia was in bad shape. Many buildings had been destroyed or badly damaged during the Revolution. Many clergy and laity fled abroad. The first two bishops did little – Madison was busy enough as rector of Bruton Parish Church and President of the College of William and Mary. (Clowes Chorley’s, “Men and Movements in the American Episcopal Church” although dated as the title suggests, offers fascinating insights into this period.) Many parishes were totally neglected. There were not enough clergy to go round and many lay people preferred to keep their Anglican convictions quiet.

It was not until the advent of the Evangelical Revival and the establishment of the Virginia Theological Seminary that revival and restoration began. But note the ancient parishes had not been abolished and the conventicle model introduced. It may have taken forty years from the Revolution to revival but in the end it was to the old parishes that the new breed of Evangelical parson went. On the whole, the old parishes were divided and sub-divided. Ruined parish churches were restored, new buildings erected. But all this was done in accordance with the Canons.

Were the newly formed parishes and missions, created in the former territory of the colonial parishes something new with no links to the original territory ascribed to the original parish? Surely not. In a sub-divided parish, each parish might claim to be the heir to the original parish. As the very large original parishes often had two or three church buildings, where one survived or was restored in a “new parish”, there might well be a compelling incarnational link to the original parish. So in this sense I think it unfortunate to quarrel with the claims of the Falls Church and Truro Parish for claiming Colonial roots. When restored and established these two parishes certainly occupied some of the same territory originally part of a larger unit. If they had restored Colonial parish churches in which worthies once worshipped, the link is the more compelling.

In a few months the dioceses which originally formed the entire Diocese of Virginia will meet at Jamestown. The fact that three of the four were carved out of the original diocese doesn’t annul their claim to be heirs of the Colonial Church in Virginia and of the first diocese.

Two other points. If a modern “Episcopal” diocese is merely a collection of non-territorial units which draw to themselves people who think of themselves as Episcopalians, and if a diocese today is merely a collection of such “gathered” congregations under an overseer, upon what grounds would TEC object to the establishment of congregations linked to the dioceses of Sarawak, or the Limpopo or the Upper Pampas? What ever the Windsor report says about territory, if TEC is not a territorial church, in the sense that all other Anglican Provinces are territorial, what are we fussing about? True there may be legal and emotional claims to property, which may be taken to the secular courts, eroding further the separation of church and state.

There’s another consideration here. If the rectors of the two Virginia churches have been given the pastoral care of a territory and therein towards any and all who would claim that ministry, and if the laity who habitually gather in the church building have a similar mission to the community, to abandon such a mission would seem to be a very grave undertaking. To abandon such a mission in favor of a narrowly constructed religiosity which excludes those who do not accept a “party line” would seem to be a serious betrayal of the Anglican tradition of parochial ministry.

Much the same must be said of parishes which advertise their mission to specific “outcasts” at the expense of others. Anglicanism has no doctrinal test for the laity.They are to be baptised. (There’s still confusion about the necessity of confirmation to hold certain offices.) The mission of a territorial parish is to everyone and not merely to a strata of society. An Episcopal parish priest has the Cure of Souls, all the souls and not merely those who agree with a program, or vote for a particular political party, or who enjoy talking about their bedroom habits, or hate talking about their bedroom habits. Anglicanism is a very patient faith. It does not rely on programs or parties to change people. It merely makes available to all “the means of grace and the hope of glory”. Thus it does not drive away those whose lifestyles seem controversial or dreadful, the gossip, the alcoholic, the pregnant teen, but prays that in the weekly round of prayer, Word and Sacrament, God will work in the soul and body of each parishioner as we are changed corporately and individually. Such an extraordinary mission is the natural outcome of the concept of a territorial church whose reason for being in anchored in place rather than in some unique and divisive “ism”. It is this mission which makes our Anglican/Episcopalian self-consciousness unique. The abandonment of territorialism and the growth of divisive faction undermines our heritage in an extraordinarily dangerous way.