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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.

3 Responses

  1. Thank you, Tony. A few years ago I was talking with a Church of England priest. At one point I asked him about “the number of people in his parish.” He replied, “about 20,000.” My eyes opened a bit wider. He then said, “on Sundays, about 90.” The point, I think, was that he and his “90” felt a sense of “parochial responsibility to” the whole 20,000, all sorts and conditions, C. of E., Methodists, R.C.’s, Muslims, atheists and agnostics–the whole lot. Plus the businesses and industries of the community, the environmental context, the social and political situation. And the point, I think, converging with yours, is that when priest and ministering congregation wake up every morning with an intention to encounter, pastor, witness to and with this wider circle, there is less of a tendency to drift into the mindset of a small circle of self-congratulatory partisans . . . .

  2. Thanks for the further clarification, and it appears to me to some extent that you and Joan have a difference without a distinction, in that my sense is that TEC is in fact pushing for a strong sense of what I would call the “incarnational” model by which the church is the church-in-its-place. We are defending the notion of the “national” church as an essential notion to our polity, with parishes (and congregations therein) being related to the province via the diocese. Therefore, when we have either parishes (actually congregations) asserting independence from their diocese, or dioceses asserting independence from the province, we have a breakdown of the hierarchical principle as we understand it, and as Anglicans have understood it since the adoption of the Articles that limited papal authority (or that of any other “foreign bishop”) within the “realm.”

    I take the territorial idea somewhat seriously, but also with the realization that one priest has a bit on his hands to serve all the residents of my rather large “parish” — and a bit of good humor. When Avery Dulles was created Cardinal some years back, I was on the point of sending him a note saying how nice it was that one of my parishioners had been so honored — since Fordham University is in my parish! And when FU awarded Desmond Tutu an honorary degree, I attended as Vicar, and reminded the President of the University that whatever anyone else might say, Desmond is still one of “mine”!

  3. Tony Clavier noted that he did not know what was in the Virginia canons, and that is where he needed to look — not the current canons, but the early 19th century canons of the Diocese of Virginia. These did provide for congregations (without stated boundaries) being brought into “union” with the diocese. Virginia met the requirements of the national canons by leaving the old parishes on the books. These had defined territorial boundaries. A new congregation would be identified as such and such CHURCH in X or Y parish. I’m certainly was not advocating ANYTHING about the nature of a parish or congregation, but rather describing the actual proactice of the Diocese of Virginia in the 19th century.

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