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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.

5 Responses

  1. Reviewing Title I, Canon 13 of the national Canons, there are a variety of ways of establishing parish boundaries. The most common would be diocesan canons, and I can’t speak to the Canons of Virginia. However, Canon I.13.3.c states, “(c) This Canon shall not affect the legal rights of property of any Parish or Congregation.” Dr. Gunderson’s argument speaks to legal incorporation, and not to heritage. Certainly those congregations share in the heritage of the Colonial churches, and they are a part of their history. That doesn’t necessarily indicate a corporate continuity that would be of interest to Virginia courts.

    I was part of a congregation in the Diocese of East Tennessee that was reestablished after a gap of more than 50 years. The new congregation certainly shared in the heritage of the first, even when it became part of the new Diocese of East Tennessee, after division or the Diocese of Tennessee in General Convention in 1985. No one would have suggested, however, that the two were the same corporation, nor had identical parish boundaries, nor had the same property rights.

  2. While I think your concern for the considerations of mission to all the people in a given place is wise, I read Dr. Gunderson’s essay as demolishing certain entreprenurial pastors profoundly congregationalist claims to corporate histories predating the current Episcopal Church in the United States. Scholarship trumps PR. She makes it clear that the Diocese of Virginia worked to restore these churches exactly because it acted upon the understanding of mission you support.
    We see very similar congregationalist blitheration in the Presbyterian (PCUSA) Church. To me, it suggests a certain lack of faith to, in effect, argue that while God loves our orthodoxy so much more than your heresy that we have to separate ourselves from you Egyptiod scum, we cannot be bothered to uphold agreements we have previously made with regard to property because we do not have faith that God will sustain us in the Wilderness.

  3. An interesting essay, though I agree with Marshall that Dr. G’s aim was to address right to property.

    As to the colonial and later history, we in the Bronx have a similar heritage, with one of the oldest churches in the Americas still in operation (St Peter’s Westchester Square) dating back to when Westchester County included what is now a Borough of NYC. When my parish was founded, by division of the existing Parish of West Farms, and with the permission of the even older Parish of Westchester, it became the Church in the Manor of Fordham (the “manor” being a subdivision of the larger Parish of West Farms.) Though it is nice to bask in the glow of a parish (S Peter’s) whose history is full twice as deep as mine, founded in the relatively recent 1853, I have no right to claim that as a colonial foundation. There is a clearly recognized distinction in our canons between parishes and congregations — and I think this is part of what Dr. G is addressing.

  4. Thanks for posting this, Fr. Tony.

    bb

  5. Unfortunately, you have misunderstood the process that I described for parish formation after the Revolution in Virginia. The diocese left the old parish boundaries on the books, but after 1800 allowed individual congregations within those parish bounds to be recognized as a congregation with voting rights and its own vestry. One of the first examples was the creation of St. Paul’s Church in Alexandria which broke off from Christ Church (i.e. Fairfax Parish). The diocese had to amend its canons to allow a Church (i.e. congregation) to apply for representation so that St. Paul’s could be seated. St. Paul’s and Christ Church got into a legal dispute over who should get the money from the sale of the old Fairfax Parish glebe. At the time Alexandria was in the District of Columbia and the federal courts made the rulings. They recognized Christ Church (but not St. Paul’s as the continuation of Fairfax Parish. The diocese did not change Parish boundaries because they had been set by legislative act. By the 1890s the situation was so confusing as to what territory was within what bounds, that by the end of the decade the diocesean convention (Council) created the office of historiographer and charged him with doing an historical study to determine where the boundaries were. If you look at the journals of the annual conventions from about 1830 on you will see multiple congregations listed under a single parish. Each congregation, if large enough, had its own vestry, could call its own rector, and had its own representation in the convention. For a parallel, think of the parish as a county boundaries, and the congregations as towns within them.

    JRG

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