Elaine Graham and Stephen Lowe, in their book, What Makes a Good City? Public Theology and the Urban Church, make the following point about the benefits of the parish system:
One of the cardinal virtues of the church is its local nature. In the Anglican tradition, that is enshrined in the parish system, which guarantees that every square centimetre of the country falls under the responsibility of a local congregation… Such territorial jurisdiction, however that may be formally constituted in legal terms, does indeed keep alive an understanding of the whole of the created order in a particular area belonging to God, and of a desire to render holy the local, the concrete and the particular as the specific context in which the church, as the spirit-filled Body of Christ, can help to further God’s mission in that place. As the theologian Sigurd Bergmann has argued, it is about ‘God taking place’: a sacralisation of the physical, the spatial…as an arena of redemption (49).
Recently, there has been some discussion particularly here in the Church of England on the drawbacks to the parish system, and it is also important to recognise the reality that our lives are often not rooted in one specific community any longer. Yet despite these things, I think the commitment to place remains something significant. Our calling and mission as Christians is something that must be thoroughly rooted in the places we inhabit. And that is because we do not bear witness merely to something spiritual, but we bear witness to a King whose redemption extends as far as the curse is found, who is at work reclaiming the whole of his creation. As a result, our mission takes concrete form in our local contexts.
I don’t know if Abraham Kuyper knew anything about the English parish system, but if he did, perhaps he would have approved, given that in some ways it is an ecclesiastical structure which takes seriously – and quite literally – the idea enshrined in his famous dictum, that ‘there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, "Mine!”’. Often the parish structure is understood as giving a parish church responsibility for ministering to the people in their parish in specific ways, particularly through the 'occasional offices' (baptisms, weddings, and funerals). This certainly opens important doors for our mission in our local communities. But if Christ is at work reclaiming the whole of creation, then our vision must be bigger – to look at our parishes as the local places in which we have specific responsibility to demonstrate the reality of the Kingdom and the rule of Christ over every single part of life. The opportunities afforded us through the parish system to reach out to those in our communities is one aspect of this, but it also means equipping regular members of our churches to bear witness to the Kingdom in everything they do.
We must be doing this wherever we go, of course, and it is also something we can participate in outside of our local context. But it seems to me that something like the parish structure gives us a tangible and immediate scope in which to exercise our mission, a local focus where we can concentrate and participate in very real ways in making known the presence of the Kingdom. There are some great examples of relatively new churches which have adopted parish models for this very reason. And from there, of course, different parishes in a city can come together to work towards demonstrating the reality of the Kingdom on a bigger scale, and to even use their resources to help churches in other cities around the world begin to demonstrate Christ's Lordship over all wherever they are.1
Very simply, if God enacts his redemption within the arena of creation, then we ought to be demonstrating that in our local contexts. And given that here in the Church of England we inherit with our churches responsibility for a particular community, that's a good place to start.