Parish Boundaries; Brilliant But Redundant

I’ve believed it for years. But I’m only now going public. I don’t expect it’ll come as a great shock to anyone. But in my opinion parish boundaries are brilliant but redundant.

I’m sure that view probably disqualifies me as an approved member of the Church of England. But I suspect that ship sailed a while ago. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that parish boundaries, especially in urban contexts, are quaintly irrelevant. But I don’t expect anyone else to voice their approval. This is one of those things that gets you lined up and shot within the Church of England, metaphorically speaking, of course! However, even that most conservative of institutions has in recent years recognised the value of being a little flexible about imaginary lines drawn on the pavement through the Extra Parochial Place (EPP).

The Church of England rightly boasts that it maintains a Christian presence in every community. Quite how Christian that presence is and quite how present that presence is will be a matter of great variety. But in principle every square inch of our land is cared for by the Church of England. If the whole country were full of evangelical parishes I’d be whooping with delight. Parish boundaries divide up the country into areas of responsibility so that a parish church knows that they have a spiritual obligation to everyone in that patch. It means that an incumbent simply isn’t allowed to think solely about the people who come into church. He has to think about those who live in the area who never darken the doors of the church building. That’s a really good thing. In principle then, parish boundaries keep our evangelistic obligations at the forefront of our concerns. I wholeheartedly applaud that.

But parish boundaries are also useless. No one under knows which parish they live in unless they’re one of three things. One, they’re old enough to remember when these things were more widely known. Two, they’re clerical and it’s their job to know these things. Or three, they’re sad and they spend too much time looking at maps provided by the Diocese and they need to get out more.

The only time people are concerned about the Parish is when they’re looking to be matched, hatched or dispatched by the Church of England. If a Parish Church builds its ministry solely around marrying people, baptising their children and then burying them it’s no wonder that so many parishes are declining.

In London, and I expect in other urban centres as well, they don’t really mean anything to those under the age of 40. There are about half a dozen parishes near us in Balham. We have people who come to our church from all of them, I suspect. But these boundaries don’t influence the way the younger generation work, travel, shop or relate. For example, I don’t feel any less attached to a pub just because it’s outside the parish boundary of my own parish. I go there because it’s the pub I like, or it serves the beer I like or its the pub to which my mates go. I’m actually prepared to travel a bit to get to one that I really like. The concept of ‘the local’ doesn’t really work when there are so many bars and pubs to choose from. It’s the same with churches, especially for those without children. If people decide to got to church, they don’t usually attend their parish church. They might if they’ve not really thought about what goes on there, or they’re not fussed. And they might if they have children at the local school and feel a sense of local community. That’s a good thing. But they’re more likely to be influenced by where their friends go, what’s on offer there and how well their children are looked after.

But my biggest beef with parish boundaries is that they’ve gone from being areas of responsibility to exclusion zones. I honestly had an Anglican clergyman tell me that if I was a Free Church Minister, running a Free Church plant that he’d have no objection to any proposal I might have to move a church into his parish. That was nice. I hadn’t realised it was his responsibility to control the spread of the Kingdom of God! But, he said, because I considered myself to be Anglican and the church I run to be Anglican he couldn’t bring himself to support the proposal. That’s bonkers. Surely the fact that we belong to the same denomination should be reason enough to embrace us, support us and encourage us; not banish us! I don’t understand it. That’s like saying ‘if you weren’t a member of my family I’d be more than happy to show you hospitality, but since you’re a member of my family you can’t come and stay in my house’. I know I’m not the sharpest tool in the box, but that doesn’t sound quite right!

But let’s not pretend for a moment that if any of us were running a church we’d find it easy to welcome another church into our neighbourhood. In all likelihood we’d be worried that they’ll flourish and outgrow us, perhaps even at our expense. But we need to encourage one another in kingdom thinking and away from ‘NIMBY’ thinking.

I suspect the truth is that no church suffers when a new one launches nearby. I suspect it’s like coffee shops. People start drinking more coffee, they don’t leave one coffee shop for another.

12 thoughts on “Parish Boundaries; Brilliant But Redundant

  1. The Church Mouse September 2, 2009 / 7:58 am

    Urban Pastor

    The issue with parishes is that if you abolish them, what do you replace them with?

    You’re quite right in everything you say, that there is a risk of them becoming exclusion zones, and that virtually no-one knows which parish they are in, but it is hard to think of a better way for the Church to make sure there is a presence in every community. Perhaps the answer is to re-think what it means to be a parish, rather than to do away with parishes all together.


  2. Mr_Jellyman September 3, 2009 / 5:26 pm

    “I suspect the truth is that no church suffers when a new one launches nearby. I suspect it’s like coffee shops. People start drinking more coffee, they don’t leave one coffee shop for another.”

    I agree, forget the parish boundaries! We need to plant more good churches and drink their coffee.


  3. Ruth Thomas September 10, 2009 / 10:17 am

    Not sure about that final comment — quite a few coffee shops have closed recently. And I’ve known churches that have closed because too many of their members have transferred elsewhere. When a local church grows, it seems it’s far more likely to be due to transfer growth than evangelism — so another church has lost out. Perhaps we need churches that support each other, rather than the implicit message I’ve sometimes heard of “our church is doing so well, your church is dying, why not just let us take over?”

    Parish boundaries don’t make much difference either way — it’s more the mentality of adjacent churches, the expanding one at least as much as the contracting one, that’s significant.

    • theurbanpastor September 11, 2009 / 8:49 am

      Thanks for your observations. Let me respond.
      1. I agree that usually it’s not great when one church has to close because another one has started. It’s profoundly disheartening to the existing church if they’re faithfully plugging away at living for Christ and speaking about Christ and everyone then deserts for the alternative. However, I’d want to add a caveat to that. If the church that’s closing has forfeited its right to be called a church because it no longer preaches the gospel then that’s no bad thing. Jesus said he’d shut down churches if he thought it necessary. He threatened to ‘remove your lampstand from its place’ in the letters to the seven churches. For the record our non-parochial church encourages people to stay in their churches unless there’s a very good reason to leave. And then we encourage those that say they want to join us to do so only after discussing the issue with their church leadership. It’s probably worth saying that we’ve lost far more people to other churches than we’ve gained from other churches. I’m not sure what to read into that!
      2. Transfer growth can account for lots of church growth, that’s true. But it doesn’t have to. Churches can grow evangelistically and that’s got to be the primary reason for church planting. And so we can’t stop church planting simply because transfer growth has taken place. We need to give lots more access to the gospel for lots more people, and church planting is one of the best ways to do that.
      3. It’s helpful to distinguish between types of transfer growth. I’m sure you’d agree that it’s one thing to leave a neighbouring gospel church and attend a new church plant but it’s another to leave a church in your university town and settle at a new one in London. But they’d both be described as transfer growth. We’ve benefited from people joining us as recent graduates but they were always going to leave their university church because they’ve stopped being students. That’s fine, isn’t it?

  4. Tom Stanbury September 21, 2009 / 5:16 pm

    Perks the observation you make in your initial post about our consumer attitudes are accurate and why many an aspirational graduate moves to London is because of the sheer choice in absolutely everything.
    And if you are a christian you can get any flavour of church you want aswell. So perhaps our consumerism has flipped into church requirements, I go to the one that fulfils ‘my needs’.
    The parish system does work easily in rural areas because often the geography makes sense.

    I would suggest that a parish mentality is not such a bad thing. So I genuinely see Streatham Hill as ‘my manor’. I pick up litter in my street, I talk to my neightbours, I want the best for Streatham Hill and all her residents.
    So I am loyal to my area, goodness knows what Parish I am in! So my 5 years in Streatham Hill my affection has got stronger. And it would be no bad thing if I knew other parishioners, the various characters with their needs that live in this blissful part of Lambeth.

    I obviously back church planting and don’t think I am being unnecessarily sentimental about parishes.


  5. Pete Matthew September 21, 2009 / 8:19 pm

    Tom, I think your parish church is Christ Church, Streatham. So are you planning to go there instead?

  6. Lauri September 22, 2009 / 8:42 am

    Tom’s point about the consumer attitude to church should not be overlooked. I trust Pete that you can see the problem a central London Church has with discipline is related precisely to this issue. They don’t practice church ‘discipline’ because people just move on too quickly when the going gets hard or when there is some disagreement. This also relates to location and the ‘placyness’ of existence that Tom described in relation to his manor. (I love the word usage Tom!) If there were only parish churches, or if there was joined up thinking between different church groups (another possible model such as we have in the co-mission) and there was not a lack of communication between parishes, church discipline (negative), or even familiarity between different congregations (positive and such as we share in the co-mission) might be more fruitful.

  7. Tom Stanbury September 22, 2009 / 5:05 pm


    I did know it was Christchurch Streatham as their bell rings to remind people that there is a church building. It is quite an intimidating gothic building and from memory has a primary school related to it, which no doubt the middle class parents of my area have a loose affiliation to the church for that reason.

    Pete I think you are making a point about doctrine and not physical/geography and the parish system in bringing up Christchurch Streatham. Imagine producing a good parish magazine full of gospel insight and wholesome living that landed on the doorstep of everyone in the parish. Regardless of whether they went to church or not.
    The strength of the parish system is there is an onus to have a care/concern for those in our geographical area that possible no-one else does.
    I think as christians we need to develop greater loyalty to the areas we live in and not just see it is our little island as a base to do exactly what we want.

    Does that make sense? It is just I am not sure we have got heads round the benefits of commitment to place and what that might entail.


  8. Kevin September 27, 2009 / 9:06 pm

    I also am a vicar. I have some thoughts.

    The parish boundaries exist. As you say, they are sometimes an archaic annoyance, and sometimes incredibly useful.

    The thing is, Anglicans we are. Parish boundaries exist. They are a framework we use to our advantage, or not. If you don’t take them to be useful, and someone else does, can you blame them for getting a bit tetchy when you feel the need to ‘plant a church’ in an area that already has many churches? Especially if it is to plant an evangelical church in a parish with evangelical churches already.

    The issue of whether different rules apply to ‘free churches’ is an interesting one. I think they do, because they do not claim to be a part of our framework. A ‘free church’ meets in my church building; I doubt another Anglican church would.

    The question I would have for you is – why do you choose to be a part of the Anglican framework?

    You want to feel “embraced, encouraged and supported” (by people who think differently to you) in your missionary church planting, as we all do. I hope that means that you also embrace, support and encourage others who may think differently to you, even (and especially) within different strands of the evangelical tradition.

    Then, hopefully, working relationships can be deeper as we are all, after all, wanting to be a part of Jesus transforming and wonderful kingdom growing and changing the world.

    • theurbanpastor September 28, 2009 / 10:28 pm

      Thank you for your comments.

      Just for the record, I’m not a Vicar, that’s worth stating straight away! I get in trouble with the local Vicar when I use into that familiar langauge to explain my job!

      I accept that parish boundaries are part of our current Anglican framework. I can’t disagree with that! But what do we think of them? Should we persist with them? Are they missionally the most effective way of proceeding in 21st century urban contexts?

      When we planted CCB the liberal catholic minister in whose parish we planted was happy to welcome us in because she recognised that we’d reach a totally different crowd to her. We weren’t competing for the same small portion of the Christian pie! We were trying to reach the unbelieving thousands who live in our neck of the woods not steal her regulars. We need more churches not fewer because we need more evangelistic outposts to reach an ever increasingly secular population.

      In response to your question, I’m an Anglican because I’m a 39 Articles man. Anglicanism is defined by its historic formularies not adherence to parish boundaries!

      I think I’m known for my warm embrace! But on that issue of being warm to fellow evangelicals let’s not be naive. We have our differences. Sometimes those doctrinal differences really matter. Sometimes they don’t. It all depends on how close to the centre of the gospel they are. But if someone knows and loves the Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour then they’re a Christian brother or sister. And I’ll treat them as such. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t debate our different understanding of God’s word. But at some point, usually at the point of intransigence, the conversation judders to a halt and we need to find a way of peacefully co-existing. But this is in danger of being a whole new blog post! For the record we didn’t plant in an evangelical parish. We planted next to one. But that’s completely different. It’s one thing to be protective about our own parish. It’s quite another to be protective about someone else’s! Makes you wonder what the motive for the opposition might be!
      You haven’t changed my view of the parish system. But I’m not going to go on about it. There’s something more important to go on about. And that’s the gospel!

  9. Kevin September 29, 2009 / 10:08 am

    Thanks urbanpastor. For the record, I wasn’t trying to change your views of the parish system, just joining in the discussion; there is more to the issue than me or you being right and spending our energy trying to pursuade the other. And anyway, we agree on many aspects of “the system”!

    We can also affirm together that the good news of Jesus is way more important; and that sometimes peaceful co-existence between churches is actually enough – though to make every effort to be at least that, is important. God bless.

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