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.