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Archive for December, 2008

Picture of a Celtic Cross, Lindisfarne, Northumberland (www.freefoto.com)

This is a third installment of my review of the fascinating work, P. D. Thompson’s Parish & Parish Church. If you’re interested in the history of Christian missions and of the parish plan and are just joining us, click here to read the first.

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In chapters 5 & 6, Thompson moves from Gaul to Britain. It is here that we are introduced to the parish systems most familiar to us in the English-speaking world.

Chapter 6, “The English Parish”

Six features marked the rise of the English parish system. First, it was patterned after previous work on the continent, and especially Gaul. The ‘Mother-Church’ models of Jerusalem and Antioch were thus transplanted indirectly. “When Augustine with his forty missionary monks landed in England in 596, effected their settlement around the Mother-Church at Canterbury and stared from that point to evangelize the whole land, he was of course familiar with the organization of the Church on the Continent, and set about shaping the Anglo-Saxon Church on the same lines” (56).

Second, the movement was from the greater to the smaller. Ecclesiastical units at first were more like ‘dioceses,’ broad unsubdued territories; yet with time, these territories were subdivided into smaller units as the Gospel prospered. They became more defined and emerged as parishes in the popular sense. In Venerable Bede’s time (c. 672–735), says Thompson, “the Church was organized only on the broadest and simplest lines, and nothing in the nature of parish or parish church had begun even tentatively to emerge” (63).

Third, as on the continent, management was carried on by hierarchical superintendence. Thompson writes:

The plan was that Augustine himself should be the primate of the whole country; that there should be two provinces, a southern and a northern; that he should ordain for his own province twelve bishops, with London as the metropolitan see; that he should consecrate another bishop and station him at York, who, when he had evangelized York and the surrounding territory, should thereupon ordain twelve bishops for this northern province with himself as metropolitan (56).

It is lamentable, I think, that the early Medieval Church did not distinguish the things that differ. The first Mother-Churches in Acts may have taken over patterns of civil organization for administration and witness, as we’ve seen in the first installment. The parish system, I contend, is a natural development of that. They also clearly furnished the early Church with directions for the selection of the orders of presbyter and deacon. But they left neither precedent nor precept for the selection of new apostles and sub-apostolic deputies. This is more than suggestive that the hierarchical model of the apostolic times was discontinued. Augustine surely couldn’t furnish the authenticating “signs of an apostle.”

That being said, I don’t think that there is anything wrong with a temporary superintendence in mission strategy. The Mother-Church model is a good one. But once the daughter churches become fully mature and self-sustaining, they should be raised to parity with the Mother-Church – her officers included. Really, the embassies sent from the Mother-Church should be fellow presbyters. If the missionaries begin collegially with the presbyters of the sending church, they will remain collegial.

Yet, there are two things in Augustine’s policy that I really like. First is his territorialism. England is the claim of the Heir of all things. Really, we’ve got to remember that the parish system is simply a version, or perhaps more properly, a later stage of territorialism. With Augustine, the broad lines were drawn; subdivisions would come with time. Second, one cannot help but admire his aggressiveness. Dividing is merely preparative for efficient conquering. And this faithful army of Christ left Canterbury with the sword of the Spirit, subduing unruly hearts by the preached Word. While I demur at his episcopacy, I praise his ferocity.

The fourth feature was itinerant preaching a key strategy. The matrices were the headquarters from which the preachers were deployed. Bede wrote to Egbert, the newly appointed Archbishop of York (735) and possibly a former student of his, suggesting

that he should follow the example of Paul and Barnabas, who, wherever they went, as soon as they entered cities or synagogues, preached the word of God. ‘This is the work, he went on, ‘to which you are called and for which you were consecrated. And this you will do if, wherever you go, you collect around you the inhabitants of the place and deliver to them the word of exhortation, and also, as a leader in the heavenly warfare, with all who come with you, set them an example of good living. And since the places which belong to the government of your diocese occupy too wide a space to enable you alone to go through them all and preach the Word of God in the smaller villages and hamlets, even in the course of the whole year, it is necessary that you should associate with yourself many helpers in this holy work, by appointing priests and teachers to go through all the villages, constantly preaching the Word of God and consecrating the heavenly mysteries, and especially administering the office of holy baptism, as opportunity may be found’ (61-62).

Venerabe BedeIncidentally, I do think that while gathering the village for preaching is a standard approach in itinerant ministry, it is not inapplicable in the ‘settled’ phase. Gathering in a narrowly defined ‘parish’ in the standard sense is the continual obligation of the ministry. That is why there is visitation. Visitation is for gathering, and gathering is for preaching. Robert Murray M’Cheyne, a devout parish minister in the 19th century, would make his rounds in house-to-house visitation and call on the people to attend some preaching in the open air.

Fifth, just as in Gaul, godly kings and wealthy lay patrons facilitated the progress. Once Constantine adopted and patronized Christianity, the Mother-Church model in Europe was conjoined with establishmentarianism. Medieval England boasted of many large-hearted, royal patrons of the Church: Ethelbert, King of Kent (c. 560 – 616), Alcuin of York (c. 735 – 804), the friend of Charlemagne, Alfred (c. 849 –  c. 899), Athelstan (c. 895 – 939), Edgar (959-75), and Cnut the Dane (1018-35). Among the many initiatives were – like Charlemagne in Gaul – the admonition and later the legal imposition of tithes for the maintenance of the ministry. Thompson comments on the last mentioned of these rulers:

Cnut in particular, who in his later years was a wise and devout ruler, and whose code of laws was even more elaborate than that of Alfred the Great, did much to strengthen and extend the Church both by legislation and by personal example. Among other enactments he restored the law of Edgar in favour of local churches with burial-grounds, and gave notice that if plough-alms, tithes, and other statutory dues payable to the Church were in arrears, the laws concerning them would be strictly enforced by him against defaulters (66).

Once again, we see kings greatly advancing the work of Christ. One is reminded of Rev. 12:16, a text that Thomas Chalmers quoted to defend establishments of Christianity, “And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth.” Praise God for those noble ones whom He calls to Himself and whose authority and resources are employed to Christ’s honor. And for those separation-of-church-and-staters out there, aren’t these men to be praised for their willing patronage of the Church? Won’t Christ honor their cup of cold water at the last day?

Further, since the very genesis of Christianity, God used wealthy landowners. So too in Medieval England:

The greater landowners in particular would feel it to be due to their position, as well as necessary for the religious welfare of their people, to have a church and resident chaplain of their own. The district assigned to such a church would naturally coincide with the boundaries of the estate whose people it was intended to serve. That many such districts, each with its church and chaplain, came into existence, is to be inferred from the fact that they were given a name of their own. This name was the ‘priestshire,’ to distinguish it from the ‘bishopshire’ or diocese of the bishop. ‘The priestshire’ was the Anglo-Saxon counterpart, at least in embryo, of the parish already widely established on the Continent (66).

In time, these wealthy landowners helped tip the scales away from Mother-Church dominance, so facilitating decentralization (the sixth feature, below). It is interesting in this connection to observe that the English parish system is at least in part a byproduct of the feudal structure of medieval society.

This also helps shed some light on the controversial issue patronage in the Church of Scotland from the Revolution Settlement on. The early and medieval Church grew in part because of wealthy, benevolent patrons, and this system remained in place through the Reformation. The controversy largely arose when the happy arrangement degenerated through corruption.

Last, hardships temporarily slowed the progress of the Gospel and consequently the development of the parish system. These were largely on account of the Norman invasions, beginning in 792. Alfred arose to stave off the invaders, becoming a national hero, and established a peace in which “the organization of the Church proceeded apace” (64). Yet before Alfred’s success, the hardships actually served to scatter the Gospel seed more broadly, and the blood of the martyrs enriched the soil. So really, these struggles actually hastened the establishment of the parish system. Its progress is, as we have seen previously, retarded when the Mother-Churches hold the reins too close. It is furthered when healthy decentralization occurs.

This, then, is the sixth feature of the rise of the English parish system – a decentralizing phase after the settlement of Christianity. Actually we might say, the parish system was not simply the result of decentralization, but of recentralization. Or, if you like, a movement from mono- to multi-centrism. A center of evangelism produces several centers of evangelism, and so on.

Two observations on this last point. I wonder if this fact may partially explain why modern society is not conducive to the parish system – in addition to Enlightenment freethinking and plain ol’ original sin, that is! During the Medieval time period, society was heavily agricultural. There were many more geographic centers in society, because you had feudal lords dotting the map of Christian Europe. The peasants became vassals to these lords, and so were geographically oriented to these many centers. They were near their benefactors. Because they could not finance the ministry, the wealthy lords would. And obviously, they viewed their sphere of responsibility delimited by the boundaries of their lands. The feudal system, however, began to break down as the medieval period shifted to the Modern. Cities grew. And of course the Industrial Revolution only accelerated that shift away from the field. Consequently, the wealthy patrons were disconnected geographically from the lower orders of society. We still see that geographical divide between the haves and the have-nots in our modern urban contexts. There is no geographic center of philanthropy, physical or spiritual. I’m sure the rise of the middle class also had something to do with this, in addition to a myriad of other factors. But I’m just (possibly) catching hold of this one!

It also seems that the Reformation perfected the parish system. By leaving the parish system intact, the Reformers merely recognized and confirmed the preexisting multi-central character of the catholic Church. What it threw off was the ghastly monocentrism of Rome.

Chapter 7, “The Scottish Parish”

While the rise of the parish system in Scotland bears analogies to its predecessors, it significantly differed from them in several ways.

First, though the introduction of the Gospel in Scotland was more or less coeval with that of England, yet the parish system emerged significantly later there than in England. A major factor is that the Celtic missionaries, Columba and his associates, were uninfluenced by Roman preeminence.

The Celtic Church instead had a somewhat different missionary plan. They did operate out of ‘Mother-Churches,’ Iona and Lindisfarne, but they were monastic. They also sent out itinerant missionaries, yet, “their missions were directed not along diocesan or parochial, but along tribal, lines, and resulted not in the formation of congregations or organized Christian communities but rather in ‘cells’ or ‘colonies,’ which were centers of evangelizing and educational influence within the tribal areas to which they ministered” (70-71).

Though it was profoundly successful, the Columban mission was “weak in organization, and did not always succeed in consolidating the ground it had so gallantly won” (75). The Anglo-Roman mission from Canterbury in time supplanted it, that model becoming ascendant in Scotland by the mid-12th century. It was really at that point that the emergence of a full-fledged parochial system began.

Another distinct feature in Scotland was its development towards a national Church. Under Kenneth McAlpin, who reigned from 844-860, the Church emerged as the Ecclesia Scoticana. It was “coterminous with the nation, and was intended to embody and express the national life on its religious side” (78). Further, it was free and independent. “Like its predecessor, the Columban Church, Ecclesia Scoticana was willing to be on friendly terms with Rome or Canterbury or any other Christian communion; but it acknowledged allegiance or subjection to none” (78).

Queen Margaret and her son King David in the 12th century furthered the process of Romanizing the Scottish Church. Margaret gave grants of land in Scotland to Norman and Saxon courtiers, moving the nation towards feudalism. Writing of these expatriates, Thompson indicates that

Among their other southern ideas and customs they brought with them, both from France and England, the parochial idea which had already taken root and become widespread in these two lands. It was an integral part of their feudal organization, and as such they set about planting it on Scottish soil. As feudal lords they recognized the obligation of providing religious ordinances for their retainers, and dedicated a portion of their lands for this purpose. Practically every such local religious foundation became in course of time a parish church, with its parish co-extensive with the boundaries of the estate, so that with the appearance of these pious donors parishes in embryo began to spring up all over the land (88).

Interestingly enough, the subsequent Scottish royalty that sought to complete the process of Romanization themselves slowed the development of the parish system. By their erecting and enriching a broad network of monasteries, “episcopal and parochial development” suffered (90). Bishops gradually lost immediate oversight in their “own sees,” and local endowments were handed over to enrich monastic orders, which proliferated throughout the land.

It is true that this centralizing, or ‘hoarding,’ tendency was offset by private activity. “Partly by private donations as in the case of Ednam, and partly by the energy of individual bishops, local churches were built and endowed with the usual ploughgate of land. In addition tithes of all produce (Scottice teinds) were enforced by successive kings; and tithes upon personal earning were also exacted and paid, not without resistance in either case” (91-92). Yet, during the 14th and 15th centuries, various factors contributed to the entire breakdown of the ecclesiastical system in Scotland, with the common people suffering the worst for it. Corruption and self-aggrandizement were the rule of the day. The ministry in rural areas was meager, only to be provided sporadically by itinerant friars. Yes, the parish structure just prior to the Reformation owes debt to the Anglo-Romanizing of the Scottish Church. Yet, paradoxically, its top-heavy self-interestedness trampled upon its vitality and potential for good. “The parish with its church was the Cinderella of the Scottish ecclesiastical household” (96). It was, says Thompson, left to the Reformers to “revive and develop the parochial idea, and to make the parish church a power in the land” (97).

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Below are some solid quotes from Shedd’s Pastoral Theology on parochial visitation. It should be observed how much of the old European model he advocates, notwithstanding the American milieu in which he labored.

First, Shedd stipulates that pastors ought to be engaged in personal, ‘door to door’ visitation (as we might say) in his parish.  In addition to being a preacher,

He is a pastor, that is, one whose duty it is to go from house to house, and address men privately, and individually, upon the subject of religion. This kind of labor, as necessarily forms a part of the ministerial service, as preaching (389).

Second, visitation should be habitual and systematic.  “The clergyman should be systematic, in pastoral visiting, regularly performing a certain amount of this labor every week” (391).  He builds on this with several guidelines and suggesting various advantages to the method:

In systematizing this part of his work, the clergyman should fix a day for its performance. Let it uniformly be done on the same day of the week, and in the same part of the day. Again, he should pass around his entire parish within a certain time. This will make it necessary to visit his people by districts, or neighborhoods; and, unless there be a special reason for it, he should not visit in the same locality again, until he has come round to it in full circuit. This course will compel the parishioner, should there be need of a special visit, as in case of sickness, religious anxiety, or affliction, to send for him, in obedience to the apostolic direction, ‘Is any sick among you, let him call for the elders of the church’ (393).

With regard to the length of time to be spent, much depends upon the extent of the parish, and the number of the people. In a parish of ordinary size, one afternoon every week, especially if the ensuing be devoted to preaching in the district or neighborhood, is sufficient, – provided, the pastor makes his visits in the manner which we shall describe under another head. This may seem a short time to devote to parochial visiting; but, if it be systematically and regularly devoted, it is longer than it looks. As, in a previous chapter, we remarked that even five hours of severe, close study, will accomplish a great deal in the way of intellectual culture and sermonizing, in the course of years, so we shall find that a half-day in each week, will accomplish much in the way of parochial labor, in the lapse of time. The clergyman, like every other man, needs to pay special attention to the particulars, of system, and uniformity, in action. Small spaces of time become ample and great, by being regularly and faithfully employed. It is because time is wasted so regularly and uniformly, and not because it is wasted in such large amounts at once, that so much of human life runs to waste. Every one is familiar with the story of the author who composed a voluminous work, in the course of his life, by merely devoting to it the five or ten minutes, which he found he must uniformly wait for his dinner, after having been called.

Besides these advantages upon the side of the clergyman, in systematic visiting, there are others upon the side of the congregation. They will be pleased with their pastor’s business-like method. They will copy his example and become a more punctual and systematic people, both secularly and religiously. They will notice that their pastor is a man who lays out his work, and, what is more, does it, and, what is still more, does it thoroughly. They will respect him for it. They will not crowd him, and urge him, as they will a minister who has no system, and who is therefore always lagging in his work (394-95).

We have advised a systematic visitation of the parish, by districts and neighborhoods. In case the clergyman is settled among an agricultural population, widely scattered, he will find this much the easiest, and surest way to communicate with the whole body of his people. His parish is his diocese, and he is its bishop. Let him make his visitations through the whole length and breadth of it, with the same system and regularity, with which the prelatical bishop makes his annual visitation. The pastor should also imitate the method of the prelate, in another respect, and preach in these districts, in connection with this pastoral calls. If he is settled in a city or town, where the main body of the congregation are within a short distance of the church edifice, his public discourses must be in one place. But, if his lot has been cast among an agricultural people, who are scattered (and this is the kind of parish, in which the majority of clergyman are appointed to labor), he should preach a free, extemporaneous discourse, in the evening of the day of his visitation. Having gone from house to house, in the manner that has been described, let him wind up the earnest work of pastoral visiting, for the week, with a plain and glowing address to the families of the district, assembled at an appointed time. He will find it a most genial and exhilarating service, upon his own part, and a most interesting and profitable one, upon the part of the people. Enforcing, in a common assemblage, all that he has said in the families, and to the individuals, he will clinch the nails which he has been driving (401-402).

Third, and perhaps the most crucial point in demonstrating Shedd’s idealization of the old European model, he does not appear to define the ‘parish’ narrowly as the minister’s communicant congregation:

When, therefore, a parochial call is made, let the pastor plunge in medias sacras res. . . But if [the visited individual] does not voluntarily admit him to personal conversation, in the capacity of a spiritual adviser, then he is obliged to let him do his work faithfully, and well. And even the worldly man is better pleased with this thorough professional dealing, than might be supposed at first sight. Even if, owing to the hardness of the heart and the intensity of the worldliness, the pastor makes no other impression, he will show, beyond dispute, that he is an earnest and sincere watcher for souls, and fisher of men. The parishioner will say to himself: ‘My pastor understands his work, and performs it with fidelity; it will not be his fault, if I continue irreligious.’ It is certain, that this spiritual earnestness and love for the human soul, when thus organized into a regular plan of operations, and systematized into regular uniformity, will produce results. Thoughtless men, finding their pastor upon their trail, coming into their families, and to themselves personally, with a plain and affectionate address upon the subject of religion and nothing else, once in every year or half year, will begin to think of what it all means. They will find themselves in a net-work. They will see that they are caught in a process. Their pastor has laid out his work ahead, for many long years, and, if he lives, and they live, they know that the regular motion of the globe will bring him around to them, once in so often. They will come to some conclusion. They will either submit, and subject themselves to these uniform and persistent influences, or else they will get clear of them altogether. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, they will do the former thing, and thus the pastor will be instrumental, by his determined parochial fidelity, in bringing into the church, a great number who would otherwise go through life almost Christians, and die unregenerate (400-401).

Clearly, the parish is not simply another term for a congregation in its geographic locality.  The ‘parish’ for Shedd is more of a district out of which the ministry draws a congregation.  The district is his field of Gospel labor.  Some in the district are wheat and some are tares (the mixed congregation);  many are still beneath the  surface as sown seed (the unconverted, non-attenders).

After reading this chapter, I speculate whether it reveals the influence of Thomas Chalmers.  Not only the language, but the ideas are very Chalmersian – defined localities of ministry, a long-term, systematic program of personal visitation of congregants and non-attenders, the power of combined ‘littles,’ together with an enumeration of the efficiencies and practical advantages of the plan.  I haven’t researched it, so it remains just a hunch.  But I do know that others in 19th century America were struck by Chalmers’ vision of the ‘Christian good of Scotland’ and strirred by the stories of the St. John’s and West Port Experiments.   Shedd just sounds like Chalmers here.  Or maybe it points to a serious reading of Baxter.  Maybe both!

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W.G.T. SheddI’ve recently stumbled across Shedd’s Pastoral Theology at GoogleBooks.  It contains several interesting insights into the theory and practice of Reformed parochialism.  But even more intriguing is the fact that it illustrates the survival and idealization of the old, European ecclesiastical model within the untamed vastness of multi-denominational, disestablished America.  And no, it’s not Roman Catholic or Anglican!

In a couple of installments, I’m going to share some great quotes from this Pastoral Theology and add a few observations.

“We define Pastoral Theology to be, that part of the clerical curriculum which relates to the clergyman’s parochial life. It contemplates him in his more retired capacity, as one who has the care of individual souls. The pastor is a curate, and Pastoral Theology relates to the clergyman’s curacy. These terms, which are not so familiar to the American as to the English ear, if taken in their etymological signification, denote precisely the more private character and duties of the clergyman. They are derived from the Latin curare, to take care of. A curate is one who has the care of souls. The apostle Paul speaks of ‘watching for souls.’ The pastor, or curate, is a watcher for souls” (320-321).

“The Christian minister, by his very vocation, is the sacred man in society. By his very position, he is forbidden to be a secular member of community, and hence he must not be secular, either in his character of his habits. It is true, that the clergy are not a sacred caste, yet they are a sacred profession. Hence, society expects from them a ministerial character and bearing, and respects them just in proportion as they possess and exhibit it. The clergyman is sometimes called the ‘parson.’ Though the word has fallen into disuse, owing to the contemptuous employment of it, by the infidelity of the eighteenth century, its etymology is instructive in this connection. Parson is derived from the Latin persona. The clergyman is the person, by way of emphasis, in his parish. He is the marked and and peculiarly religious man, in the community. His very position and vocation, therefore, make it incumbent upon him to be eminently spiritual. His worldly support is provided by the Church, to whom he ministers, and his acceptance of it is an acknowledgement upon his part, that a secular life is unsuitable for him, and a demand upon their part, that he devote himself entirely to religion, and be an example to the flock” (323-24).

I find it very useful to understand the etymological background of these older terms for ordained ministers, curate and parson. What is more, they tap a pastoral-theological well that is full of rich and relevant truth.

The idea of the minister as the parson or persona of a community reveals a federal dimension to parochialism.  He is the head of a community.  He is in a unique position as what the Puritans would call a ‘publick person.’  He is poised to be the blessing or bane of a social unit whom he represents and whom he is called to serve.  Consequently, the minister as parson functions in a kind of priestly capacity.  He stands for the community to God and for God to the community.  He is, in a sense, the embodiment of Christ, the Great High Priest for others.

The idea of pastor as curate highlights the paternal character of parochialism.  We care for souls under us, a definite number with whom we are bound.  This may be a sub-aspect of the federal aspect.

It is true, the Bible never gives ‘ministers’ or ‘pastors’ the designation of curate or parson.  This is extrabiblical terminology – or maybe we might call it biblical-theological (i.e., thematic) terminology.  It does give them something close, however, such as ‘overseers’ and ‘men of God’; and for that reason, I’m not so skittish about them.  (Although ‘curate’ definitely has a high church ring to it.)

But Protestants, minus the Church of England, rightly rejected the terms of ‘fathers’ and ‘priests’ for those in the ministry.  I speculate that these sacerdotal themes inherent in the Scriptural doctrine of the ministry grew beyond the bounds of all modest, biblical proportion in the development of the Church.  Pastors are paternal figures, yet our Lord warns against calling men ‘father.’  And while they have priestly functions, they are never called priests.  To give them this term in an official capacity is not only to transgress biblical language but to tend in the direction of denigrating the finality of Christ’s priesthood and the universal priesthood of all believers.

That being said, we shouldn’t dismiss priestly concepts from our ministerial thought and practice.  It can very much enrich both. Paul did, Peter did.  And obviously so do did Shedd, a staunch Presbyterian.

All of this is relevant for the ministry in relation to the believing congregation.  But Shedd makes takes another step, which reflects more classical ideas of parochialism.  But we’ll leave that to the next installment!

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It has been some time since I put this one on the shelf.  Just getting back to it.  It you’d like to head back and read the first post, click here.

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A Review with Observations on Parish and Parish Church: Their Place and Influence in History, by P. D. Thompson

Part 2

The Shield of CharlemagneIn the previous installment of Parish and Parish Church, we discussed P. D. Thompson’s helpful treatment of the birth and early development of the ecclesiastical parish as a geographical unit for the Church’s administration and witness. This system, so familiar to us in its finished, Medieval and Reformation forms, was embryonically there in the apostolic Church, ‘beginning at Jerusalem.’

In chapter 4, ‘Baptismal- or Mother-Churches,’ Thompson traces this emergence further. Those churches planted throughout the Mediterranean world that reached a level of success and strategic prominence carried the next phase on. These were called matrices or ‘Mother-Churches.’ They served as bases for the centripetal push of the gospel into the regions surrounding them. Jerusalem and Antioch of the first generation became the models for further church administration and outreach in the second. “Each parish was administered by a bishop, with the original Mother-Church as centre, and with a staff of presbyters and deacons to assist him in his central ministry and to prosecute the Christian ministry further afield” (36). That being said, “the mode of administration . . . and the scope of the bishop’s authority and rule, differed in different countries and provinces. In some, as outlying daughter churches came to be planted, rural or itinerant bishops were appointed to minister in them, not, however, with full episcopal powers, but to some extent under the jurisdiction of the bishop of the Mother-Church.” The ‘daughter’ churches spawned by the evangelistic efforts of the ‘mothers’ slowly attained their autonomy. Until that time, the center of gravity was ‘back home.’ There the Lord’s Supper and baptism would be celebrated. Hence, the synonym ‘Baptismal Churches.’

This centralized feature of ‘Mother-Churches’ was in many ways natural and necessary, Thompson observes. “Up to a point it was fitted to promote the interests and welfare of the Church as a whole. At this early stage it was all to the good that there should be one strong central authority, that local congregations should be regarded as simply outposts and extensions of the mission of the Mother-Church, and that their ministers and members alike should be subject to a recognized and uniform discipline.” One can’t help but see here the dynamic of the Jerusalem Church in Acts. The church was one, with a central board of elders (presbyteroi). The collections for the poor were centralized, and the deaconate administered it throughout the house assemblies.

Thompson continues to point out that what eventually occurred – very naturally – was a gradual process of decentralization. As the smaller outposts were formed, they gradually became self-sufficient and self-sustaining. The daughters were growing up, and the mothers let that happen. Here we see three defining features of the parish plan, nascent before, yet coming to maturity here. That is, we observe ecclesiastical reproduction, supervision, and eventual parity. Churches, like mothers, exist to reproduce their kind. Supervision and care is required for a time until their offspring may reach self-sustaining maturity. The end result is two mothers – in total parity. And what is the overarching goal of this ‘being fruitful and multiplying?’ Filling the earth and subduing it, of course!

It seems to me, then, that the Episcopal system of Rome embodies this dynamic, frozen and exaggerated. It is frozen at the point of centralization, failing to proceed to the next phase – healthy decentralization, independence, and a parity of equals. And further, it exaggerates that development to gargantuan proportions.

At the same time, I can easily fit this ‘Mother-Church’ paradigm with my Presbyterianism. There is nothing wrong with centralization and supervision, provided that is but a phase in an ever-recurring missionary impulse towards decentralization, independence, and parity of equals. And, of course, towards Christianization! I am sure this is part of the reason why the Reformers didn’t scrap the parish plan when pursing their agenda.

In short, however, not every second generation ‘Antioch’ followed this healthy pattern. Some went in the Episcopal direction partly by the fault of men. Some bishops exchanged the older “personal and patriarchal” preeminence – the primus inter pares model – for a more “magisterial and princely” one (38). But some of it was much more innocent. “This power came into [the] hands [of the bishop] through the Mother-Church, whose very name explains the reverence and affection in which it was held” (39). Who can fault filial affection (1 Cor. 4:15)? Thompson further explains,

In addition to being the seat of the bishop and the first church to be erected in the episcopal parish, in course of time it became the shrine of hallowed associations. There the first converts to the faith were baptized, and after them their children and children’s children in growing numbers, until family after family both gentle and simple for leagues around had been thus received into the family and household of God. There they presented themselves in due season as candidates for full membership in the Church, received instruction as catechumens, and were admitted to the sacred rite of the Lord’s Supper. And there, in the God’s-acre surrounding the sacred edifice and making it still more sacred, succeeding generations of their dead were laid to rest (39).

Consequently, believers connected with these sacred Bethels freely gave abundant thank-offerings, even leaving legacies of property to them, including “lands and houses” (39). However, while the revenue was dedicated both “by canon law and by bequest” not only to the Mother-Church but also to the daughter churches planted by them, it is not at all surprising that the bishops who presided over such funds should “jealously and tenaciously” preserve such a privilege (40).

Further, that was not the only privilege they enjoyed. By restricting the rite of baptism to the Mother-Church, for instance, they retained privileges touching not only “on the life of the individual,” but also “the family, and the community at every point” (41). And then the Mother-Churches had the privilege holding the festivals such as Christmas and Easter, occasions for further offerings, as well as the exclusive right of burial within its grounds. Obviously, decentralization ran counter to old privilege. One doesn’t decentralize and devolve privileges upon others, unless he is guided by the highest principle and has the true interest of the Kingdom at heart.

But while the structure of temporal and spiritual preeminence was in the building, a counter-movement made alternating progress also. It became known as the parish system. It was a force prior to the fixed and self-aggrandizing system of preeminence and destined to be its reforming counterpart.

In chapter 5, entitled ‘Parishes in the Making,’ Thompson follows the growing parish system under Charlemagne (742-814) in the early Medieval era. It was during this period that particularly in Gaul – modern day France – the features of territorial division and the parity of churches crystallized, a pattern “with which the world has been so familiar” (45).

He begins by explaining that during Charlemagne’s time, three religious foundations existed – the Baptismal-Church, or what then became to be the “cathedral in each principal town” (45), the monastery, which was quite a distinct animal all its own, and a tertium quid. It is with this third kind that Thompson devotes the rest of the chapter, for this is the soil out of which the Medieval parish system grew.

Into this category would fall the many outposts daughter churches of the matrices, the ‘cells’ of the itinerant preaching monks, the chapels erected by wealthy landowners on their properties for the spiritual well being of their peasantry, and the churches built by prosperous townships. “These all differed in origin, but they had one thing in common; they were all subordinate to and almost completely dependent upon the over-ruling religious authorities to which they were attached” (46).

As the churches in this third category multiplied and came to stand on their own two feet, they pressed for greater autonomy and more privilege. And, “as might be expected, this movement … was started and sustained mainly by private and public donors, landowners, and townships, who not only erected chapels or churches at their own expense, but provided endowments for their ministry and maintenance” (46).

This slow process of decentralization and local empowerment, says Thompson, was marked by three stages. First, the ministries in these churches sought official recognition and benefit. One must remember from the review above that “local churches were little more than mission stations, preaching and teaching centers with an itinerant or at best a restricted resident ministry” (47). And as it was with the Word, so it was with the Sacraments. The keys are at the Mother-Church.

The second step was the “delimitation of an area within which this ministry could be exercised, and whose population was placed under the spiritual care and discipline of the priest or chaplain in charge.” That was simply a recognition that the private, landowner-underwritten chaplains, already independent of the Mother-Churches and her bishops, ought to have properly designated spheres of their own.

The third step was to secure the privilege of the purse. The Mother-Churches had all local revenues vested in them. Gifts and legacies might be earmarked for a certain daughter church, but this was not always strictly observed. The bishops, in charge of purse strings, would often “reserve the lion’s share for their own Baptismal-churches or for ecclesiastical purposes in general” (49). Not surprisingly, dependent churches suffered, a sense of injustice on the local scene was felt, and “donors and people alike” sought greater control over their own endowments. At the same time, Medieval townships were growing and becoming more prosperous. They too sought a greater privilege and control of their own resources.

To these factors must be added the capstone effort of Charlemagne to the establishment of the parish system. He was, says Thompson, “deeply concerned to strengthen and extend the influence of the Church, and he set about doing this in a systematic and thorough-going way” (50). His policy was to provide godly, educated ecclesiastical and civil servants throughout his dominions. Consequently, he “started schools in every bishopric and monastery, himself leading the way by establishing a royal school at his own court” (51). And last, he imposed statutory tithes, which had hitherto been voluntary. He decreed that “whether noble or gentle or of lower degree all must give, according to God’s commandment, of their substance and labour to the churches and priests.” This last ordinance greatly improved the collections; but there was much more.

At the Council of Aix-la-Chapelle in 816, the local churches were able to lay claim to greater rights in part by their payment of the statutory tithe. At the Council, laws were enacted to secure for the local churches “a settled ministry, an assured and adequate stipend, an ‘entire manse’ (with garden, glebe, and other appurtenances), a delimited area, and the crowning right of applying local tithes to local religious purposes” (53). Consequently, this Council “went far to lay the foundations of the future parochial system, and to erect the framework of the parish church and parish that were to be.”

A few observations here. First, I am struck by the influence of the laity in the emergence of the parish system. Wealthy, lay patrons were able to counteract the preservers of privilege in the Church and so promoted the Church’s best interests. Sometimes those in office can lose sight of why they are there. And the people – particularly influential and moneyed people – can rein them in. Lay movements are often salutary for the church, and the story of the parish system is in many ways a lay movement within the Church for the Church.

Related to this, I see once again how God can use the prosperous to further the Kingdom of God. I once read that the Countess of Huntington, a wealthy 18th century believer who financed large segments of British evangelicalism, thanked God that the Bible didn’t say “not any,” but “not many noble are called” (1 Cor. 1:26). God calls some privileged individuals and summons them to employ their resources for the Gospel. While the privileged bishops hoarded, many wealthy patrons gave away. And yet they increased (Prov. 11:24)!

And I can also see how reformation can be spurred on by the frustrations of the disenfranchised. Wasn’t that the catalyst for the great Protestant Reformation? Luther was indignant that the money of the hard-working German Church was going to gild St. Peter’s.

Also a few questions on successive history – for anyone who has some light. I notice that Gaul, according to Thompson, was the first to establish the parish system, strengthening local rights and promoting parity among churches. Does this at all, at least in part, explain the tendency of the French Church to advocate Conciliarism and reject the ultramontane claims of Rome?

Also, this chapter sheds some helpful light on the origins of ‘chapels.’ Really, they were from the beginning churches of the people. Now, are chapels, both in their origin and in their successive manifestations, extra-ecclesiastical bodies devised in response to the failure of the institutional Church? And in that sense, are chapels – to use an anachronism – para-church organizations?

Last, it is not surprising that one of Thompson’s main theses in the book is that the parish system is the mother of democracy. I might just ask whether or not the parish system is in a sense its daughter as well, given this particular history.

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Here’s a great piece written by Dr. David Apple, Director of Mercy Ministry at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.  For anyone who has had experience trying to show mercy to those whose sin and folly patterns are deep, many of these guidelines will ring quite true. Here’s a link.

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The folks at Gospel Coalition have recently put the journal Themelios online.  A truly great resources for Reformed pastors and theologians.

I’d like to recommend one article in particular.  Dr. Keith Ferdinando, an evangelical scholar involved in African missions, deals with the contemporary debate over the definition of Christian ‘mission.’  He persuasively argues that the tendency to ‘inflate’ its traditionally evangelistic meaning is both unhelpful and detrimental to the identity and function of the Church.

Here’s a link to it.

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