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
In 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.