parishes, origins of

views updated May 29 2018

parishes, origins of. Traditional theories that the English parish system was the brainchild of Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus (668–90) are no longer held. English dioceses, geographically much larger than Italian counterparts, could not be administered from the centre and needed more local oversight, but origins of the parochial system remain obscure. Paulinus, bishop of York (627–34), built some local churches and so did the 7th-cent. Celtic mission to Northumbria. Bede (d. 735) mentions houses of prayer. His advice to Archbishop Egbert (734) shows that no organized system then existed; he advised him to seek aid by ‘ordaining priests and instituting teachers who may devote themselves to preaching the word of God in the individual villages, and to celebrating the celestial mysteries and especially to performing the sacred rites of baptism’. Some of the injunctions of the Synod of Clofesho (746) speak of bishops' instituting priests to local churches. Thus the parish system gradually and unobtrusively evolved in the 8th cent. probably by a two-way process, from the diocesan centre outwards and from local private churches towards the centre. Soon after the conversion period the only ‘parish’ was that surrounding the bishop's cathedral or ‘head-minster’, with his clergy journeying out to convert and minister to the flock. Distances demanded the development of more remote local centres, ‘ordinary minsters’ (large collegiate churches) subsidiary to the cathedral, whose districts were the size of the modern rural deanery. In turn from these there spread groups of ‘field-churches’, usually already built by thegns as chapels to their private halls. These were the centres of embryo parishes. Some may have been pagan temples newly blessed as the thegn was converted or replaced. Little is known about these, because the thegn had no formal charter from the king and his church was simple and wooden, thus leaving no trace. It was his own property, served by a poor priest in return for glebe land of 2 virgates, twice as much as a ceorl. In addition the priest was allowed fees for baptisms, marriages, or supervising ordeals. Private churches became normal appurtenances for thegns. Other ‘field-churches’ developed like the minsters as royal or episcopal foundations within minsters' districts, especially on newly cultivated territory. Yet others, founded by kings or bishops as their own, were later known as ‘peculiars’, withdrawn from ordinary diocesan jurisdiction. Founders could sell or bequeath the church at will. The parish system developed as churches continued to be built in villages throughout the Anglo-Saxon period and by the Norman Conquest it was for the most part fully developed. The tension, however, between the lord's dominance of his priest and the rightful desire by the bishop for oversight had to be partly alleviated by the third Lateran Council's injunction (1179), giving the bishop the right of institution to the benefice. In the course of time, governments found the parish a very useful administrative unit, particularly for dealing with poor relief. It then became even more necessary to establish the exact boundaries of parishes, and the annual perambulation, or ‘beating the bounds’, usually done on Rogation Day, became an important event. Nevertheless, until well into the 19th cent. the pattern of the 10,000 parishes remained chaotic, with separated pockets, disputed areas, and countless idiosyncrasies.

Revd Dr William M. Marshall


views updated May 14 2018


Roman Catholic canon law stipulates that a parish is a defined community of the Christian faithful established on a stable basis within a particular church. The phrase "particular church" refers to a diocese or similar organizational structure. In the Roman Catholic tradition, parishes are established by, and are in communion with, their diocese and diocesan bishop, which are in turn established by and in communion with the Church universal and the Pope. Some Protestant churches, particularly those descended from European established churches, such as Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, and others, borrow from this tradition and also use the term "parish." Protestant traditions that have congregationally oriented polities, such as the Baptist tradition, use the term "congregation" to emphasize local independence.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, parishes may be either "territorial" or "personal." Personal parishes are established for nonterritorial communities, such as those that are formed on the basis of ethnicity, nationality, language, participation in a specific college or university, and so forth. The functions common to parishes are: proclamation and formation, worship and sacramental celebration, charity and care, and outreach and social concerns.

In the United States, Roman Catholic parishes range in size from ten to ten thousand households; the average size of a parish is 843 registered families. In contrast, there are 36,170 Methodist parishes in the United States, and their average size is 235 families. While the parishes of the United Methodist Church are more numerous than the parishes or congregations of any other church organization in the United States, the average size of each parish is typical.

Roman Catholic parishes are larger than Protestant congregations or parishes, in part because the Catholic tradition emphasizes a stronger sense of permanence and the Catholic sacramental tradition fits relatively congenially within a larger sized unit. Today, most Catholic parishes have a single priest assigned as pastor, who is responsible for the parish to the diocesan bishop. However, most parishes also have a number of others, including lay ministers, who serve either full or part time. The 30 percent of parishes with more than 1,000 families tend to have an average of five lay ministers, two deacons, and two vowed religious women ("nuns").

See alsoCongregation; Religious Communities; Roman Catholicism.


Coriden, James. The Parish in Catholic Tradition. 1996.

Dolan, Jay P. The American Catholic Parish:AHistoryfrom Colonial Times to the Present. 1992.

Bryan Froehle


views updated May 21 2018

parish district for administrative purposes, orig. township having its own church and priest. XIII. ME. paro(s)che, -osse, -isshe — AN., OF. paroche and (O)F. paroisse — ecclL. parochia, alt. (after parochus — Gr. párokhos public purveyor) of parœcia — Gr. paroikíā sojourning, f. pároikos dwelling near, sojourner, stranger, f. PARA-1 + oîkos dwelling, house; it is doubtful whether the notion ‘neighbour’ or ‘sojourner’ was prevalent in determining the application of parœcia, parochia.
So parishioner inhabitant of a parish XV; superseded earlier parishion, -shen (XIV), alt., after PARISH, of †paroschian, -ien (XIII) — OF. parochien, -ossien (mod. paroissien); -ER1 was added to suggest more clearly a personal designation.


views updated May 11 2018

par·ish / ˈparish/ • n. (in the Christian Church) a small administrative district typically having its own church and a priest or pastor: [as adj.] a parish church. ∎  (in Louisiana) a territorial division corresponding to a county in other states.


views updated May 18 2018

parish (in the Christian Church) a small administrative district typically having its own church and a priest or pastor. Also, a small country district; the smallest unit of local government, constituted only in rural areas.
parish pump the pump supplying water to a parish, regarded as an informal place for meeting and discussion; used allusively to refer to matters of limited scope and interest, especially in politics.


views updated May 18 2018

Parish (Gk., dwelling near). A geographically designated area having its own church and minister; hence the people and work of that area. From this derives the (usually pejorative) sense of ‘parochial’, being too narrowly or locally concerned.

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