Growing up in England, one becomes very familiar with the idea of a parish boundary. There was a definite geographic location, or the parish, associated with a local church, or the parish church. On the west might be a river, on the east Mr. Turner’s farm, to the north the old woods and to the south Spencer’s Hill. These were defined boundaries in which the church went about its business. If you lived within these boundaries and wanted to celebrate the events of the life cycle – birth, baptism, marriage, death, blessing – you went to your parish church and your parish priest. There was no one else available.
Some of this sense of parish was a part of my experience in the U.S. as a younger child, before our move to England. Usually, there was to be found only one Episcopal Church in the town. In my case Christ Church was the only Episcopal Church in Andover, Massachusetts. Thus, as a family all the life events listed above were celebrated in that church. The town boundary, as in England, served as the boundary of our “parish” church. The big difference in the U.S. is that there is no state church, so Christ Church was not the only option for the citizens of Andover. You could chose to celebrate your marriage in the Congregational Church or Presbyterian Church or Baptist Church. But if you identified with a particular denomination you functioned as though it was your parish.
Now, I am certain there are any number of cultural anthropologists who have researched, documented and published studies about the need for containers, boundaries and sense of place for human beings. More than simply organizational, defining one’s space gives us all sorts of benefits, such as a sense of belonging, identity and security.
As we all know, life has changed enormously over the last few decades and little has remained untouched by this change, including the church. A large part of the change is the application of a consumer model to one’s church or religious choice and affiliation. The advent of the era of church shopping is well documented and is enabled with easy access to the automobile culture. This tandem of easy movement with a consumer mindset has precipitated a move away from the small local church with limited resources to larger resourced churches. The ability to jump on a freeway and travel anywhere in 20 minutes (unless you live in LA or Atlanta or…) allows people to cross all sorts of boundaries, even entire towns and cities, to go to the church of their choice, which has little to do with their local neighborhoods. I hear anecdotally that this trend is even to be found in England where the parish system remains. Communities are formed not by local boundaries but by choice.
This new church plant has been so disconcerting in so many ways. No community. No congregation. No building. No office. But what has been familiar is the sense of parish boundaries, boundaries that very much locate us in a specific place. Mission Bay/Dogpatch are bounded on three sides by water: China Basin to the North, Islais Creek to the South, San Francisco Bay to the East and to the West one of the great dividers of our time, a Freeway. We have a “parish.” Even if we do not live in this “parish” at this moment in our history when it seems as though there is nothing constant or consistent or routine, it feels very comforting to know that we function as the “parish church.” As we plant a church we can focus on the specific needs of the community and the institutions within the definite boundaries of our community. It may come as no surprise then that this seems to be filling, for me, an old human need for a sense of place and all the benefit that comes with that: a sense of security and identity and belonging.