Provinces, dioceses and parishes: relics of mediaeval Christendom which must go

Diocletian (reigned 284-305) was the last major non-Christian Roman emperor and the last great persecutor of the church in ancient times. Ironically, it was also him who divided up the Roman Empire into new administrative units called “dioceses“. As the Empire became Christianised, and then its administrative structures crumbled under the pressure of barbarian invasions, the bishops of the Catholic church became the only effective local authorities, and gradually dioceses became the areas within which a bishop had authority over all the churches. These dioceses became subdivided into parishes, which were generally the geographical areas associated with an individual church building and priest. Although under late Roman administration a province was a subdivision of a diocese, in the mediaeval western church the term “province” came into use for a higher level unit than a diocese, led by a metropolitan or archbishop.

This geographical division of the church into a hierarchy of different territorial units, although originating in late antiquity, fitted well with the feudal system of mediaeval Europe. Provinces became coterminous with emerging nation states; dioceses were often the same as major feudal subdivisions such as counties (and indeed in some cases bishops were also the feudal lords of their dioceses); and parishes were often the estate of a local lord of the manor. The hierarchical system became a way of enforcing church attendance and uniformity of doctrine and practice.

After the Reformation in England, at least by the time of Queen Elizabeth I, this uniformity was challenged by the emergence of different streams within the Church of England, and the decision to tolerate these differences within certain limits. In the early days the major streams were Puritanism and the early High Church movement. In effect the country became divided into a patchwork of parishes each of which was associated, at least temporarily, with a particular stream of the church. By the 19th century the major streams had become Evangelicalism and Anglo-Catholicism, and the links between parishes and a particular stream or “churchmanship” were becoming institutionalised through patronage by societies linked with these streams.

Ordinary people in rural areas had little choice, at least if they were to remain within the Church of England: they could only attend their local parish church, and could not choose which stream to adhere to. But as the country became more urbanised and transport improved, it became more and more possible for ordinary churchgoers to choose which church to attend, on the basis not of which parish they lived in but of their personal preference, very often a matter of churchmanship. This shift has continued and accelerated through the 20th century, with the result that now it is rare for even 50% of the members of a Church of England congregation to live within its parish.

Yet the fiction is still retained that each local church is the church of its geographical parish, and it is only allowed to operate within that parish. It is not allowed to evangelise or hold meetings, officially even home groups, on the territory of another parish without special permission. This is a severe restriction on the work of many churches. It also means that in parishes whose own church does not actively preach the gospel, whether from unwillingness or from lack of resources, there can be no Anglican witness at all.

As I mentioned before, already in the 18th century Wesley found himself forced to break these rules by crossing parish boundaries in order to evangelise England properly. For his pains he was effectively kicked out of the Church of England. The situation today is similar.

Granted, there has been some flexibility shown concerning parish boundaries in a few special cases, especially linked to the Fresh Expressions movement. But these are few and exceptional. Nearly everywhere the old parish border rules still apply.

The same border rules apply to dioceses and provinces. I won’t repeat what I wrote before about bishops crossing them. But I will repeat part of what I wrote in comments in response to Rev John Richardson’s recent post opposing women bishops:

If you really want an independently organised branch of the church with authority to deploy clergy, plant churches etc, and you want this to continue indefinitely and grow, then what you need is a separate province or at least diocese, not a PEV scheme. So, while I would really rather you accepted women priests and bishops, if you cannot do this I would prefer you to form a separate province. Then both groups can get on with the work of the gospel without arguing, as independent churches, hopefully working in cooperation although with impaired communion.

It is not good for the church to have a group of grumblers in its midst. Best that they go independent. …

And don’t say you don’t want to leave because there is only one church in England. Some left the C of E because they could not accept its rejection of the authority of the pope, others because they could not accept bishops, the Methodists because they could not accept parish boundary restrictions, etc etc. Most recently many left over women priests. There have always been groups who have left because of differences over church order, and set up separate structures – or went over to Rome. Why don’t you do the same?

To put this another way, it seems that the only way to satisfy the aspirations of opponens of women priests and bishops is for them to separate from the current provinces of Canterbury and York and set up their own province, perhaps still nominally in the Church of England, without women clergy. Indeed this is what many of them want. This new province would necessarily be non-geographical, with its own structure of dioceses and parishes, or at least non-parochial congregations, which would necessarily cut across the current geographical hierarchy. And they could hardly expect the continuing Church of England to avoid working at all in the former parishes of churches which have joined the new province. So this “third province” idea more or less implies the end of the geographical hierarchical system of the church.

Perhaps this is why there is strong opposition within the church hierarchy to the “third province” proposal, as well as to the recent moves in North America for parishes and even dioceses to put themselves under the authority of foreign provinces. But this opposition is misplaced. The geographical system of provinces, dioceses and parishes is an anachronism, a relic of the “Christendom” of mediaeval Europe in which everyone could be assumed to be a Christian and in which church and secular authority were closely linked. The perpetuation of this system in the early days of the Church of England may have limited the bloodshed of those early days. But now it is time to dismantle this system and replace it with something more suited to the 21st century.

5 thoughts on “Provinces, dioceses and parishes: relics of mediaeval Christendom which must go

  1. We do need to address that fact that we don’t live in Christendom per se.

    And getting rid of parish boundaries (which someone has once described as the condom of the Church of England) would b a good step towards that. In addition, the parish boundary system at the moment acts to keep the gospel out of some areas (rather than the wolves out, which was, I guess, a big part of the original rationale for some aspects of the system).

    We need to re-discover ‘Mission-mode’ for church life and structures.

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