Relationality in the Parish

The Need for Roots

Alison Millbank

In 1943 Charles de Gaulle, then leading the Free French in London, gave the philosopher Simone Weil the task of reimagining the renewal of Europe after the cessation of hostilities. Weil would die that same year, partly as an effect of seeking through solidarity to exist on the same meagre diet as her compatriots, but she left an astonishing book, The Need for Roots, which both forensically identifies the malaise of materialism in western society and sets out a radical spiritual vision for the future.

In the first part of her study, she identifies what she calls ‘the needs of the soul’, which are often paradoxical in that they include order and liberty, private and collective property, equality and hierarchy. Her vision for building a new world is similarly paradoxical in that it emphasizes the need for rootedness in the past in working for what is to come:

It would be useless to turn one’s back on the past in order simply to concentrate on the future. It is a dangerous illusion to believe that such a thing is even possible. The future brings us nothing, gives us nothing; it is we who in order to build it have to give it everything, our very life. But to be able to give, one has to possess; and we possess no other life, no other living sap, than the treasures stored up from the past and digested, assimilated and created afresh by us. Of all the human soul’s needs, none is more vital than this one of the past.[1]

We see this importance of the past in the way that armies seek to destroy a people’s ‘living sap’ by attacking the cultural lodestones or ancient holy sites of the places they invade, such as the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan or the Mariupol Theatre in Ukraine. To destroy a people’s past is to dispossess them completely and wipe their history and identity from the face of the earth. In this quotation, Weil is thinking of the industrial classes in particular, and the suffering caused by the uprooting of unemployment, which drives people to leave their homes and all that they possess as social capital. For as David Goodhart has pointed out, the poor are primarily ‘somewheres’, who rely on neighbourliness, solidarity and reciprocity, and on the physical institutions of the locality, much more than the mobile ‘anywheres’.[2] It will be interesting to see how the energy crisis and crises in the cost of living happening as I write, how the class of ‘somewheres’ will necessarily increase dramatically, as more people struggle to afford petrol to run cars or travel on foreign holidays.

The Anglican parish embodies the positive value of being ‘somewhere’ and is a place of rootedness in the past, where it is digested and created afresh. Its church building can attract fierce loyalty even when it is a relatively recent construction, as recently in St Barnabas Southampton where people in an area of social housing fought desperately to stop their church from closure. In many places the church will be surrounded by graves of past parishioners, and it witnesses to the creativity and devotion of local people in its monuments, kneelers, glass and the worn stone of its steps. These material traces are not just valuable in themselves but as the embodiment of the past they represent an important aspect of what it means to be a parochial community. As Christians, we are part of the Church, which does not just mean the visible Church of our brother and sister believers across the world, but the invisible Church. Our prayers join those offered in that same place five hundred years in the past but also five hundred years in the future. Our worship is taken to the heavenly altar where Christ brings the world to the Father in the Spirit and unites prayer from all times and places. So relationality in the parish is never just spatial but temporal and eternal, as it opens to the divine and to the whole body of Christ, living, departed and to come.

We are witnessing the trauma of uprootedness across Europe in 2022, which only brings home to us the suffering of so many other waves of refugees and migrants in recent years from Syria, Afghanistan and Africa. This rootedness of the parish offers an attractive resort for the migrant. There is a need for much more research into the phenomenon of Iranian Shi’ite conversions to Anglicanism, but it seems undeniable that parish life enables both the expression of Iranian identity, now given liturgical expression with the provision of eucharistic resources in Farsi, and engenders a sense of belonging. For rootedness does not depend necessarily on having an ancestral tie to a place: in Anglican ecclesiology you belong just by being an inhabitant and this fact is picked up quickly by the migrant so agonisingly uprooted from their home. Such a belief that all have a claim on their local church is at the heart of the Anglican idea of establishment, which achieved its most extreme expression in William Temple’s legendary dictum that the church exists for the benefit of those outside it.[3]

One of the unexpected fruits of the Save the Parish campaign has been the way that the church as an historical presence has also engendered love and loyalty from the unchurched, and even become a source of renewal, to the extent of people joining their local Parochial Church Council in order to resist its closure by the diocese and then becoming part of its ongoing life. In a different, more positive way, this tie to the past drew new people into the worshipping community of some parishes in Derbyshire during lockdown. The vicar broadcast his Sunday service in turn from his various churches and in each case offered a tour of its architectural features and an account of its history. People are hungry for history and for reconnection with their past. When we constantly oppose buildings and their worshippers in statements emphasizing that the Church is not stones but people, we ignore the close relation between them. I know people who find a relationship with God through the stones of Southwell Minster, where I minister, and the building even prompts conversions. Stones still cry out.

Relationality in the parish ecclesial community thus has a rather different character from joining a society for the like-minded. It opens out onto the past and includes all who went before in its charity. The parish operates what G. K. Chesterton calls ‘the democracy of the dead’[4]  and its present members are consciously rooted in a tradition of practice. As Alasdair Macintyre puts it, ‘the possession of an historical identity and the possession of a social identity coincide.’ [5] His immensely influential study, After Virtue, has drawn attention to the importance of tradition in grounding ethical action and agency. Before we can act, we need to know of what stories we are a part, which provide a shape in which to understand and direct our part in these narratives. In parish life ‘we enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves part of an action that was not of our making’.[6] We are enstoried in various ways as individuals but the parochial setting enables the integration of these narratives, which are taken up in their specificity into the Christian story, just as the Son’s incarnation in a particular person and place is the opening to universal salvation.

If the first aspect of parish relationality is its diachronic character, the second, which is closely related to this embeddedness in time, is our rootedness in liturgy. We are the body of Christ in that place, made one through our common participation in the eucharist: indeed, without the assent of the people of God, there is no eucharist. Good relationships in the parish church arise out of a community which meets, confesses, reconciles, intercedes and exchanges the peace before breaking bread together. Insofar as a church is healthy, it will be when those liturgical actions permeate common life and when the events of the community – its joys and sorrows – are fully represented in worship and beyond. For a liturgical community is not just one where people worship but where the worship opens out to embrace others in its concern. The Bishop of Chichester is engendering this liturgical relationality through a covenant made with church schools in his diocese. Each child must learn the Lord’s prayer, know some Bible stories and five hymns and also be able to respond to the bidding ‘the Lord be with you’ with ‘and also with you’. That simple call and response creates our ecclesial relations and means a child will always be at home in the local church as a liturgical participant. Many clergy spend a good deal of time in their church schools and build excellent relationships with staff and children. They may even bring classes into church for a service but unless there is some attempt at liturgical inculturation, the rootedness will be missing.

The mode of life I have been describing is the result of a thousand years of development but it is endangered in a society whose model of what it is to be human is ever more atomised and individualised. Even modes of commonality in the secular realm tend to be equally atomised so that political parties and unions struggle for members while single issue identity politics unites people along much narrower lines, with clearly defined limits and opponents. The anthropology of the parish is quite different and inherently social. As Marc Barnes describes it such a society ‘is the inescapable, communal mode of being in and through which one receives existence, consciousness, intellect, language and indeed the very self’.[7] In our ecclesial society ‘one’s identity is recognised precisely to the degree that it is always already embedded in the polity for the sake of the whole’.[8] Identity is therefore wholly relational in its essence, constituted through the call and response of baptism, sealed by confirmation and developed through eucharistic participation. We exist through and for the whole body. We need to remember that the language of the body of Christ is not metaphorical but a mystical reality.

Traditional Anglican worship which so defines the rural parish almost universally is highly participatory in this call and response mode, much more so than the free church or evangelical style, which so often has the worship group doing much of the music, a long sermon, and free intercessory prayer by the worship leader without a response.[9] Relationality works differently in such settings, often through membership of house-groups. The liturgical parish is more holistic in that its liturgy engenders its relations: form and content coincide and are so understood by parishioners who can become quite upset if some element of participation in the service is removed. At the heart then of relationality in the parish is the liturgy, which creates the community around it. As Henri de Lubac expressed it: ‘the eucharist makes the Church’.[10] It is the sacrament of unity and the bond of love.

The DNA of parish life is outward facing, a rootedness in whatever is going on locally in their town, village or part of the city. A report commissioned by the Church of England on social action noted this involvement and questioned too easy a decision that the parish is in decline: 

The Church’s reach extends well beyond itself by several orders of magnitude with those it directly helps, those it works with and those it simply lets use its buildings. Many in the Church will be surprised by the range of things that the Church itself does, even more outside the Church will be a little astonished at its reach, range and depth.[11]

This community involvement and web of relations is typical of 90% of parishes, with 79% involved in some formal mode of social service.[12] This is not just useful service but part of the complex web of relations that constitutes a parish. It would be a salutary exercise for a church to make a visual representation or photo-montage of the relations they have communally and individually because I am sure they would be astonished by its depth and richness. The pandemic has been a financial challenge for local churches but also an opportunity for service and for imagining liturgical community outside the building. In a Spectator article, Luke Coppen describes how the Polish Catholic Church, weakened in recent years by abuse allegations and falling numbers, has been revived by the enormous energy its members have put into the care of refugees from Ukraine. He suggests a parallel with the Church of England. ‘Both are guardians of national identity with unrivalled parish networks. If the refugee crisis has helped Polish Catholics recover their sense of purpose, couldn’t a similar challenge do the same for Anglicans?’[13] For if we do not have the scale of migrants that Poland welcomes, ‘1.3 million Britons will be pushed into absolute poverty by the cost of living crisis. Could the C of E lead an effort to help them?’[14] While those who already know the challenges to church-based food banks may sigh at this, there is no doubt that meeting the needs of others makes for stronger bonds between people and a renewed sense of purpose. Non-evangelical Anglicans are sometimes considered not to take discipleship seriously enough, but they are working with a different model and one which sees helping others at its core, and who can deny that this is biblical, the heart of Jesus’s teaching in the parable of the sheep and the goats?

After historical, liturgical and service relations come those with the natural world. The secular world responds often more positively to the idea of the parish than contemporary Anglicans. For ‘parish’ has become a central concept in the revival of nature writing, from Richard Mabey onwards, and it reaches back to the parson naturalists of our past.[15] Its value is as much urban as rural, as is witnessed by the powerful writing of Bob Gilbert, Ghost Trees: Nature and People in a London Parish (2018), who studies the creatures and plants of the arboreally named London area, ‘Poplar’ in the parish where his wife ministers in East London. Relationality thought of in parochial terms extends beyond the human to encompass all that makes up our common home and it is often a way in which the parish worshipping community can reach out beyond itself to make common cause with local environmental groups. Indeed, although our problems are universal, local action can be one of the most effective ways forward. For we often respond more positively in initiatives to save the world from destruction by established relationships, by our love of local plants and birds than by imposed targets, which like the law in Romans create guilt and freeze us in impotence at the size of the task. There is a grace in beauty in the very otherness of the natural world, which in its giftedness is like theological grace, pouring from a generous God and calling us to receive and give generously ourselves. A parochial ecology is derived ultimately from the liturgical action of call and response, of liturgy as an offering of the world to God for its transformation and reception as pure gift.

The role of the parson, the parish priest, is central to this habitus. Rural parishes have been in multi-church benefices for some years now, but they still depend upon a strong connection with their parish priest, who holds the cure of their souls. Proposed centralization of parishes will be highly damaging in many ways but especially in the role of the priest in relation to the community and its life. She or he is first, the community’s pastor and presider, very much one of themselves, who validates their worth as a community, drawing them together. For the people worshipping at their local church will be diverse, and not necessarily share a great deal. This is not an elective community. Indeed, despite appearances, most people do not travel miles for a particular style of Anglicanism. Holistic Mission using the Church’s own data, found that 64% of worshippers travelled less than one mile to church and 24% between one and two miles.[16] Part of the glory of the parochial model is the diversity of age, class and culture that can be brought together but the parson and the liturgy together hold and sustain this.

Secondly, the priest is set apart in his or her ministry by the Church and thus roots the community in the diocese and the Church universal, sharing the bishop’s pastoral and oversight ministry. Often a parish, used to frequent interregnums and sharing a priest with other churches will be highly independent, working as a lay team and offering mutual care, Yet these parishioners need the parson to open their relations to the deanery and diocese, and indeed, to the secular world beyond their locality. For the parish is a key example of a mediating institution between the individual and wider society. Respublica’s Holistic Mission report saw this intermediate role as highly important because ‘trapped between individualism and collectivism we Britons have since the Second World War gradually eroded and ultimately eliminated most of our mediating and immediate institutions’.[17] The parish is one of the most enduring of these, till now still functioning in the ex-mining towns and villages of Nottinghamshire, even after the pub and the working men’s club have long gone.

Yet forces such as central church policy and direction of resources as well as financial crisis in some dioceses are beginning to make such communities impossible and destroy their lives. Ever mounting bureaucratic tasks for churchwardens and a fear of unsustainable ever larger ‘hub’ groupings put the commitment of lay people under great pressure. Our leaders may assure us time and again of the centrality of the parish, but financial decisions to pour resources into a single resource church – one in my diocese has six curates – while letting the parishes around it struggle with few clergy do not make parishes feel valued and they can become defensive. The language of ‘mixed ecology’ has been substituted for the economic idea of a mixed economy to describe the relations between the parochial system and new ecclesial communities, but there is little sign of the mutuality and reciprocity that such language promises. It is a marvel that so much generosity of spirit, hospitality and even hope still exists in our local churches, especially in the country, where forty per cent of Anglican worshippers live, and which is suffering the greatest centralising reorganization.

Can the parochial interconnectedness I have described survive the uprooting that these multiple parish benefices will involve? Can we find a way to a future? I think the title of this volume gives us a clue as to where to begin, even in a time of scarcity. It is to value the people we have and to deepen and intensify our common life. Where there are ten elderly people in church on Sunday, let us lavish love, care and attention on each other. Older people have had lives, have brought up families and often done astonishing things. They have lived through wars, poverty, divorce, unemployment and have stories to tell. When do we ever listen? We are the gospel that we preach and we should know our Christian witnesses to that gospel. One way to begin might be to invite local school-children to record memories of the town in the past, using the congregation to start off and the children’s own grandparents to continue, to build an integrated picture. What has sustained these people during their long lives and how has the parish community supported them? One of the most moving aspects of studying the parish reorganization in the Transforming Wigan was reading all the evidence by those protesting against the loss of their parish. Some of these submissions were from people unaccustomed to computers and were hand-written, and there was something so moving in the sincerity and desolation of their feelings. The church had shaped their whole lives and it was as if their being was being erased by these amalgamations.

A number of the respondents pointed out that the hierarchy claimed to want lay leadership but had actually removed it by centralising administration in the hands of one PCC for a number of churches and taking organisation of funerals etc away from parishes, replacing their valuable work with a paid official. Parishioners, by contrast, saw their role in organising funerals, weddings and baptisms as pastoral and missional and it was being removed from them. Already in the Church in Wales, we are hearing of situations where, due to centralized ‘mission areas’ faithful and involved parishioners are having their funeral taken by a stranger. One cleric found himself banned even from swapping with another to ensure a former parishioner was buried by him, due to the inflexibility of the taxi-rank system now imposed. Other elements of this centralization that impact on relationality are the fact that these are eucharistic communities, for whom access to weekly Holy Communion can become very difficult, without transport or a local service.[18]  No wonder clergy too are leaving, as testified at Wigan, unable to exercise their cure of souls properly in such hub structures.

So the future of the parish church is bleak and I have little confidence that removing clergy from local parishes will make for a relational church. Whole swathes of the country will lack effective pastoral care or liturgical provision and the moves to church closures will necessarily follow. Thousands of ordinary Anglicans will enter a state that Simone Weil describes in another essay as ‘affliction’. ‘It may happen at any moment that what I am might be abolished’, she writes in her essay, ‘Human Personality’.[19] It is the opposite of relationality: an opening abyss of distance and lament which Weil locates in Christ’s cry of dereliction on the cross.

Rather than cloaking such financially-driven moves in the language of mission, it would be more honest to admit the defeat here. In many places where parish ministry is done well and with energy it is successful and congregations are growing but elsewhere the same energy and devotion do not. It would be humbler not to blame the parish system for failing to reverse secularism but to admit that we are entering dark times and to hope for better days. Churches have been empty and even ruinous before and been rebuilt. True relationality in the parish will involve speaking in hope and yet at the same time acknowledging the crisis. It would also involve speaking to the loss and sense of betrayal, the feeling of being unloved and unvalued which many ordinary Anglicans feel when they are described, for example, as a ‘rump of believers’ (words used recently by a bishop whom I shall not name). Christ’s gospel cannot fail but we are allowing the form of life that is the Anglican parish to fail, believing that we can march to the future without roots, refusing to unite our new ecclesial units to the stem, abandoning the perennials if you like for the annual in our rush to church planting. We are not training new clergy and especially those in pioneer ministry in our liturgical traditions and many lack the formation of the daily office. They are unlikely to be praying daily with the clergy in their local parish. Resource churches are rarely resourcing those that surround them. The relational is just not in our missional organising and the parish is so often bypassed or ignored. It was ironic that the one area in which Church House recently reduced its staff was in life events ministry, which is at the heart of parochial outreach, indeed, moving staff to the new ecclesial unit end of things.

And yet the rootedness that the parish represents is needed as never before, as it speaks directly to the sicknesses of soul of our new century: the atomization, virtualization, deracination, commodification of our lives. Incarnation centred Christianity offers a new way of being as God’s forgiven and liberated people, centred on the eucharist, learning to be God’s gift to the world. If we could only trust in that core mission of loving our neighbour, in Greek, ‘the one who is near’,[20] forging social bonds in our locality we might find ourselves building that new future with a renewed parochialism.

[1] Simone Weil, The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Towards Mankind, trans. Arthur Willis, intro. T. S. Eliot (London: Routledge, 2002 [1949]), p. 51.

[2] David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (London: Hurst, 2017).

[3] See Alan Guiana, ‘Letter from the West Indies’ Theology 59, no. 432 (July 1956): 24-43.

[4] G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Ethics of Elfland,’ in Orthodoxy (London [1908]), p. 53.

[5] Alasdair Macintyre, After Virtue, p. 205.

[6] Macintyre, After Virtue, p. 199.

[7] Marc Barnes, ‘The Therapeutic Effect of Identity Politics,’ New Polity (Fall, 2021): 53-57 (p. 56).

[8] Barnes, ‘Therapeutic Effect’, p. 57.

[9] See Constance Cherry, ‘From Passive to Participatory Worship,’ Calvin Symposium on Worship 2006 at accessed 12 April, 2022.

[10] Henri de Lubac, Corpus Mysticum: The Eucharist and the Church in the Middle Ages (London: SCM, 2006), pp. 75-100.

[11] James Noyes and Phillip Blond, Holistic Mission (London: Respublica, 2013), p. 6

[12] Respublica, Holistic Mission, p. 13.

[13] Luke Coppen, ‘Risen Again: The War has helped to resurrect Poland’s Catholic Church,’ Spectator 16 April, 2022, p.23.

[14] Coppen, ‘Risen Again,’ p. 23.

[15] See the discussion in Andrew Rumsey, Parish: An Anglican Theology of Place (London: SCM, 2017), pp. 164-66.

[16] Noyes and Blond, Holistic Mission, p. 13.

[17] Noyes and Blond, Holistic Mission, p. 3.

[18] For the many protests, see responses to Transforming Wigan at  and  accessed 12 April, 2022.

[19] Simone Weil: An Anthology, ed. Sîan Miles (London: Penguin, 2005), p. 90.

[20] David Bagnall, ‘A New Parochialism’, Theology In Isolation 9, SCM at , accessed 13 April 2022.