The Role of the Parish Church

“Episcopal Congregationalism” is a description I once heard of the nature of The Church of England.  It does perhaps focus attention on the tensions within the church between congregation and parish; episcopal jurisdiction and incumbents’ freehold; evangelistic community and state church.  There is a spectrum of attitudes within this tension.  It ranges from seeing the clergy as a college of assistants to the bishop, on the one hand, to a fierce clerical independence of episcopal “interference” on the other; or from baptising all comers and regarding them in practice as churchmembers, to baptising only those from committed families and mainly looking after the congregation.  Maybe none of us has got the balance completely right in these areas. How do we correct this?  The first priority is to establish: 

(1) The Authority for our Understanding of the Church 

In the church the authority of Scripture is normative.  “The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures”. (Canon A5).  This wording clearly includes the value of tradition; to ignore tradition and church history is to be foolish.  But this tradition must be subject to Scripture. It is true that Scripture offers no rigid and detailed blue print for the ordering of the church.  But there is a wealth of principles in the N.T. which are universally relevant and normative for the church.  And they are intensely practical.  The church should be scrutinizing its traditions, structures and methods to ensure they are being reformed in accordance with biblical principles.  This process will require the use of reason by minds renewed by the Holy Spirit so that biblical principles can be effectively worked out in modern society.  But again Scripture is normative and must be carefully interpreted in accordance with its plain meaning by the Christian Community.  So our priority must be to examine:-

(2) Some Relevant Biblical Principles

(a)   The Church is intended to be a Deeply Committed Koinonia
The night he was betrayed Jesus prayed that the church should be as completely united as he is with the Father, a “complete unity” (John 17:20-23).  St. Paul urges the church to “be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Cor.1:10); to be one in love, spirit and purpose (Phil.2:1-4) and in “heart and mouth” (Rom.15:6).  This doesn’t mean total uniformity but it does mean sharing the same general prin­ciples of thought and feeling and applying those principles in such a way as to reach practical agree­ment in faith and life.

Each member belongs to all the others (Rom.12:5); considers others better than himself; looks to the interests of others (Phil.2:1-4); submits to them (Eph.5:21) and to everyone who joins in the work (2 Cor.16:16).  All the members are dependent upon each other (1 Cor.12:21-24) and share equal concern for one another, entering fully into one another’s suffering and joys (1 Cor.12:26).  They are called to lay down their lives for one another (1 John 3:16).

So churchmembers were intended to be committed not only to Christ, but to one another in love (Rom.12:10,13; Gal.6:2,10); they accept responsibility for one another’s spiritual growth (Heb.3:13, 10:24-25; cf. Rom.l4:19, 15:2; 1.Cor.14:3-5,12,17,26; Eph.4:12; 1 Thess.5:11); they are loyal to each other, keep confidences, defend one another, are not judgmental (Matt.7:1-5; Rom.14:13); they give and receive prayerful encouragement and criticism (Gal.6:1; James 5:19-20; Matt.18:15); they share material things so that no member is left in serious financial need (Rom.12:13; 2 Cor.8:13-14). This deep committed unity of the Church was so prized by the N.T. writers that divisiveness was dealt with firmly. (Rom.16:17-18: Titus 3:10-11).  Division is only justifiable if the alternative is toleration of persistently unbiblical belief or behaviour (Luke 12:51-53; Matt.18:15-17;; 1 Cor.5:11-1 2 Thess.3:6, 14-15),
Although this unity is not limited by geography it is clearly a priority aim for the membership of a local parish church.  It is my conviction that it is possible to achieve such a koinonia (albeit imperfectly) within the parish church.  There is no way that the N.T. supports the church being a loose conglomeration of individuals held together by sacraments, ordinances, liturgy and electoral roll, yet having no depth of commitment to each other.  Rather it envisages and requires a deeply committed koinonia.  Certainly the idea of the church being composed of baptised non-attenders is alien to N.T. theology.

(b)   The Church is intended to be the Body of Christ in the, world, but not of it
In one important sense the church is to be separate from the world.  The apostle urges Christians, not to have deep lasting relationships with unbelievers (2 Cor.6:14-18), especially those involved in idolatry.

Friendship with the world when it involves compromising Christian truth and standards is “hatred towards God” (Jas.4:4 cf. John 2:15).  Christian believers do not belong to the world and so the world can be expected to hate them. (John 15:18-19, 17:14).
But in another sense Christians are to love the world as God does (John 3:16).  They are the light of the world (John 5:14) and are empowered by the Spirit to witness to the world (Acts 1:8),  Christ’s command to the church is to go out into the world making disciples of Christ, teaching them (Matt. 28:18-20), healing people and delivering them from evil influences (Matt. 10:1, cf.9:35-38), caring for the needy (Matt.25:34-40) and seeking justice for the oppressed (Matt. 12:18,20; 23:23 cf. Col.4:1).

So although the N.T. envisages and requires the church to be a deeply committed koinonia, separate front the godlessness of the world, yet it rules out an inward-looking, self centred attitude.  Like Christ, the church must minister to those outside its committed membership whether or not they respond by joining the congregation. Second only to the priority of worship the church is here for the benefit of the parish, the nation and the world.  An inward looking church is to that extent unbiblical and unchristian.  A biblical church will be a deeply committed koinonia which is constantly reaching out with the love of Christ to those outside the congre­gation.

(c) Church leaders are intended to be enablers rather than to do everything themselves

The leaders given to the church by Christ are “to prepare God’s people for works of service (Eph.4:11-12). Delegation is a biblical principle (Ex.18:13-26; Acts 6:1-7).  Jesus majored on ministry to the Twelve (and even sometimes the Three – Peter, James and John) and he enabled his disciples to go and minister to others Luke 9:1-6, 10:1-17).  The N.T. teaches every member ministry (Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:7-11, 14-22 14:2 6; Eph.4:16).  No one (including the incumbent) has all the gifts.

(3) How we worked on these principles in my parish

A deeply committed koinonia

We invited all churchmembers to join a six month course which majors on the biblical teaching briefly outlined above 

The course is not a purely theoretical exercise but is intended to encourage members to be “one in heart and mind” in a commitment to doing everything possible to create such a fellowship. Our commitment to the spiritual power and freedom experienced through the Renewal Movement prevented this from becoming a legalistic exercise.  We sought to balance the freedom and maturing of the individual with mutual responsibility and interdependence within the body of Christ.  We practised every-member ministry and invited members to participate using their gifts in the services and other contexts.

As the congregation grew it became increasingly important to divide into weekly housegroups for “sharing and caring”; so that the individual was not neglected in the crowd.  Approximately 200 people attended weekly housegroups.  Spiritually the basis of the church’s work was disciplined, in-depth intercession.  Around 135 adults met in 23 weekly prayer cells.

(b)   A Parish Church
Second only to worshipping God our main aim in building a deeply committed fellowship was in order to be truly effective as a parish church and in wider mission.  We ran the church through the 14 house-groups (they did everything from cleaning the church to helping lead services).  Each group had its own clearly defined mini-parish – a part of the whole parish – and was responsible for regular pastoral and evangelistic outreach in that area.  They would visit the sick, needy, housebound, lonely, bereaved, newcomers, baptism families etc.  They also did evangelistic visiting, invited people to guest services and other evangelistic events.  All of this was co-ordinated with the visiting which the clergy and other staff members did.

Through this delegation the parish (with its population of 10,000) was well served.  Housegroup membership was a fairly heavy commitment and the system simply prevented the groups from becoming inward looking.  It was mainly through prayer (the prayer cells included regular intercession for the church’s outreach) that the church developed a deep concern for reaching out to the parish and in wider mission.

Through literature and visiting, parishioners were regularly invited to church.  The services (especially in the morning) were geared for newcomers.  Regular members were keen to be welcoming.  A very high per­centage of the congregation were local as we had no desire to be an eclectic congregation.  Numbers grew steadily and we began a new congregation which met in a school at the far end of the parish from main congregation.  We ran very informal evangelistic and follow up-groups which proved fruitful, For those attending church who were not yet ready for the heavy commitment of housegroup membership we provided other facilities for small group fellowship.

© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction