The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, in his 1967 essay The Parish and the Universe, makes the provocative claim that ‘All great civilisations are based on parochialism – Greek, Israelite, English.’ Continuing, ‘it requires a great deal of courage to be parochial’, Kavanagh’s point is that parochialism involves recognition of and pride in, the authenticity of local experience, which requires no constant comparison with, or recourse to neighbouring forms of expression. As such, he writes:
Parochialism and provincialism are [direct] opposites. The provincial has no mind of his own; he does not trust what his eyes see until he has heard what the metropolis – towards which his eyes are turned – has to say on any subject … The parochial mentality, on the other hand is never in any doubt about the social and artistic validity of his parish.
While he is writing primarily about creative expression, Kavanagh’s conclusion that ‘parochialism is universal: it deals with fundamentals’ is a valuable insight into the shifting nature of English national identity, whose catholicity or ‘universal’ definition has, it is being argued, directly derived from a sense of local self-possession. The unavoidable problem for the Church of England, though, is that the seeds of its legitimacy are set in the historic core of political power: the resulting sense of ‘entitlement’ make the parish in its Anglican form deeply ambivalent for many and noxious to some. In the current situation, the account of England as a ‘Christian Nation’, as one narrative among many, remains highly contested – not least because, to borrow the late Doreen Massey’s phrase about space in general, ‘its symbolism is endlessly mobilized in political argument’. Similarly, in the topical question of whether England is a nation at all, such descriptions tend to be heavily freighted by those intending to re-create a sense of ‘Englishness’ in the wake of a resurgent nationalism across the British Isles.
Like all political positions, this one has besetting strengths and weaknesses: the latter always being various shades of nostalgic xenophobia – and, under certain conditions, their more chilling progeny. Its contrasting strengths, however, are communal cohesion and the resulting confidence to engage openly with those beyond our borders. Whenever received wisdom insists on the contrary – that social conservatism and attachment to territory are necessarily a symptom of something sinister – then extremism and insularity become self-fulfilling prophecies, being the only lens people are offered to view these allegiances through. England, owing to her imperious role in the formation and governance of the United Kingdom, is chronically prone to this condition – unlike the Scots, for example, whose commitment both to ‘Little Scotland’ and radical social inclusion is something the English can only watch with envy and (following the European Referendum) a heavy measure of despair.
Given this weighting, localised terms such as ‘parish’ inevitably list towards the past rather than the future, frustrating a balanced view in the present of their value and validity. Therefore, it is vital to recognise that neither parish nor nation are subject to any one geographical narrative, but are – and have been – constantly reconceived, according to the times. It is a commonplace that evocations of Christian society are returned to in times of crisis or national instability, but the fact that they are extremely ancient does not mean they are incapable of renewal. To take one articulation of this, Rowan Williams has written that, by asserting the public and political nature of religious affiliation, the ‘vestiges of a confessional polity’ retained by the state place the Church of England in a unique position to form local society in ways that provide far more than ‘a cheap pool of labour for projects of social integration’. Indeed, as the surviving embodiment of ‘local settlement’, the parish (both civil and ecclesiastical) remains an agent of the kind of social cohesion unavailable at the national level. As Patrick Kavanagh further reflects:
It is not by the so-called national dailies that people who emigrate keep in touch with their roots … So it is for these reasons that I return to the local newspaper. Who has died? Who has sold his farm?
This comes strikingly close to what Ben Quash calls the ‘polity of presence’ at the heart of the Church of England’s national vocation. In his essay of the same name, Quash notes the marked contrast between the presentation of Anglicanism in the national and local newspapers:
In the local press, the Church’s role in community life – providing care, taking responsibility, focusing local activities, and all the rest of it – is described and acknowledged. In this context there is nothing odd about the place of the church.
Parochialism is the boon and bane of English politics. Yet, despite its significant drawbacks – wistful exceptionalism and reactionary jingoism not least among them – the ‘England-ness’ of the parish must be reckoned with if the Anglican vocation is to be fully understood. At heart, it expresses a vision for common life that is an integral strand in the complex weave of contemporary English identity: one that, in Julia Stapleton’s words:
defies categorization in simple cultural or civic terms, one that is not lightly dismissed as an inferior or deformed expression of nationhood, or as the thin end of the ‘ethnic’ nationalist wedge.
If, as Krishnan Kumar notes in the same collection of essays, it is more accurate to speak, not of English nationalism, but of an English national tradition, the parish has not only had the ‘hallowing’ effect on territory described above, but made national tradition inseparable from local description – has made England, as well as the Church, parochial. This has meant, not only that national life was imbued from the outset with a localised form of secular Christianity, but also ensured that Anglican ecclesiology has an inescapable secularity to it. Whilst this doubtless contributed towards the separation of Christian social ethics from their source in God, and thus the growing secularisation of English society, it has also enabled a form of what Simone Weil described as:
that mutual penetration of the religious and the profane which would be the essence of a Christian civilisation.
There is, in conclusion, an unavoidable perichoresis to the terms ‘nation’ and ‘parish’, which has existed from the earliest foundations of English society. Largely because of this, the parish embodies a similar mutual indwelling of ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ that has long endowed English life with a highly localised form of civil Christianity: even if, for many, this remains only as a trace element of cultural identity. One cannot sound the word ‘parish’ without both sacred and secular resonance, which gives unambiguous credence to the ‘of England’ definition of the national church. Indeed, the Church’s view of England is unavoidably an imagined projection or extrapolation of its parochiality – and if the national church falters it is usually when presuming a kind of strategic independence of the localities in which it still makes a peculiar kind of sense.
This symbiosis with place represents more than the outworn husk of religious hegemony (although it may be that, too): it reveals an ecclesiology that cannot conceive of a church without its corresponding neighbourhood. The unity of sacred and secular in the Anglican mind was never only political expediency – it was, at origin, a conscious synthesizing of the Protestant conception of ‘two kingdoms’, by which Richard Hooker, the architect of the Anglican settlement, could write of church and commonwealth as being ‘personally one societie’ – a perspective that underwrites the curious compound of parochial Christianity with far greater potency than the accidents of history might suggest. Whilst, from the world’s viewpoint, the Church of England’s institutional influence has long been shrinking like a balloon, this slow puncture has not, by contrast, shrunk the Church’s own view of its worldly reach and responsibility. National allegiance to the Church may be in free-fall, but the Church’s allegiance to the nation remains as lofty as ever. In this, the Church is not so much clinging to the myth of its own significance as to that of the places it exists to serve.
From the forthcoming book Parish: an Anglican Theology of Place
(SCM Press, 2017)