top of page
  • Latimer trust

An outdated system?

A review by Andrew Cinnamond of ‘The Parish System: The same yesterday, today and for ever?’, Mark Burkill, LS 59, Latimer Trust (2005)

This excellent guide examines the parish system as a distinctive feature of the Church of England. It is such an ever-present reality that most people never really think about its origins and is it a help or hindrance to the mission of the Church.

Burkill begins by studying the history of the parish and how it came to look like it does today. The territorial pattern of English parishes was in place by the end of the 12th Century although the Christian Church had existed long before that. The system of tithes to finance a parish was one of the key factors to determining the pattern of parishes we have today. Before the 12th Century there was great complexity and variety in the organisation of pastoral care and mission. The minster system was just one of many models. There were often overlaps and few clear geographical boundaries. In the medieval period many different forms of chapels sprang up (chantries, gilds etc.), many ‘to relieve stresses created by the rigidities of the parish system’, (p19). This meant that were just as many, if not more, non-parochial than parochial churches in medieval England.

In the 19th Century it was clear that the parish system was failing. The ancient system of tithes was abolished and therefore the original reason for clear parish boundaries disappeared. Many of the civil functions (e.g. constable, surveyor) which the parish had accumulated over the centuries also began to disappear in this period, eroding the existence of the parish itself. Perhaps the greatest challenge was the huge growth in industrialisation and the associated urbanisation. The rigid and inflexible parish system did not cope with this rapid change, meaning that in the 1820s Birmingham, Sheffield and Manchester were single parishes with populations of around 120,000 souls. Evangelicals establishing proprietary chapels, new church buildings (615 built by the Church Building Commissioners in 1818-56 (p34), as well as new vicarages, and provision for some theological training, did not really make a dent in these massive imbalances. An Act of 1843 made it easier to create new parishes, but the response was still woefully inadequate. The issue was complicated by the large growth of Nonconformity in the period- in Lincolnshire, for example, in 1851 there were 705 Methodist chapels and 657 Anglican churches (p25).

Burkill makes the point in Ch. 4 ‘The Parish System and Anglicanism’ that the parish system had been viewed as an important element in Anglican identity and therefore there was significant resistance to altering a cherished facet of the Church of England. This approach of viewing the parish system as an identifying mark of Anglicanism ran into severe problems as the Anglican Church began to grow worldwide. Burkill argues that it is deeply to be regretted that a secondary, organisational feature began to be seen as so important compared to the pastoral and evangelistic imperative of the Church. ‘The identity of the Christian community must be located in the Gospel and not in its form of church order, no matter how necessary such order is’, (p51).

Burkill finishes by demonstrating that the parish system is no longer fit for purpose and is not helping the present mission of the Church of England. The point is made, that with little or no effective discipline, it cannot be taken for granted that every parish is faithfully communicating and living out the biblical Christian message. A parish does not guarantee a clear Christian witness. There are some signs that the reliance on territorial organisation and boundaries is decreasing e.g. with the ‘Mission-Shaped Church’ report, Bishops’ Mission Orders with the emphasis on the different networks existing within a society. Burkill’s greatest strength is to show that structures and organisation are no substitute for a clear Gospel witness and the outdated system needs a radical overhaul. This study is thus a provocative and timely challenge.


Revd. Andrew Cinnamond is Vicar of St Lawrence's church in Lechlade. He has written several articles and books, some of them can be found here. 

Click here to BUY  The Parish System. The same yesterday, today and forever?



bottom of page