PASTORAL THEOLOGY
A Reorientation


an excerpt

Martin Thornton


Authorized Reissue




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Chapter 4

THE PARISH AS AN ORGANISM

The theories which were discussed, and rejected, in the last chapter are both concerned with the numerical in one sense or another. Both are conceived in terms of the sum of isolated units. But once we introduce the idea of society in environment, interest in the numerical sum is supplanted by an emphasis on the unity of the Body; body implies space—or pastorally, place. The one hope of solving our problem appears to lie in the elimination of numerical thinking altogether, and in seeing parish-plus-cure-of-souls as sacramental whole—that is, as an integrated organism.

In dogma, the one Church is the organic body of all the faithful; body and members, vine and branches, shepherd and flock. So in philosophy we think of individuals comprising a racial solidarity. But when these pure sciences are applied in practice, pastorally, or in ethics, sociology, or politics, we are faced with the need of a middle, local term. The theoretical brotherhood of mankind becomes divided into smaller brotherhoods—nations, races, and families—before political theory means anything in practice. The monism of a thinker like F.H. Bradley needs the introduction of a local environmental factor before it makes ethical sense; “my station and its duties.” So the transition from pure dogma to applied dogma, or pastoral ascetic, necessitates an equivalent middle term; the local church or parish as organism. The Catholic Church of dogma becomes not only the body of all faithful people but of all faithful parishes; or of all faithful people in local society, local environment, local worship, and local love. Without the middle term this supreme moral fruit of Christian Prayer is left out of account. One cannot love a theological formula, and one cannot love one’s neighbor in the abstract. In fact one can only love a neighbour, especially since Christian love, rather than mere emotionalism, is a volitional virtue demanding discipline and sacrifice.

The Catholic Church is the body, not the sum, of all the faithful; an organic whole comprising parishes as organic wholes comprising souls as organic whole: which is only saying that the vine consists of branches which consist of cells. And the relation between the Catholic and parochial organism is seen to be one of recapitulation or microcosm; ideas constantly recurring in Christian theology. The concept is implied in the doctrine of the Trinity, in Christology, and in Atonement. St Paul addresses the local churches with “Ye are the Body of Christ”—no mere portion of it, still less a group of individuals within it, but the complete Body in microcosm. “The local church would be regarded by Saint Paul not as one element of a Catholic confederacy but as the local representative of the one divine and Catholic society.”[1] And if this applies to Ephesus and Corinth, it applies equally to Little Puddlecombe parish and St Barnabas, Barchester.

The recapitulation of all in Christ, extended to the Church wherein all share in Christ, is the theme of Saint Irenaeus. Saint Cyprian writes: “The episcopate is one; it is the whole in which each enjoys full possession. The Church is likewise one, though she be spread abroad, and multiplies with the increase of her progeny: even as the sun has rays many and one light. . . .”[2] As in a myriad local places the sun is out, so in those places is the Church.[3] This pastoral-parochial concept becomes synthesized in the dual doctrine of the Body of Christ; the Church is the Body of Christ because it feeds on his Eucharistic Body and Blood. The consecrated elements are Christ to the communicant; wholly and completely Christ, divine them into ten thousand fragments and each is the Body and Blood of Christ. So the parish is the Catholic Church in microcosm. This Church, moreover, is threefold. The holy concourse in paradise and in heaven does not split itself up into insular parties of patrons-per-parish. If the whole Body is complete at every altar, the whole communion of saints are in attendance at every altar. As Lady Julian saw all creation in a hazel-nut, so her hazel-nut comes to universal size. When parochialism is organic and when ye are the Body of Christ, it is the antithesis of narrow but it is, in place, the Catholic Church. There is but one Bread, so each altar is microcosmic of the Throne of the Lamb in heaven. There is one Church and one Body, so that the work of each server, each organist, each verger, each good lady who arranged the flowers is of Catholic significance because it is truly parochial. This is why the Church’s Office, said by two souls in the village church on Monday night, is an infinitely tremendous thing; the “special” service with its teeming congregation is trivial by comparison.

We are now in a position to examine the personnel of our parish-plus-cure-of-souls without idealism and without evading the facts. And we find a heterogeneous society bound together, however variedly, by life in common place. The organism and the implications of place will vary considerably as between garden-city and ancient hamlet, dormitory suburb and self-contained farming village; and the term “parish” must obviously be widened to include schools, ships, prisons, hospitals, and so on.[4] Yet it all cases, as in all society, there is a certain corporate proximity, a locality to which all but disembodied spirits are bound. The parish has become a totality, an organism, a thing, within which exists a population, and this population, from whatever viewpoint we regard it, is generally divisible into three strata. Religion in parishes, cricket in schools, politics in nations or any other subject in any other unit, consists of first, the accomplished, the leaders, first eleven, ruling body, or other zealous minority; secondly, enthusiastic supporters, learners, or the generally “up and coming”; and thirdly, the rest, spectators, the apathetic or antagonistic. It is of special interest to note how this grouping so constantly recurs throughout religious history. Judaism thought in terms of the world, the chosen race, and the faithful remnant within it; the early Church centres around the Twelve, proselytes, and again the world outside; and later Monachism is to distinguish between choir, conversi and secular.

Plainly, our parishes contain the few really faithful, the occasional “churchgoer,” and everyone else; parochial theology seeks a comprehensive pattern of relations between these three strata. What I have called multitudinism fails to face the facts, pretending that its parish is a uniform mass.

The policy of exclusion, were it to extend its purview beyond the little nucleus to a few groping souls, faces facts but evades its responsibility. We have but a segment isolated from the main parochial body.

The parish seen as organism, elaborated into what I propose to describe as the Remnant Concept, arranges its three strata as concentric circles in which power from the centre pervades the whole. “The fact remains that the human race is not the Christian Church, even although the Church is meant for all men and claims them all, and although there is no man who is altogether excluded from the Church’s redemptive life, which, like a river in flood, overflows its formal boundaries and irrigates the surrounding land.”[5] Parochial theology must give practical expression to this theological fact.

There appears to be considerable hope if he who died for all converted so few; if he who loved Magdalene cleansed the temple with the lash.


[1] Gore, The Epistle to the Ephesians, appended note E.
[2] De Catholicae Ecclesiae Unitate, para. 5.
[3] Strictly, of course, the local pastoral unit is not the parish but the diocese, just as the proper minister of the Eucharist is not the priest but the bishop. A return to primitive organization would make theological justification easier on this point, but if the modern bishop in his large diocese delegates authority to his parish priests, then the theological pastoral unit must share in this delegation. In this respect my thesis appears to support the plea for more bishops and smaller sees. See further E.L. Mascall, Corpus Christi, pp. 13, 14, and 19, 20.
[4] See Supplementary Note 2, below.
[5] E.L. Mascall, Corpus Christi, p. 12.



Go to CHAPTER 5.


© Akenside Press and Matthew C. Dallman, 2016. Reissued with permission of Monica Thornton. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, Akenside Press.