#TheologyinIsolation 9: A New Parochialism?
In the next in our #TheologyinIsolation series, David Bagnall asks whether the current crisis might mean the church rediscovers the importance of the local.
The other day, I happened to catch an interview on The World at One with the constitutional historian Peter Hennessy, and was struck by what he took to be the paradoxical nature of the effects the coronavirus is having on our common life. On the one hand, as Hennessy noted, the virus has precipitated a kind of atomisation of society: walls both local and national are springing up everywhere, people can no longer meet socially, and we’ve undergone a mass retrenchment into the isolated units of our houses and flats. On the other hand, however, the coronavirus has also engendered a new kind of shared experience: blind as this virus is, it pays no attention to race, creed, class, or status. People of all kinds are vulnerable because, to put it bluntly, we’re all people. In this sense, then, the virus is a great unifier – so great in fact that it’s serving to challenge many of the sleepy moral assumptions of our society. ‘We’re rediscovering all those old virtues’, as Hennessy put it, ‘altruism, stoicism, social solidarity’, and a renewed sense of our dependence on one another.
Despite the separation the coronavirus has enforced upon us, then, it’s also prompted a refocusing on our need for one another and especially for those near to us geographically. It’s for this reason that many streets and neighbourhoods around the country are experiencing a kind of spirit of the blitz -style flowering of community cohesion. Such has been the case on my own street: what was before two rows of mutually facing terraced houses has suddenly become a living community of people who know one another’s names and actively look out for one another. Phone calls are being exchanged, food packages are being delivered, and activities are being organised for house-bound school children. Up and down the country, people are experiencing what we might term a return to the local, or rather a realisation that we are local beings who, despite the increasingly virtual nature of modern life, nevertheless exist locally in real places. Your twitter friend in Toronto can help you in many ways, it transpires, but leaving a hot meal on your doorstep is not one of them.
This emphasis on the local isn’t a million miles away from the theological foundations upon which the Church’s parochial system is built, and the reason for why churches have traditionally ministered to local areas, with their bounds defined geographically rather than doctrinally (at least in theory). This is because the idea that somebody who happens to be near to you is worth loving and looking out for stands fairly near the centre of Christian doctrine. Indeed, the word for neighbour in the New Testament – πλησίον – itself articulates this very point. πλησίον is unusual insofar as it behaves like a noun but is actually an adverb, and so translates most literally as ‘the one who is near’. When the lawyer in Luke 10 asks of Jesus, ‘who is my neighbour?’, the answer is therefore quite literally ‘anybody who is near to you’, as Jesus’ subsequent parables attest.
This idea that people nearby are to be loved, then, provides what we might term the pastoral imperative for the parish system. Accordingly, the world viewed as a system of parishes consists not simply of scattered groups who happen to share geographical space, but rather of people who by virtue of their very proximity are called to love one another and gather around a common table. As Maurice Schurr writes in the encyclical Mystici Corporis, ‘the parish is a representation and realization of the Church of God, and as such an ecclcsiola in Ecclesia...a visible and tangible expression of Christ in our midst and for our benefit’. The key here is the tangibility of Christ made possible by the physical presence of the local church. If we are commanded to love our neighbours, then there is an irreducibly spatial dimension to our mission, and in ecclesial terms this means being in and amongst local people in local communities. ‘Church as event’, as Karl Rahner has it, ‘is necessarily a local and localised community’.
With localised communities in mind, Alison Millbank and Andrew Davison rightly identify the ‘disastrous fragmentation of our society’ in recent decades and how ‘our country is crying out for a rebirth of locality…for the restoration of social bonds’. Perhaps, then, the social dislocation many are currently experiencing is in part so much caused by the coronavirus, but rather revealed by it. And if this is the case, the recent examples of renewed social cohesion prompted by such isolation might also encourage the Church to revisit its own ancient commitment to place and locality. Peter Hennessy finished his interview on Radio Four by noting that so great will be the effect of this virus on our common life that ‘future historians…will divide post-war history into BC and AC – before corona and after corona’ and that, consequently, ‘a new politics will come out of this with a new political language to match’. If this is to be so for the body politic, then might it not also be so for the body of Christ? The role of the Church is to love people locally, or as Yves Congar has it, to bring ‘parishioners to a Christian awareness of their solidarity’, and with examples of such solidarity the breadth and length of the country, there are lessons worth learning for the Church. In the renewal of communal solidarity, in the return to the local, may the church find itself invigorated with a new parochialism to match.
David Bagnall is an Ordinand and PhD student at Westcott House, Oxford