|Photo of Skelton, North Riding of Yorkshire|
Taken by Allen Barton at Vitrearum's Church Art Blog
What is the ideal size? We can certainly answer the question on several levels. First, let us approach it on a simply practical level. There are certain things that we want our parishes to have and that requires a certain number of parishioners to secure these things. For example, I think everyone wants to have a decent musical program. This will require the hiring of a part-time organist/choirmaster at the least. One will need to have at least 12 solid voices and sometimes this might require supplementing the choir with choral scholars (which are paid) for special feasts. A full-time priest is necessary for minimal parish life. A church building is pretty necessary if there is going to be a developed life with parish education and such. Practically, it is impossible to support even a simple parish with less than 150 or so active parishioners. This would mean the parish would have roughly 50 families and probably an annual budget of $100,000 to $120,000. I would call this the minimum size required to establish a relatively stable community.
Others like the huge churches because they can have large exciting programs. The youth programs are peopled with full-time staff, the church office may have two or three staff members. The music program may be larger with a full-time choir director and a full-time organist. A parochial school may be on site adding many more people who work at the church. As these sorts of programs and ministries increase, so must the size and income of the parish. These parishes can consist of 1,200 or more families.
There is a sense in which the size one prefers is not simply due to programs and such, but is cultural and I would suggest pastoral. Is it necessary for the priest to know all of his people on a first name basis? Is the priest to be primarily an administrator or pastor and teacher? If the parish truly wants the priest to be a pastor and a teacher in their midst, then there is an outside limit as to how many he can adequately care for personally. Most studies suggest that the outside limit to that is about 250 to 300 active parishioners. I personally prefer a parish around 250 or so. Otherwise the priest is little more than a combination administrator/sacramental pez dispenser.
I will whole heartedly admit to this being conditioned by my experience growing up in the Episcopal Church and in the Orthodox Church as a priest. But I think it extends further back too. And it is this distant past that I think may need to be brought forward to our consciences because I have an intuition that the loss of this is part of the fundamental loss of our cultural inheritance and has had disastrous consequences on our moral attitudes and beliefs.
All but a few of us are descendants of immigrants. Some have families who immigrated more recently, and some much further back. (The Winfrey’s came to the colonies from England to Jamestown in 1624.) Most of our ancestors came from a world that was primarily agricultural. The list of changes in our culture caused by the Industrial Revolution is long and tragic. The darkness of Charles Dickens’ works come to mind which describe the injustices of the Industrial age in Victorian England. There is a certain grittiness and sense of alienation that is part of the age. Industrialism has gave way to commercialism--which was equally depersonalizing, and this in turn has given way to a relativism that seeks to find personal meaning as individuals apart from community. It’s bound to fail, because individuals cannot exist apart from a community any more than communities can exist without a gathering of a collection of persons.
There was in the late 19th century a romantic notion of the agrarian society as being the noble society (I might suggest that the current green movement is no less a romanticized notion of civilization. It too is a utopian ideal, which as St. Thomas More who coined the word used, it means, “no where.” It’s a fantasy and illusion.) Yet behind even misguided movements there is often a little truth. The truth of this notion was not that society which is agricultural is more noble, but rather that communities that are fully integrated with each other are healthier and therefore have the capacity to act in noble ways.
Parish churches originally were geographically defined. Several hamlets may be joined together as one parish, or they may be joined to a villages parish. This parish was both sacred and secular in terms of governing and binding the people. Towns would have been divided into several parishes, with cities (properly called) having a cathedral as well as several parishes.
The loss of organic community through industrialization, of the division of Christendom into vying groups, and exaltation of one’s own individuality over community has been catastrophic. Christianity has not learned to function well as though it is a large corporation, because it is ultimately a real community of people joined in life before the Altar of Christ. The entire concerns of the parish (geographical area) are the concerns of the parish church. The essence of community is why I suggest that parishes ought to have something of a membership cap. Once parishes grow to over 500, they lose the character of communities and become corporate administrative units instead.
I would hope that we might look back to the source of our religious cultural experience and embrace what I would think of as a more vibrant and interconnected parochial life. Let our visions be directed more by the English parish church, than by the great French cathedrals as grand as they are. We need intimacy in our society now. We need to have the full experience of a healthy Christian community. The notions of Christianity as entertainment that are unspokenly advocated by the church growth movement will lead to bankruptcy and so many people will leave not just those communities, but Christianity altogether because they will not understand what it truly is.