Today we bring you a guest post from Andrew Rumsey, Rector of the Oxted Team Ministry and author of Parish: An Anglican Theology of Place which is published later this month.
‘Parochial’ is a problematic word. In the past year, following Britain’s decision to withdraw from the European Union, it has also become highly politicised. Whilst ‘parish’ easily evokes an idyll of (probably rural, probably English) settlement, its extended form ‘parochial’ is almost always employed in the derogatory sense of blinkered insularity: the social drawbridge slammed shut. For those watching in dismay at the growth of popular national movements across Europe, the new parochialism is a doubly bad thing, denoting both fear of the outsider and the retrogressive urge to regain some Edenic past – ideally at a point when nurses still wore hats.
And yet, according to the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, ‘All great civilisations are based on parochialism ‘Greek, Israelite, English…’ Continuing that ‘it requires a great deal of courage to be parochial’, Kavanagh’s point is that parochialism involves confidence and pride in the authenticity of local experience, which requires no constant comparison with, or recourse to neighbouring forms of expression. Parish is, after all, the nearby community, and it is this ‘nearness’ that is the key to most of the perceived blights and benefits of parochial life – its equal suggestion of settled support and suffocating pettiness.
That the word has such a painful double edge is due to its unusual blend of secular and sacred associations. In ancient Graeco-Roman society, paroikia described the community of people either living physically beyond the city boundaries (literally ‘those beside the house’) or as non-citizens within the walls. They were those who lived nearby, but didn’t quite belong. Not a little ironic, then, that ‘parochial’ has come to epitomise insularity and self-containment when its original meaning is far closer to our contemporary definitions of interloper or refugee. Its effective transition in meaning from ‘stranger’ to ‘friend’, came about because the early Christian church adopted ‘parish’ (much as they had done with another political term ‘ecclesia’) for their own local organisation. The Christian paroikia were those who didn’t belong in a worldly sense but had found their place in the community of Jesus Christ.
When, in the late sixth century, Roman Christianity returned to England with the arrival of Augustine on the Kent coast, this parochial idea came ashore too. Very gradually (only becoming a national ‘system’ by about 1200) the parish grew into the essential building block of English society, and the nucleus of all local government. Only in my grandparents’ lifetime did the parish concede to secular local authorities this historic responsibility, not only for souls, but schools, roads, welfare and myriad other details of communal life. Glance at the minute book in my church vestry and, up until 1894, the discussions are mainly about local drainage. This legacy could, of course, be remarkably oppressive (think ‘God is love’ emblazoned above Oliver Twist’s workhouse) and so it is unsurprising that parochialism emerged as a curiously ambivalent word: both a communal ideal to aspire (or return) to, and an utterly stifling place, from which one must, at all costs, break out.
Parochialism is thus the bane and boon of English politics. Like all positions, it 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. To play down boundaries is to not belong anywhere in particular: which is why internationalism, by denying cultural identity, is equally prone to fostering bigotry. Whenever received wisdom insists 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 a heavy measure of despair. If liberalism is to survive in post-Brexit Britain, it has no option but to reconsider its longstanding antipathy to social boundaries, local and national.
In his early poem Mending Wall, Robert Frost uses the gruff refrain “good fences make good neighbours”, repeated by the old man living next door, to explore the paradox that boundaries are necessary in order for people to live together. “Before I built a wall”, Frost reflects, “ I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out”. Such physical boundaries give concrete form to a much less visible social contract. Though shaped by landscape, gated and punctuated by signs, lines and barriers, a community begins, essentially, as an idea: its border a meniscus formed by the surface tension of people pulling together. When these are imposed from outside– witness the crude, imperial carve-up of Africa in the 1880s or Europe after the Great War – they tend to end in communal dismemberment. Enduring community is internally conceived and exists as the product of a shared imagination, as the Marxist writer Benedict Anderson observed, in Imagined Communities, his seminal work on nationalism. Nations, he writes, are “conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship”, the limits of which are fixed in relation to one’s neighbours.
Boundaries are thus concerned with belonging – the consequence of what St Augustine called “the common objects of love”, notwithstanding the fact that, when people love in common, the objects of their shared fear and hatred are never far away. So then, to play borders down is not to belong: to love everywhere equally is to love nowhere very much. Contemporary human geography tends to encourage the view that heavily drawn national and local boundaries are, at best, socially restrictive and, at worst, geographically redundant. In For Space, her apologia for a more ‘open’, dynamic conception of locality, the influential British Geographer Doreen Massey contends that, in the Modern era, space was seen as an essentially static commodity, ripe for conquest and containment. This, she argues, was profoundly flawed, geographically, as space, being a social product, always evades capture by its very fluidity. Her plea for a more ‘messy’ understanding of space and place is at its most winning in its desire that they should enable the ‘thrown togetherness’ that ‘may set us down next to the unexpected neighbour’. Against the rigid mapping of human territory, she writes: “On the road map you won’t drive off the edge of your known world. In space as I want to imagine it, you just might”.
But the vital counterpoint is that boundaries enable one to do just that – by delineating and describing the ‘known world’. Indeed, there is arguably no such thing as a ‘known world’ without a boundary, personal knowledge always being limited. Boundaries are thus a necessary part of human physicality: communities require them as bodies require skin. They exist in order to enable social inclusion, not frustrate it. For the sake of a clear and pleasant worldview, there is a temptation to remove them from sight: to make each one a kind of cultural ha-ha, giving the illusion of free passage until you realize the ground has disappeared underneath you.
As with neighbourhood, so with the nation. In his essay Is patriotism a virtue? the ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre disputed the liberal idea that to act morally, ‘is to learn to free oneself from social particularity’ – to be, effectively, ‘citizens of everywhere’. On the contrary, he argues:
‘Where’ and ‘from whom’ I learn my morality turn out to be crucial for the context and nature of moral commitment, as any form of morality will be intimately connected with specific institutional arrangements.
Loyalty to a particular community, he continues, is ‘a prerequisite for morality’, concluding: ‘deprived of this community I am unlikely to flourish as a moral agent.’ In Mending Wall, Robert Frost questions the wisdom in bricking up a boundary where none seems to be needed – especially when there is so much that ‘wants it down’. As for his neighbour, he reflects:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
Nevertheless, the shared task of reconstructing the wall – dismissed at first as “just another outdoor game: one on a side” – becomes both the occasion and the fulcrum of his relationship to the old man next door, whose only refrain is ‘good fences make good neighbours.’ The pressing contemporary challenge is thus not how to dismantle borders, but reconfigure them so that both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ relationships are enabled in morally and socially positive ways.
Fundamentally, this requires starting, not at a community’s limits but at its centre, for boundaries are merely the extension of our core vision and purpose. If your society’s borders have gone haywire, something is badly wrong at the centre. When, however, the ‘soul’ of a community or nation is secure, the borders can afford to be less so, paradoxically, because – to employ the familiar trope of neighbourhood – this is the kind of place where you can leave your door open. May it become so here.
Parish: An Anglican Theology of Place is published on 30th June. For more details about the book, do take a look at our website.