Thinking allowed

Parish Communion

It’s hard to imagine what the Church of England was like before the Parish Communion movement — and yet the movement itself is virtually unknown today. Through the majority of the twentieth century, certainly right up until the 1960s, the movement was active in promoting its vision of life and worship in the Church of England, attracting support from bishops and synods. But it very quickly faded from the scene, so that even those of us who grew up in the 1960s Church may well not have come across it.

At the same time as the Liturgical Movement was growing across the Roman Catholic Church, recovering a sense of the corporate nature of the liturgy, the Parish Communion movement (as it came to be called) was born and grew in England. The two movements seem to have begun and developed independently, though eventually they came into contact.

The history of the Parish Communion movement is told in Donald Gray’s book Earth and Altar: Evolution of the Parish Communion in the Church of England to 1945 (Alcuin Club Collections 68, 1986). Its roots lie in the Anglo-Catholic revival and the Oxford Movement, beginning with John Keble’s Assize Sermon in Oxford in 1833. The resulting interest in sacramental worship led to an increase in the celebration of Holy Communion, frequently with an increasing use of ceremonial. Because of the requirement of many Anglo-Catholics that the sacrament should be received fasting, it became the custom for the main ceremonial celebration of the Eucharist in many such parishes to be almost entirely a non-communicating act. Only the priest and perhaps one or two others would receive Communion. For the rest of the congregation, attending after Sunday breakfast just as they had previously attended Mattins, this was a choral, ceremonial and devotional high-point, but one in which they were passive rather than active participants. For the more ‘devout’ there would typically be one or more early celebrations at 8am and perhaps 7am so that they could receive the sacrament before breaking their fast.

At the same time, Anglo-Catholic priests were noted for their work in impoverished and neglected areas, particularly in the slums and docklands of large English cities and ports, and various groupings of Christian socialists and other activists came and went.

The Parish Communion movement combined two main aims:

  • it strove to make the celebration of the Eucharist the primary service on a Sunday morning in each parish church, and to insist that it was a service at which the congregation should receive the sacrament;
  • and it emphasised the link between that celebration of the Eucharist and social action

Social action was considered to be very closely aligned with the Labour movement, which itself was growing in strength during the first half of the twentieth century. At a time when the Church of England was still very widely regarded as the Conservative Party at prayer, the Parish Communion movement might be regarded as the Labour Party at prayer.

In order for the congregation to receive the sacrament before breakfasting the time of the service had to be one that was earlier than the norm of Mattins or High Mass at 11am, but late enough for them to have a bit of a lie-in on their weekly day of rest. 9am or 9.30am became a popular time. Parishes which still have their main Sunday morning Eucharist at this time were quite likely ones that participated in the Parish Communion movement. Frequently the service was followed by a parish breakfast. Not all those associated with the movement were insistent on fasting before communion — but its leaders and advocates were adamant on this point.

And what about ‘social action’? This other important part of the life of the Church was focussed on a weekly ‘parish meeting’, perhaps in the middle of the week, at which such issues could be discussed and support given to various initiatives, whether local, national or international.

What the promoters of the Parish Communion emphasised was the corporate nature of the Church, the corporate nature of the Eucharist, and the essential and corporate nature of the social action that was intimately bound up with them. The great manifesto of the movement was a collection of essays, The Parish Communion, published in 1937, edited by the Revd Gabriel Hebert. Momentum grew, and after the Second World War Parish and People was established as a group to campaign for the goals of the movement. With the reality of a majority Labour government from 1945, perhaps the political angle of the movement changed. By 1962, when Parish and People was celebrating the 25th anniversary of the publication of The Parish Communion, the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM, recently renamed Christians on the Left) was being set up. There was much overlap between the two groups, and the CSM followed on from a plethora of similar socialist groupings, but gradually the two movements separated. By the end of the 1960s, having to a large extent achieved its liturgical aims, Parish and People had faded, although it continued to exist until the end of 2013.

What then did the Parish Communion movement achieve, and what can be learnt from it? Primarily it reminded large chunks of the Church of England (and other Anglican churches too) of the centrality of the Eucharist, and of the importance of a corporate celebration at which all received the sacrament. It was successful in promoting this ideal not only across much of the Anglo-Catholic world in which it originated and across the more central groups in the Church, but also into the more central-evangelical parts of the Church, so that a parish communion on a Sunday morning came to be seen as the norm. It linked this fundamentally with what it saw as the social justice agenda of the Church’s mission — though as socialism was tried in the secular world this perhaps became a party-political position that did not always sit well with those who were hearing the liturgical message. It fell short, perhaps, in a lack of attention to evangelism.

These three strands — the liturgy, action for social justice, and concern for evangelism — are the areas that we shall explore in this blog. The social justice agenda itself will largely be left to our sister Thinking Anglicans blog: here our concern is how that is linked to the liturgy. Similarly the topic of evangelism itself will be explored in the context of the liturgy: of what we do in Church, how our buildings serve us as local centres of worship, justice and evangelism.

4 comments

  • Thomas Rightmyer says:

    It might be interesting to trace connections between the English Use movement (Dearmer’s Parson’s Handbook) and the Parish Communion movement. I was raised as a Prayer Book Catholic and my sermon blog is prayerbookctholicnc.blogspot.com

  • The fact that “a parish communion on a Sunday morning came to be seen as the norm” had a downside as well as an upside. Looking at it from the outside, a service of Holy Communion is very much for the committed believing Anglican: for those of us who are not, it can be somewhat excluding.

    Which doesn’t matter at all in an urban context where it’s easy enough to find a church or chapel of one’s own tradition – but it’s not so easy in rural areas. I’m lucky to live three miles away from my local Quaker Meeting in rural N Lancs – but if going to Meeting meant a ten-mile drive into the horrible traffic of Lancaster I’m not sure what I’d do. Walk to my parish church, sit at the back and avoid reciting the Nicene Creed, maybe?

  • Frank: it will be the contention of this blog that the Eucharist, appropriately celebrated, is as much a service of mission as a service for the committed. I don’t disagree with the points you make in the context of the way that the Eucharist is currently normally celebrated in many Anglican and other places. Nor am I suggesting that the Eucharist is the only act of worship.

    The questions of what makes a service welcoming, what makes a service suitable for the uncommitted and the outsider, and more important what a ‘service’ actually is — these are all good questions to be explored.

  • James A says:

    Stephen Cottrell wrote a very helpful piece on the Eucharist as a mission-orientated liturgy about 15 years ago. He recognises that, if you’re not part of the culture of the Church, EVERY act of worship is difficult – not least the ‘Family Service’ which can be excruciating for those beyond the committed life of the church because it offers no anonymity or space to grow into the church at your own pace. He likened non-Eucharistic family services to Brechtian drama: before you know it, you’re on the stage! It was originally published in Anglican world; but it may have also been in one of the Aff Cath journals. It would be worth posting on TL.

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