For the parish, sacraments are both purpose and place, argues Alison Milbank


Reading responses to the amalgamation of parishes in Wigan, I was moved by the many letters of protest from ordinary Anglicans, sometimes hand-written, giving them an added poignancy. Most laid out their life story as illustrated by the building of their local church: here they were christened and married and family members had their funeral. Week by week they had gathered there for the eucharist. The sacraments structured and gave meaning to their lives and they feared very much the loss of regular eucharistic worship in the new arrangements, especially when they were to be joined to churches of a non-liturgical persuasion. Sacraments are the main way in which ordinary Christians can find value in lives that may not have great social status or even be capable of being described as a ‘journey’, in the language beloved by those who devise house-group study materials. For these people, the font and the altar made sense of their struggles and their joys. 

Place itself is sacramental for a Christian and an Anglican Christian especially. Our Catholic revival cherished above all the doctrine of Incarnation and the local parish for us is the embodiment of the sacramental nature of the Church herself. The Church is the continuation of the Incarnation as Christ’s body and we are, however inadequately expressed, the sacrament of his presence in the particularity of parish. Influenced by F.D. Maurice’s generous theology of the kingdom of Christ, we have always seen the Church as the site of the eschatological unveiling of the whole people as God’s children, and our social action has been a natural outworking of this sacramental vision.

I have come across Anglo-Catholics who are impatient with this parochialism, for whom the reordering and mission-hub model about to be unleashed upon so many dioceses are less important than the fact that Catholic worship is going on somewhere. They (the unleashers) do not seem to realise that there is what one priest described to me as ‘a residual catholicism’ in even the most low-church parish community. By that he meant that the way of life of a traditional parish cherishes liturgy itself as rhythm, inhabits custom and ceremony, values natural and human bonds, and is inherently sacramental. The widespread adherence to the Book of Common Prayer among rural congregations is evidence of this. Its eucharistic prayer may have a too-vestigial an epiclesis but its rites open a strongly transcendent dimension and its every word has a material depth and sacramental potential. Moreover, the Catholic Revival and the Parish and People Movement combined have put sacramental worship and a weekly eucharist at the heart of most parishes, so that people feel deprived if they cannot celebrate Holy Communion together on a Sunday. It is a great shock to many faithful Anglicans to be told they need to wean themselves from this dependence by their diocesan leaders.

I think it overwhelmingly likely that the sacramental structure of Anglican worship will totter in the wake of these reorganizations and that we will lose the very people we take for granted as what one bishop described recently as the ‘rump of believers’. For with the destabilising of albeit often elderly and small congregations and their whole habitus as a worshipping community, embedded in locality as a sacramental reality, we will lose the centrality of the eucharist and with it the occasional offices as well. I did a quick survey this month of resource churches up and down the country and – with the exception of the few fig-leaf Catholic examples – the eucharist is not advertised as such at all! I hope it is celebrated sometimes but when and how I know not from the websites, which do not mention occasional offices. 

By contrast, parish church and sacraments go together. Indeed, a bishop told me that he could not prevent young couples wanting to go back to the parish church for their baby’s baptism, even if they attended a church ‘plant’ or Fresh Expression. Milton Keynes witnessed the same phenomenon of people preferring the ancient villages churches swept up into the new town for their rites of passage. For anyone can see the naturalness of sacraments in the parish church by the centrality of the font. I do not intend to underplay the depth of the problems we face as a Church and there may well be a need for some parish reorganization until we reform our bureaucracy, redistribute our resources, and recover confidence in our Anglican ecclesiology, theology and sacraments. These are massive tasks. But without Anglican ecclesiology we will lose our sacraments. They should be at the forefront of our outreach for there is no easier place to preach the gospel and make it relevant to daily life than at a baptism or other occasional offices. Marriage, for example, in the parochial context, emphasizes the public nature of the sacrament, as the couple take their part as an embodiment of relationality and commitment among their neighbours. It stops it being a purely personal and inward-looking relation. The danger of being Anglo-Catholic is that one similarly turns inwards to a safe world where asperging is always done correctly and the faith is full. The parish keeps our sacraments outwardly directed as we ‘walk with Christ, mystically present with you, through the streets of this country’, as Bishop Frank Weston directed – as living sacraments of Our Lord, and delighting in the people and place as equally revelatory of his presence.

The Revd Canon Professor Alison Milbank is Professor of Theology and Literature at the University of Nottingham. She is on the steering committee of ‘Save the Parish’ and her new book The Once and Future Parish will be published by SCM Press later this year.