The founder of our Methodist movement, John Wesley, is often celebrated for declaring that “The world is my parish ….” This quote has inspired many to serve in ministry around the world. However, most contemporary Methodist churches do not organize themselves in parishes the way Wesley’s church did. What did Wesley mean when he said this? What does it mean to see the world as our parish today?
First, we need a little background. As the son of an Anglican priest, Wesley grew up in a parish church. He served as a parish priest. After his life-changing experience on Aldersgate Street in London in May 1738, Wesley’s preaching was considered so radical and controversial that he was banned from the pulpit in the Anglican church. Wesley was now a priest with no parish. It was then that Wesley began to practice ministry in ways that would, for him, redefine “parish.”
Though he had no pulpit of his own, he still saw the great need for spreading the good news of Jesus Christ throughout England, particularly to the poor and working classes. In a radical departure from the current practice, he preached in the fields, the city squares, and outside the coal mines to anyone who would hear. In doing so, he was changing what it meant to minister to a particular community. Some accused Wesley of crossing parish lines and therefore “trespassing” on the work that belonged to the priest assigned to that geographic area—that is, another’s parish. When responding to critics of his radical methods of ministry, Wesley said, “I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, [it is my] duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation. This is the work which I know God has called me to; and sure I am that his blessing attends it” (journal entry for 11 June 1739).
To understand what he means by this, we need to look a bit closer at how the church understood the “parish” in that particular time period and how it remains true for many today. The idea of organizing a parish is rooted in three important principles:
Provide a Christian Presence for All
The parish system was designed to provide a Christian presence everywhere in the land. Geography defines a parish. By the simple fact that a person lived in that geographic area, they were deemed to have access to that church—in all its facets. That was your church on Sundays and holidays, and for your baptism, your wedding, your funeral. The parish church was a sign of Christ’s welcome, work, and ministry in every aspect of life for every person who lived there.
All Deserve the Care of the Church
This means that the church, and therefore the parish priest, had the responsibility for the people who live there. The priests were to minister to the people in every part of their lives, and therefore could not minister only to those whom they chose or whom they deemed worthy of their time and interest. Rather, the parish was intended to signify that a relationship with God is available to all. As such, the church has an obligation to care for all. All includes the people that you don’t always get along with. All includes the people that you find difficult to love. All includes those who have a different background, heritage, or ethnicity.
The Church Is Both Global and Local
Each community had, by default, a church in it. At the same time, the church is universal—it exists beyond one’s own neighborhood, town, or village. Yet, it is particular to each neighborhood, town, and village, and each person in it. The church is global in that we are connected to the witness of Christians on every continent and in every land. And we are particular. None of us who live outside a community can minister in that situation the same way that a local church can, though we all have a part to play. And no one can minister in your community the way you can. You have a unique role to play in ministry, and the global church has a part to play too. This should be celebrated and embraced.
The strength of the early Methodist revival was that it was a movement that emphasized personal and social holiness that could only come through authentic Christian discipleship. Mr. Wesley was willing to break the limits of the traditional parish to share that message. Modern Methodists, who are not bound by the limitations of the parish of Wesley’s time, can use these same principles for mission and evangelism. For many of us today, communities are not defined by geography like the parish of Wesley’s era, but by common interests. We tend to spend time with those who like the same things we do or visit the same places. We might know much more about the people on our soccer team, in our book club, or at the gym than we know about the people who live on our street. These places can be seen as a modern parish, so to speak. Recognition of each of these foundations of parish ministry can inspire us to share Christ’s love in the different kinds of communities we find ourselves today.