The parish of Nowhere

It is ironic that the word parish and its attendant adjective parochial should have come to connote the local, the provincial, the rustic, the geographically rooted, the inward looking, the anti-cosmopolitan.

Indeed, as a British person who was brought up as an Anglican, when I think of the word parish I still imagine (quite a feat of imagination in modern Britain these days) a picturesque rural community, centred around its medieval church in whose grounds there are tombstones with surnames inscribed on them that are still common among today’s villagers. The word parish conjures up a sense of tradition, place and continuity.

Alas, alas, my discovery of the etymology of the word parish paints a different picture…

The word comes from the Greek παροικία (paroikia) and appears to have been used early on by Christian communities to describe themselves. But far from signifying a sense of local identity, or even geography or place, the word in fact suggests that the early Christians saw themselves as spiritual nomads  – mere sojourners in a foreign land.

It was the others, the non-Christians, who were the locals, the rustics, the pagans. The Christians preferred to stand aloof: rootless cosmopolitans seeing themselves as strangers from another kingdom living as a little faithful cell amongst alien peoples.

Their parish, in the modern sense of the word, was nowhere. At least not in this world.

Christianity is essentially a rootless, cosmopolitan religion, as the history of its earliest adherents attests. It is expansionist and universalist in its nature, with no interest in preserving local, ethnic or racial identity. Local and ethnic identity in Christian lands continue to exist in spite of and not because of its influence.

Those Europeans who would cling to it in the hope of preserving their roots, identity and homeland will, I fear, be disappointed.