Are "parishes" the same as "churches"?

ePIt's time to answer a picky question.

... tmatt, forgive me for asking this here (the devil made me), but when are you ever going to reveal why you changed "church" to "parish?"

Posted by Fr Joseph Huneycutt at 7:19 am on January 4, 2007

This does seem like such a tiny matter. However, I mentioned it in the original post for one reason -- it's the kind of nuanced, inside-baseball decision that journalists have to make all the time. This is especially true on a beat like religion, where words and symbols are so important. Some religious words have meanings on a technical or even doctrinal level, yet they also have taken on informal or popular meanings as well. Take the whole issue of "fundamentalist" and "fundamentalism," for example.

First, here is the crucial passage in my original column, "Covering Church: Rights vs. Rites." I've included a few other paragraphs as background, for reasons that will become obvious.

The church I attended, however, was holding a vigil on the night of a major execution and, as a person who opposes the "culture of death" in all its forms, I decided to attend the service. What I failed to realize was the journalistic importance of our church being visually beautiful and close to the downtown media.

Our small flock gathered late that night to say prayers in the darkened sanctuary, which was lit by a few candles near the altar.

Then we were invaded.

As our priest tried to lead us in a hushed litany, a television crew entered. I confess that I stopped my prayers long enough to study the lighting rig mounted on the cameraman's shoulders. It turned him into an alien-like creature as he clanked down the center aisle. He proceeded right past the pulpit and, before reaching the altar, turned to shoot from behind the priest. His lights almost blinded the people kneeling in the front rows.

In the original version of this column, the very first phrase in this passage read: "The parish I attended ..." I am considering writing another version of this column for Scripps Howard, one more oriented to lay readers rather than journalists, and I will probably use "parish" in that piece.

Why was the word changed?

An editor at raised the issue that, if I used the word "parish," many readers would think that I was saying that this worship event took place in a Catholic sanctuary. You could argue that I further confused the matter by using the phrase "culture of death," a reference to a key concept in the writings of the late Pope John Paul II.

However, the service in question took place in an Episcopal church. This is another flock that frequently uses the term "parish," with that term being especially common in the communion's Anglo-Catholic wing. Eastern Orthodox Christians also use the term "parish" quite a bit.

I used the term for one reason and one reason alone: I was trying to avoid a denominational label on this prayer service, yet I intentionally used several words -- referring to candles, a priest, rites, the altar, a litany, etc. -- that I hoped painted a word picture for my readers. I wanted them to see this television camera crew walking into a particular kind of sanctuary, violating a particular kind of liturgical atmosphere.

In other words, I thought that "church" was accurate, but that "parish" was also accurate -- only it was a more evocative word for the average reader.

Like I said, it's a minor point and I did not oppose the change, largely because the editors and other folks who work at are absolutely top knotch and I have the utmost respect for what they do. But this was a small case where the writer -- that would be me -- thought he was being accurate and an editor was not so sure about that. So the change was made.

But, you have to ask. Do Episcopalians have "parishes"? Do the Orthodox? How about Lutherans? For the average reader, what is the difference between a "church" and a "parish"? A "priest" and a "pastor"? We all use these kinds of words all the time and, I think, every now and then it's good to stop and ponder their precise meanings.

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