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The Beating of the Parish Bounds

Updated: May 11, 2023

Rogation Sunday: a brief history of the parish boundaries


In another age of turmoil in our common life, with "godly peace and quiet" rent by passions, when we have lost a sense of the commonweal, perhaps contemporary Anglicans might learn from their Restoration forebears how Rogationtide can recall us to seek and serve the common good.



This Sunday, the Fifth after Easter, is Rogation Sunday. In the Prayer Book calendar, the weeks after Easter draw to a close on this their final Sunday. In turn, on the three Rogation days before the Ascension, we are called to turn to God in fasting and prayer. On the one hand, these days have the purpose of preparing us to celebrate a great Feast of the Church. On the other hand, however, there is something purposeful about, we might even say something beautiful in, this short "-tide". It deserves its own recognition.


The English word "rogation" comes to us from the Latin, rogare - to ask. We are to call on God for his protection and blessing upon us, as for our land, goods and families, and for our parish. "Rogationtide" is a very English tradition. If we consider the great Christian festivals of the Calendar, we ought to recognise that they are the common property of the Church in all times and places. Christmas, Easter, Whitsun, these are all celebrated wherever two or three Christians are gathered together.


Since the 7th century, however, the Rogation Days and their folk celebrations have been a particular feature of Christianity in England. As with Rogationtide, we could point to Harvest Festivals, Remembrance Sunday, Oak Apple Day, etc. as distinctly English expressions of worship. They are celebrations grounded in place and parish, offered in thanksgiving to God. Most importantly, they are part of the culture of the country and people in a way quite unlike many of the other "Red-letter days".


Both before and after the English Reformation, the Rogation days were an opportunity to pray for God's blessing to rest upon the parish. The celebrations also served a practical purpose. Parish boundaries would have been marked. Boundary posts restored. Alms distributed.


We might call to mind the recent Coronation, and, in particular, the Archbishop's words in presenting His Majesty with the Sword of Mercy...


protect the holy Church of God and all people of goodwill, help and defend widows and orphans, restore the things that are gone to decay, maintain the things that are restored, punish and reform what is amiss, and confirm what is in good order: that doing these things you may be glorious in all virtue; and so faithfully serve our Lord Jesus Christ in this life, that you may reign for ever with him in the life which is to come. Amen.


We can see both in this prayer and in the tradition of the Rogation Days, one of the distinctive traditions within the Church of England. The Second Book of Homilies, a series of authorised sermons published during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, puts particular emphasis on this tradition. In reciting the Homily for Rogation Sunday, the preacher was to ask his congregation to


consider the old ancient bounds and limits belonging to our own township, and to other our neighbours bordering about us, to the intent that we should be content with our own, and not contentiously strive for others, to the breach of charity, by any encroaching one upon another, for claiming one of the other, further then that in ancient right and custom our forefathers have peaceably laid out unto us for our commodity and comfort.


As we prayed in the Ash Wednesday service, "Cursed is he that removeth his neighbour's land-mark". Amen indeed.


So what then of our own parish boundaries?


The parish is shaped by its history. Her relationship to neighbouring parishes, local boroughs, the police force and fire brigade... In so many ways ancient divisions have determined present day arrangements. This short history of the parish seeks to give just a few of those examples.


It is first important to consider that the idea of a distinction between an ecclesiastical parish and a civil parish would have been alien to many of our forebears. Even before the Relief of the Poor Act 1597 imposed administrative duties on the parish, the Church would have played a role in the civic life of its surrounding areas, first as hospital, then later as a parish.


Let us begin, then, at the turn of the 18th Century, following the Restoration. St Giles-in-the-Fields was (and is!) entirely within the boundaries of the historic county of Middlesex. We could spend hours on the finer details of hundreds and divisions, lieutenancy areas and quarter sessions. Suffice to say, the parish of St Giles-in-the-Fields was in the Holborn Division of the Hundred of Ossulstone in the County of Middlesex. The only change to the parish boundaries settled at the time of the Reformation, was the splitting-off in 1731 of the north-eastern portion of the parish to become St George's Bloomsbury. The two parishes were, however, in terms of government and administration one concern, reflecting the ancient parish boundaries. This is an arrangement which in many senses we continue to this day. Since 1661, for example, the joint charities of the two parishes have provided Christian education and alms within our historical parish boundaries.


In many senses, the ancient arrangement of those divisions and hundreds survives to this day. The greater part of the Holborn Division became the Metropolitan Borough of Holborn in 1900, absorbing the combined parishes of St Giles in the Fields and St George Bloomsbury, and the combined parishes of St Andrew Holborn Above the Bars with St George the Martyr. That area, now part of the London Borough of Camden, still serves, among other things, as the local police area, one half of the Westminster Constituency of Holborn and St Pancras and, rather more prosaically, as the area for the Central Business Alliance, an association of shopkeepers and businesses.


The boundaries of the parish itself have remained remarkably constant. Though there have been a number of changes through the past two centuries, the broad sweep and shape of the parish has endured. That is in itself rare. Many central London parishes have seen their areas drastically carved up and re-drawn.


Take St George's Hannover Square as an example. Once upon a time, the Parish occupied a sweep of land from Oxford Street to Pimlico and the Thames. Yet, consists now only of a few streets in Mayfair. Already, by 1870 we can how civil districts had become detached from their ecclesiastical counterpart areas. In the map below, the administrative parish, following the ancient boundaries, covered no fewer than eleven church parishes! In those days, it was often the church at the cutting edge of administrative reform!



Three maps below show the Parish of St Giles in the Fields and her environs. The first the historic parish (in pink), as it would have been from the split with St George's Bloomsbury until the early-20th century . The second, those same boundaries over-layered onto the modern street plan. The third, the modern parish, the bounds of which we shall beat as we walk this Sunday. Do join us!







Edward McMillan

10/05/2023




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