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A parish is a church territorial unit constituting a division of a diocese. A parish is under the pastoral care and clerical jurisdiction of a parish priest, who might be assisted by one or more curates, and who operates from a parish church. Historically, a parish often covered the same geographical area as a manor (whilst still being defined by the parish church).
By extension the term parish refers not only to the territorial unit but to the people of its community or congregation as well as to church property within it. In England this church property was technically in the ownership of the parish priest, vested in him on his institution to that parish.
The word parish originated from the Greek paroikia, "the dwelling-place of the priest". The eighth Archbishop of Canterbury Theodore of Tarsus (c.602–690) applied to the Anglo-Saxon township unit, where it existed, the ecclesiastical term "parish".
First attested in English in the late 13th-century, the word parish comes from the Old French paroisse, in turn from Latin: paroecia, the latinisation of the Ancient Greek: παροικία paroikia, "sojourning in a foreign land", itself from πάροικος (paroikos), "dwelling beside, stranger, sojourner", which is a compound of παρά (para), "beside, by, near" + (oikos), "house".
As an ancient concept, the term "parish" occurs in the long-established Christian denominations: Roman Catholic, Anglican Communion, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Lutheran churches, and in some Methodist and Presbyterian administrations.
In the Roman Catholic Church, each parish normally has its own parish priest (in some countries called the pastor), who has responsibility and canonical authority over the parish.
What in most English-speaking countries is termed the "parish priest" is referred to as the "pastor" in the United States, where the term "parish priest" is used of any priest assigned to a parish even in a subordinate capacity. These are called "assistant priests", "parochial vicars", "curates", or, in the United States, "associate pastors" and "assistant pastors".
Each diocese (administrative region) is divided into parishes, each with their own central church called the parish church, where religious services take place. Some larger parishes or parishes that have been combined under one pastor may have two or more such churches, or the parish may be responsible for chapels (or chapels of ease) located at some distance from the mother church for the convenience of distant parishioners.
Normally, a parish comprises all Catholics living in its territory, but parishes can also be established within a defined geographical area on a personal basis for Catholics of a particular rite, language, nationality or the like. An example is that of personal parishes established in accordance with the 7 July 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum for those attached to the older form of the Roman Rite.
Most Catholic parishes are part of Latin Rite dioceses, which together cover the whole territory of a country. There can also be overlapping parishes of eparchies of Eastern Catholic Churches, personal ordinariates or military ordinariates.
The Church of England at its heart views the local parish church as the basic unit. The parish system survived the Reformation and the Church's secession from Rome largely untouched, so it shares its roots with the Roman Catholic system described above. One parish may have been situated in different counties or hundreds and in many cases parishes contained in addition to its principal district several outlying portions, usually described as 'detached', intermixed with the lands in other parishes. Church of England parishes are currently each within one of 44 dioceses divided between the provinces of Canterbury, 30 and York, 14.
Each parish should have its own parish priest (who might be termed its vicar or its rector), perhaps supported by one or more curates or deacons - although as a result of ecclesiastical pluralism some parish priests might have held more than one parish living, placing a curate in charge of those where they did not reside. Now, however, it is common for a number of neighbouring parishes to be placed in the charge of a single vicar who takes services at them in rotation, with additional services being provided by lay readers or other non-ordained members of the congregation.
In England Civil parishes and their governing parish councils evolved in the 19th century as ecclesiastical parishes began to be relieved of what became considered to be civil responsibilities. Their separate boundaries began to vary. The word "parish" acquired a secular usage. Since 1895, a parish council elected by the general public or a (civil) parish meeting administers a civil parish and is the level of local government below a district council.
The traditional structure of the Church of England with the parish as the basic unit has been exported to other countries and churches within the Anglican Communion but is not necessarily administered in the same way.
In the Church of Scotland, the parish is basic level of church administration. The spiritual oversight of each parish church is responsibility of the congregation's Kirk Session. Patronage was regulated in 1711 (Patronage Act) and abolished in 1874, so that ministers must be elected by members of the congregation. Many parish churches are now "linked" with neighbouring parish churches (served by a single minister.) With the abolition of parishes as a unit of civil government in Scotland, parishes now have a purely ecclesiastical significance in Scotland (and the boundaries may be adjusted by the local Presbytery).
Although they are more often simply called congregations and have no geographic boundaries, in the United States some United Methodist Church congregations are called parishes. The United Methodist Bishop of the Episcopal Area appoints a pastor to each congregation. The same is true in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.