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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.
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.
Broadly speaking, the parish stands at the most basic level of administration in a church with episcopal polity, although parts of the parish may be recognized as a chapelry, within which a chapel of ease or filial church is the main worship-space due to difficulty of access to the parish church.
In the wider picture of ecclesiastical polity, a parish comprises a division of a diocese or see. Parishes within a diocese may be grouped into a deanery or vicariate forane (or simply vicariate), overseen by a dean or vicar forane, or in some cases by an archpriest. Some churches of the Anglican communion have deaneries as units of an archdeaconry.
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.
The parish is also the basic level of church administration in the Church of Scotland. Spiritual oversight of each parish church in Scotland is responsibility of the congregation's Kirk Session. Patronage was regulated in 1711 (Patronage Act) and abolished in 1874, with the result that ministers must be elected by members of the congregation. Many parish churches in Scotland today are "linked" with neighbouring parish churches served by a single minister. Since the abolition of parishes as a unit of civil government in Scotland in 1929, Scottish parishes have purely ecclesiastical significance 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 Methodist Church congregations are called parishes. A prominent example of this usage comes in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, in which the committee of every local congregation that handles staff support is referred to as the committee on Pastor-Parish Relations. This committee gives recommendations to the bishop on behalf of the parish/congregation since it is the United Methodist Bishop of the Episcopal Area that appoints a pastor to each congregation. The same is true in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.