Friday, May 18, 2007

Beating the Bounds: An Alternative View

Commentary by Robin G. Jordan

Does Anglicanism really want to rediscover the practice of “beating the bounds” (“Beating the bounds into the bishop,” Church Times - 5/11/07)?

First the practice of “beating the bounds” is much older than Giles Fraser would have us believe and has decidedly pagan origins. Before the Roman invasion of the British Isles “beating the bounds” was part of the pagan Celtic festival of Beltane. It involved people in a locality walking around the boundaries of a farmstead, village or larger settlement, pausing as they passed certain trees, walls, and hedges that marked the extent of these boundaries, and beating these particular landmarks with sticks as part of the ritual. It also had connections to the pagan Celtic festival of Samaine. At the end of the Celtic year, which occurred in late October, birch twigs were cut and made into besoms. A besom is the familiar “witch broom” of folklore. These besoms were used to beat specific stones or markers to drive out the evil spirits and to purify the land.

Second, as late as the early 20th century, at certain points on the boundary the “bounders” would beat the young boys of the community with the sticks. These boys were subject to other acts of violence that would result in a prison sentence today. The boys were held upside down and their heads bounced on a “boundstone,” or marker stone. Or they were told to touch the stone, then they were grabbed, and their fingers were given a painful wrench. They were also thrown over hedges, into brambles or ponds or required to climb up chimneys or over roofs.

One explanation of these violent actions is that that they were intended to teach the boys what were the “bounds” of the community. A second explanation is much darker. The ritual beating of children with sticks and the ritual bouncing of children’s heads on marker stones is a relic of child sacrifice. The connection between boundaries and child sacrifice has parallels in the ancient custom of burying the body of a sacrificed child in the foundations of a building. The “bounders” would also beat anyone foolish enough to stray into their path.

Other ceremonies such as dancing around a May pole, “clipping,” that is holding hands around the church (and even dancing around the church in a circle), the beating of the Hobby Horse on May Day at Padstow in North Cornwall, and the Morris Men are connected with “beating the bounds.” May pole dancing had its origins in pagan fertility rites that involved human sacrifice.

What also Fraser fails to mention is that the Holy Spirit does not recognize boundaries. In the 18th century the Evangelical Revival swept the Church of England. The great Evangelical preachers like John Wesley, George Whitefield, Daniel Rowlands, and John Berridge did not restrict their gospel ministry to one parish. If the incumbent of a parish refused to permit them the use of the parish church, they preached in the open air, in the fields. Forty years after the establishment of the Protestant Episcopal Church missionaries of the Church of England’s Church Missionary Society were spreading the gospel in Washington and Oregon and evangelizing the native American peoples of that region.

If Joe Hawes’ church is really growing as Frazier claims, the establishment of a second Church of England church in its shadow should not threaten its growth. Even though the church may have 600 on its electoral roll, it is doubtful that worship attendance on a regular Sunday is that large. That would make it the equivalent of a “megachurch” in the Church of England. If indeed All Saints’ Fullham is a “megachurch,” the Co-Mission Initiative new church start is not going to harm it at all.

Generally, however, the churches that are the most resistant to the planting of new churches within their locality are plateaued or declining churches. They are the ones that are most fearful that a new church will attract newcomers to the locality or attract their own church members away from them. Growing, large churches are not threatened by the establishment of new churches in their locality.

One of the lessons of the “Decade of Evangelism” of the last century is that most existing churches are not very effective in reaching the unchurched. The best method of reaching the unchurched is to plant new churches. The implication is that in order to reach the unchurched, we must be willing to plant new churches in the shadow of existing churches. As Rick Warren has observed in The Purpose Driven Church, all kinds of churches are needed to reach the unchurched. One kind of church does not work for all. Even if an existing church is effectively reaching one segment of a locality’s unchurched population, new churches are needed to reach other segments of that unchurched population.

The Co-Mission Initiative in London was established by Richard Coekin. While the Co-Mission Initiative is loosely affiliated with the Anglican Church, it is reality an independent church planting network that ignores parish boundaries.

To learn more about the Co-Mission Initiative, go to: (PDF file)

To learn more about the Fullham Church Plant, go to:

Fraser also neglects to mention that the Archbishop of Canterbury and the other primates of the Anglican Communion asked the Episcopal Church not to go ahead with the consecration of Gene Robinson "but that was water off the duck's back". The Episcopal Church ignored the Communion's leading bishops, just as it had ignored Lambeth Resolution 1:10. Having set a precedent, the Episcopal Church has no room to complain if other provinces follow it and ignore the Archbishop of Canterbury too. Neither do liberals in the Church of England like Fraser.

If you think about it, the Episcopal Church violated God's boundaries with its consecration of Robinson, as its liberal bishops had been with their ordination of individuals involved in same gender relationships and authorization of the blessing of same gender unions.

No church or denomination has exclusive rights to a particular patch of turf. The Lord of the harvest is God. The fields that are "white for harvest" are God's. God is the one who sends laborers into the harvest. As Jesus reminds in the parable of the vineyard workers, God has a right to do what he pleases.

He can hire workers late in the day for the same pay as those who have been working all day.

He can plant new churches in the shadow of existing ones.

He can send other Anglican provinces to labor in the harvest fields of North America.