One morning several weeks ago, I, along with around 20 parishioners from St. Paul’s K Street, embarked on the ancient custom of beating (or perambulating) the bounds. This custom, perhaps peculiar to us, was vital to the future of parishes in an age where property, town, and church bounds were not easily found on paper, but rather had to be remembered by the local people.
The parish boundaries determined important issues, such as where parishioners could graze their livestock to the tithe collected by the parish for the maintenance of the Church and clergy. For these reasons, it was important that parishioners understood the boundaries and passed this knowledge on.
About every seven years, the parish would assemble the congregation, particularly younger members of the parish, and walk around the bounds of the parish’s area tapping the boundary markers (any sort of distinctive landmark ranging from trees, walls, gates, walls, etc.) with sticks or canes as they passed to imprint upon their memory the boundary for the parish for posterity – and for them, too, to pass down to succeeding generations. (Unfortunately for the youth of the parish, the beating of the bounds also tended to involve a whipping when they reached a boundary stone, to ensure that they would remember the boundary stone’s location – and were duly compensated two pence each for their pains.)
Fortunately for us at St. Paul’s, there was no whipping for anyone involved! It may seem odd to follow this ancient tradition in the era where we have modern maps and can see our parish bounds with stunning accuracy. Like many ancient traditions whose original purpose has passed, however, a deeper meaning is found, and the tradition enriches our community.
For many of us, that day was the first time we had seen each other in person since the beginning of the pandemic, reminding us of our old friendships and the great spirit of our parish. Our time together also presented us an excellent opportunity to meet new faces – and to get to know faces we had seen at Coffee Hour in years past but had not yet had the chance to get to know.
For the next few hours (and about 6-7 miles!) we walked around the bounds of our parish, enjoying a communal fellowship we have sorely missed in the pandemic, while also having the opportunity to see our bounds – and more importantly – the community we serve.
During our walk around our bounds, we encountered members of our community from Sec. Pete Buttigieg, a stampede of marathon runners, tourists, a marching band, and locals. We also were reminded of how much work is still needed in our cure, passing the tents of those experiencing homelessness. As we reached the relative quiet of Rock Creek Park, it was impossible not to reflect upon the magnitude of our calling as members of the parish.
Our mission does not end when we hear “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” – rather that is when we are called to go out into our communities and the world to live out the heart of what we believe. Through this quirky ancient ceremony, I experienced an important reminder of this fact in a time where it is easy to feel disconnected from our parish and wider faith community – and I am most grateful for the experience. I encourage all parishes to consider ways that we can look to past traditions and repurpose them for a modern good. Tending our soil is an ongoing mission – and the lessons of the past can help us innovate our future to result in a good harvest for our parishes – with no whipping required.
Parishioner, St. Paul’s K Street