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Derived from the Greek paroikia, or “district,” the term seems till about the fourth century to have corresponded to a whole diocese and only later to small subdivisions of the same. By the later Middle Ages the parish had emerged as a definite geographical district, its inhabitants restricted to a particular church to which they paid tithes and which had a single incumbent appointed either by the bishop, patron, or less usually, by the parishioners themselves. At the Reformation both Lutherans and Calvinists retained the parish system, the latter for administrative convenience only. In England the establishment of the parochial system has usually been attributed to Archbishop Theodore (seventh century) but its origins are now placed much earlier, even as far back as pre- Christian times.

From the Middle Ages onward the English parish became a unit of civil administration, the priest in his ecclesiastical duties being aided by constables, churchwardens, overseers of the poor, and elected vestries. This parochial pattern was changed only when the growth of the population led to the creation of new parishes by Acts of 1710, 1818, and 1824 and, more recently, through Orders in Council on the initiative of the Church Commissioners. In recent years, with the development of specialized and team ministries, the traditional parochial system has come under attack, but is often defended by Anglican Evangelicals who cherish the individual minister's freedom which it guarantees. The term was imported into the USA where, however, it is often applied in general to a Protestant minister's congregation or cure of souls without reference to geographical limitations.