In England, local government consists of counties and parishes. While most people associate parishes with Catholic and Church of England organization, in fact, English parishes are actually subdivisions of a county, each with its own cluster of townships. The parish, itself, is a geographical area which has officers who govern its residents. Each also has it own church and clergyman. These are an outgrowth of Roman civil organization. However, the first parishes didn't come into existence until 500 years after the Romans left Britain.
Historians believe this form of local government began when the law required land owners to provide religious services for their tenants, so they built a church and leased it to a priest who cared for their spiritual welfare. Bishops or abbots founded other parishes. Monasteries flourished during the Middle Ages and their abbots ruled over vast acreages owned by the Church.
Over the centuries, several different types of parishes developed–rectories, vicarages, perpetual curacies, and benefices. The tithe or tax that residents paid and to whom they paid it determined the type of parish. In a rectory, an individual leases the parish from the founder and cares for both the physical and spiritual well-being of its residents. Within that is the vicarage, in which a priest leases a part of the parish from the rector and receives a small portion of the tithes.
In a perpetual curacy, a bishop must approve of the priest and only he can release the priest from this duties. As a reward for his or her services, a priest may be given an ecclesiastical estate known as a benefice. Today's English parishes also have other officers, all members of the parish, who volunteer to take care of civil matters for one year.
If an ecclesiastical parish was too large, causing a problem for members to easily reach the church, then its rector could establish branches called "chapelries" which remained dependent on the main church. The services offered by the chapelries differed greatly. Some offered only prayer and no sacraments while others offered only baptisms and burials.
Each parish held a monthly vestry at which its officers met to deal with both civil and ecclesiastical duties. The parish council in the BBC production of "The Vicar of Dibley" is one such organization. And while parishes still have influence over church matters, the British Government has assumed control over civil matters.
To search parish registers, you should begin at British County Records Offices (CROs). Search for the Web site for the particular county in which your ancestor lived by starting with a general search for "county records office UK." Once you make contact, you'll have to use an agent to search the records, so ask that particular office for its list of agents who can make searches for you in its records. To find the records of the Church of England, consult The Atlas and Index of Parish Registers. You may also fine some listing for books containing parish records in the British Family History Library Catalog. Many ecclesiastical records can also be found in diocesan offices.
If you're ancestor was not a member of the Church of England, then you'll have to consult the nonconformist records in the Public Record Office in London. You'll find microfilms of these records listed in the Family History Library Catalog.
If you can't find the information you need on the Internet, you'll need to write or E-mail the appropriate record office in England. The first time you write keep your message short and simple, requesting only one item of information.