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Hallo again to all.

A bar where once a chancel stood. Club Avalon in New York City.One hundred years ago in our town there were six Anglican churches. Today there are three. (One of the remaining three was formed by the merger of two others that then had about fifty families each; it now has fewer than thirty people in its pews each Sunday and may be headed the way of its parents in the near term.) In that same century, the population where we live has increased sixfold. Many, many other things have changed between 1907 and 2007, and it is not just churches of our communion that have decreased in number here. But it is hard to avoid the feeling that there is a significant decline taking place for Anglicanism in our postal code. We have ourselves probably contributed to that decline, as we now drive 30 miles to church and back on Sundays rather than attending one of the closer churches that seem models of self-absorption and listlessness.

Former churches near to us have identified as Low Church, High Church, conservative, or liberal; they have been of exquisite architecture and of less inspiring design. They have been in wealthy neighbourhoods and poorer neighbourhoods. They have had strong leadership and weak leadership. There seem to be as many reasons why churches close as there are churches that close. What we find unhelpful (if common) is the platitude that closing a church is really just a 'refocussing of the church's mission' when in many communities it really means the end of a visible, edible, audible, palpable and real presence. In the face of such realities, though we do not wish to assign blame, we do often mourn the loss of places where a lively faith once was, where Bible, Prayer Book and Hymnal danced within stones and mortar, and where people of all ages were nourished with daily strength for daily needs.

Once the painful decision to close a church (or occasionally a cathedral) has been made, a critical question remains: what's to be done with the bricks and sticks that have been a house for God's altar and people for decades or centuries? It is not just a question of the disposal of property. Consecration rites assume a perpetuity of worship in each place where it has begun. The very fabric of church buildings is filled with a community's memory, hallowed by repeated prayers and the awareness that a given place is indeed the house of God and gate of heaven. Churches often house burial places and memorial tablets; they are inevitably the scene of jumble sales, concerts, community meetings, polling places and suppers. A whole community suffers a loss when one of its churches closes, not just the usually smaller number who happen to be on its communicant rolls.

Sometimes, a church building is bought by another Christian group who continue to use it for worship. A few very fortunate buildings have been adopted an excellent groups such as the Churches Conservation Trust and the Friends of Friendless Churches. (We would love to see chapters of these worthy organizations in Canada, Australia, the United States and anywhere else where their good works may be necessary. There is something similar in Scotland.) Sometimes a diocese keeps an online photo album of former churches. In some other cases, real estate agents move in. We even know of a few Anglican churches that have been turned into night clubs: William Augustus Muhlenberg's beloved Church of the Holy Communion in New York gained notoriety in the 1980s as the Limelight and is now called Club Avalon; and in Denver, the new Greek Orthodox owner of old St Mark's Church has likewise turned that landmark of Anglican-Orthodox relations into a nightclub—still called The Church, but closed, alas, on all Sundays.* A smaller group of the fortunate few, such as St Michael's, Betws-y-Coed in Wales, have a devoted group of people who continue to care for them lovingly even when they are no longer owned by the church or used for services.

Like other religious institutions in western Europe, the Church of England has an entire office with several full-time staff-members devoted to issues of church redundancy, closing and disposal. It compiles and makes public an astonishing list of places where songs of thankfulness and praise once were heard.** The Church of England is also quick to emphasise that some 500 new churches have been built in the same time that about 1700 have been closed. The Church Commissioners are also careful to assure that the disposal of church property is done in as ethical a manner as possible, even in cases of demolition. It strikes us as a mature, reasonable and systematic approach to demographic facts in some parts of the Anglican world. Would that dioceses and provinces in other parts of the communion facing similar situations would react with the same degree of coordination and wisdom. Where they do not, we take heart from the knowledge that some of the most influential vocations in the history of Christianity have been born in the ruins of its churches. Already the Fresh Expressions movement in the UK is encouraging people to find new ways of living active Christian lives in a rapidly-changing culture. We look forward to the day when such fresh expressions make church architecture once again a booming business, and when church openings will again outnumber church closings.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 13 May 2007

* St Tikhon of Moscow, then the Russian Orthodox Bishop of the Aleutians and North America, preached at the parish's patronal feast in 1904, joining in Evensong and blessing the congregation.

** The link is to a file in MS Word format. We do not have MS Word, and it is not a normal format for online information. A friend was able to convert it for us for reading.

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