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Hallo again to all.

There's no way to disguise the ugly truth that church participation in the so-called 'mainline denominations' has been decreasing (if slowly) for half a century. In its place, there have been increases in non-church activities, in non-Christian congregations (primarily Islam), and less-traditional Christian or near-Christian churches. This situation is what it is, and we aren't going to try to change it, although we wish we could.

Several times a year for as long as we can remember, we've seen sad news stories of churches closing, churches being deconsecrated and sold, churches being abandoned and left to rot and collapse, or churches being 'repurposed'. A church in New Zealand was damaged by an earthquake and the congregation determined that it couldn't afford to rebuild, so it is giving up. A church in Canada was destroyed by arson in 2006 and the congregation concluded that it no longer had the resources to continue, so it merged with a nearby parish. A diocese in South Africa sold a parish church building to help meet its budget (and then told the priest and congregation).

This is not a new phenomenon. In London's Great Fire of 1666, eighty-nine church buildings were destroyed but only fifty-one were rebuilt. A few more centuries and two world wars later, including especially the enemy bombing of London in 1941, there were left only thirty-eight parish churches. We'll do the arithmetic for you: 347 years after the Great Fire, only 44% of London's church buildings remain. All over Europe there are ruined hulks of stone buildings that were once churches, destroyed by war or fire or neglect many centuries ago. A dozen years ago we spent a magical day traipsing around the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire, which was founded in 1132 by Cistercian monks, destroyed in 1538 by King Henry's soldiers, and handed over to English Heritage in the 20th century.

In almost every city we visit, we notice a former church building in use for some secular purpose. They never seem to be prosperous or thriving, and have always seemed awkward. Perhaps it's that there is still too much mythic power in the deconsecrated stones for any repurpose to be able to dominate. Or that the notion of 'church' is so powerfully entrenched into the culture that everyone sees the building as a church regardless of whether it's now a tavern or a community theatre or an art museum. Rievaulx Abbey was home to impossibly wealthy corrupt monks, was demolished 475 years ago, and has been a formal tourist attraction for decades, yet there is still an overpowering residual holiness about the place that the passage of nine centuries has not been able to erode. As we were leaving Rievaulx that wintry day long ago, worried about frostbite on our feet, we thought that if someone tried to build and launch a fast-food business on its grounds, that business would probably burst into flames and burn in a violet fire into a small pyramid of lavender ash.

It was therefore with great scepticism that we started to read the report in the Winnipeg Free Press of a still-viable church remodeling itself into urban housing but including new worship space. You can see the details in our News Centre, but the summary is that a congregation shrinking in numbers but not spunk or creativity decided to use some of its resources, while it still had some, to attempt an unusual and innovative transformation of renewal. We are fascinated by the boldness and creativity of this renovation and the thinking behind it, and we think it might actually work.

There are deep philosophical issues surrounding the very meaning of a church's survival through the decades and centuries. Buildings come and go, church members come and go and are born and die. Clergy and staff come and go. In former centuries the church's record books were the primary thing that had to survive (besides the name), but now governments take care of all that. If St Matthew's Anglican Church transforms its building into WestEnd Commons, and shares its new worship space with a nondenominal community, two small pentecostal groups, and a Sudanese mission worshipping in Dinka, is St Matthew still there? Did the church survive?

We think so. In fact, we're almost sure of it. We'll check back in a decade to see how they're doing, but we suspect they'll be thriving. It feels right, even though we know that not all of the current members of the congregation are happy with it.

See you next week.

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10 March 2013

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