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Hallo again to all.

In the USA of the late 19th century, as population growth in the Great Plains pushed the demand for every sort of urban resource, there began to appear temporary churches made of canvas tents. A caravan consisting of a preacher, some singers, some stevedores, some stackable chairs, and the biggest tent the preacher could afford would travel from place to place, launch a 'revival meeting' for a few weeks, and then move on. No need for a building. The tent would do. Never mind that sitting inside one of these tents was often miserably uncomfortable. Too hot, too cold, or too stuffy. The chairs were as hard as, well, wooden pews. These tent revivals focused on healing the sick. And, of course, on collecting donations. The book Elmer Gantry, by American novelist Sinclair Lewis*, lays out the dark side of tent revivals and probably formed the basis for the 21st-centry understanding of such ventures as 'probably sleazy'. But they were not all fraudulent. Tent revivals brought worship opportunities to people who otherwise had none, because there was no church or church building near where they lived and worked. Tent revivals have mostly been replaced by television preachers, but a few survive today.

In the United Kingdom of the early 21st century, as demographic changes reduced the demand for every sort of church and worship service, the phenomenon of the abandoned church and the near-dead parish continued to worsen. Last week the British newspaper The Guardian ran a feature story on empty churches and asked readers to send in photographs of empty places of worship. There are many. Some have been empty and abandoned for centuries, others for just a few years. All were built as edifices, and can't be folded up and moved like a tent.

Last week an instance of the Westminster Faith Debates was devoted to 'What future for the parochial system?' Noting that so many of Britain's parishes, especially in rural areas, are nearly extinct, speakers discussed the question of what to do with so many parishes drying up and closing. Next week the Faith Debates will discuss 'How can buildings, endowments, and pensions become assets and not burdens?'

Some years ago, the former Methodist church in Clitheroe, England, unused and empty for forty years, was approved for conversion to a mosque. The website of that mosque-to-be laments the tedious and incomplete process of accomplishing that conversion. There has been fierce cultural resistance to converting churches into mosques despite the huge growth in Muslim population in the UK.‡

Two English dioceses have recently publicized their numbers: about a third of their church buildings have fewer than 20 members. We suspect that a day or two of research could find such numbers for every Anglican diocese, but we don't really need any more numbers to understand the sea change in parish vitality.

And yet, most of the world's Anglican cathedrals report an increase in attendance and vitality. People seem to be more mobile than they were a century ago, and many can choose to commute to a larger church that is outside their home town, such as a cathedral. This seems to be a related phenomenon to vast retail stores driving independent stores out of business. We always think first of IKEA as an exemplar, but in various countries Walmart, Carrefour, Asda, Warehouse Mega, Tesco, Hipercor, and others play the role of 'cathedral store', drawing the blood from what might be thought of as smaller 'parish stores'. All over the world, in every industry and culture, larger institutions are buying, obsoleting, or destroying smaller rivals. In China, the government is forcibly moving 250 million people from rural areas to cities. There are no parish churches in China, of course, but the principle seems to be the same: concentrate and get rid of low-density aspects of society, even if its people are happy the way they are. Has their happiness become too expensive?

Parish churches in some provinces might be weakening and dying, but we're not close to being ready to believe that Anglican Christianity is dying in those provinces. Like so many other aspects of life, Anglican Christianity is evolving and mutating. We've known for years that change was inevitable, but we're still a little startled at the sudden and drastic nature of that change. We really have no idea in what form or on what premises our corporate worship will be in twenty years, but we know we'll be there, and we have faith that enough of our neighbours will be there to sustain whatever it is that our congregation becomes.

See you next week. And every week.

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All of us at Anglicans Online

19 October 2014

*Elmer Gantry was the best-selling book in the USA in 1927.

†There are seven pages of reader-submitted photographs of empty places of worship. Don't miss the 'next page' button at the bottom of the page.

‡One best-selling author of action novels regularly refers to Britain's capital city as Londonabad.

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