Days Gone By: Built Heritage and Church Closures

Memories can be deeply connected to a specific place or building. When a place that is the foundation of many memories is closed, dismantled, or significantly changed it can be challenging for those who hold the place dear.  Last week I attended the closing service a local united church.  It was an emotional and moving morning that highlighted the power of place to invoke collective memory.

The closure of this church is not unique – United Churches (and churches of all the main stream Christian denominations) are struggling across Canada with declining membership and declining financial resources.  The closure of United Churches is currently so common place that the United Church of Canada (UCC) has published a Liturgy for the Closing of a Church and has openly discussed how to support congregations that seeing their church building being closed.

The service I attended borrowed bit from the liturgy published by the UCC. There were many opportunities for people to share memories about the building and much laughter and a few tears were seen throughout the morning.  The building was full to capacity with extra seating added in the aisle and people standing at the back.  A stark change from the average Sunday of recent years where 15-20 people in attendance was the norm.

The huge number of people who returned from far away or who came from neighbouring communities to attend the closing speaks to the importance of place and how memories are often intertwined with built heritage.  Churches were once meeting places for communities, locations where all important life events were marked, and central in the day to day functioning of communities.

As congregations dwindle or amalgamate the question of what to do with the church building comes to forefront.  Deciding the fate of a building that is so connected to a community’s identity is not an easy task.  Discussions around church closure can divide congregations and be emotional for all involved.  Place is a powerful thing.

In the case of the little white church in Little Rapids the congregation has amalgamated with another local United Church and will worship in a larger church ten minutes away.  These two congregations had been part of a two-point pastoral charge for a number of years and have been holding joint services for the past few years.  This may not make the loss of a building any easier but it perhaps makes the congregational transition easier.

For now the  church still sits intact – the portable furnishings will be re-purposed -but the exterior of the building remains untouched.  A for sale sign sits on the front lawn and the future of the building sits in limbo.  For now the closed church sits as visual reminder for the local community of days gone by.

Canada’s Churches: A Struggle of Built Heritage and Social Services

It won’t be surprising to anyone to note that Christan church attendance in Canada has been declining in recent years.  The United Church of Canada, which has been seen as one of the more forward thinking and social activist churches (ordaining women ministers in the 1930s, tolerant and supportive of gay rights since the 1980s and promoting rational thought in the church since the 1990s) has had a declining membership since 1965. The once dominant Protestant churches in Canada are feeling a similar decline in membership.

In the small town of 1200 people where I live, there are five Christian churches which hold services on Sundays.  On the average non-holiday Sunday most of these churches see under 30 people in the pews.  Many congregations are struggling with financial concerns, lack of new members, and aging congregations. 

Looking at the United Churches in the North Shore region of Ontario paints a rather dismal picture.  Many of these churches are struggling to keep their doors open.  The congregations simply do not have the financial means to heat, maintain, and repair the historic buildings the churches call home.  In many cases the unwillingness to let go of these historic buildings is slowly resulting in the demise of congregations.  Ministers, secretaries, organists and other once essential staff are let go in hopes of saving money to support a building.  These decisions to discontinue with paid staff often result in further instability and additional church members leaving the church.  All for a building.

I find this instance on identifying a church with a building mind boggling.  Similar to service clubs (which are also facing declining membership), churches have long been community staples, providing community services and a sense of working for the less fortunate/the greater good.  Churches have served as gathering places and places of community spirit.

Historically, the social role of church has been just as significant as the heritage buildings the church communities have built. Many early church congregations met in community halls, private homes, and schools.  The location where these congregations gathered didn’t make them any less of a church.  The congregations still worshiped and worked together to improve their community.  The Church buildings came much later, as the congregations grew in size and prosperity.  Logically, if there has been a drastic decline in size and prosperity the church building should reflect that. 

 By no means would I want a historic building to be torn down or simply abandoned.  But, I can’t see the value in a handful of people holding onto a building after the worship and social components of a church have been lost.  The financial burden of a large church is huge. The winter heating costs alone can be crippling.  Desperately holding onto a building that you can’t afford in the long run seems like a form of denial and simply delaying the inevitable. 

There are a number of adaptive reuse possibilities for churches.  In the small town of five active churches which I spoke about earlier.  There is a sixth church building which stopped operating as a church in the 1990s.  Since that time, the building as been a public library, town offices, and an arts center.  The building still exists and many people have entered it that never would have had it stayed a church. Church buildings in larger cities have been turned into condos, office space, fitness centers and used for a whole range of other purposes. 

People don’t like change.  But, declining membership numbers and financial reports speak for themselves, ignoring them doesn’t make them go away.  Many church congregations and communities need to take a serious look at their future and decide how to move forth in an increasingly secular society.

Additional Reading:
The Globe and Mail article on “The Collapse of the Liberal Church” from June 2012 is an interesting read for anyone looking to learn more about the place of liberal Christianity in Canada and the United States.

Collaborative History: Editing Mayham

The fist Knox Church, ca. 1910

I’ve recently been working on an editing project that has me simultaneously enthralled and going a bit squirrely.  The project is a church history that highlights a congregation’s journey from 1862 to 2012.  As you might have guessed, the impious for this project is that 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the Church’s founding. 

Prior to this project beginning, a basic history of the church has been created for the Church’s centennial celebration.  So how did the congregation proceed? A heritage committee was established and numerous congregation members were assigned parts to research and write.  The current minister (who has been at the church since 1994) also undertook writing a substantial part of the more recent history.

Knox Church, 2010.

I think it’s great that the history is being written at all.  The history of a 150 year old congregation is a huge project and one which often doesn’t get undertaken unless there is a congregation member who is very passionate about it.  There are multiple building changes, a fire, and many community accomplishments to be looked at in the Church’s history.

However, editing a lengthy document that was written by between 5-10 people (all of who feel their information is crucial to the history) has been a learning experience.  Initially it felt as though I was handed drafts of ideas, snippets of previously written histories, paragraphs about church groups, and a pile of photographs.  After finding my way through all the material, I’ve managed to force things into a bit more of a coherent story line.  I’m now starting to look at more formal copy editing and eventually layout. 

I’m looking forward to this project’s continued development and eventual publication.  It’s a huge milestone for the Church and this history has the potential to be something that future congregations look back upon.