More than just a building

It's a fact of life in the ongoing upheaval in the American Protestant church: the sad tales of bitter battles over property between congregations that believe they can no longer endorse the theological direction in which their former denominations are moving and the denominations that legally hold the church property in trust and refuse to cede it to the dissenters. Everyone seems to interpret the side with which they disagree as heartless money-grabbers; the whole thing becomes an ugly mess.

I have known churches that have chosen to walk away from beloved facilities for the sake of their convictions rather than engage in such fights, and they strike me as noble and brave.

In college, I belonged to a church that met in a community college auditorium. I had been attending there for some time before I learned that my church had once had a building of its own, but had left its denomination, and a remnant congregation that continued on in the old building, when, after a season of prayer and study, they reached the conclusion that God does give women the gifts and vocation to serve in the office of Elder.

(I spent two years not knowing the joyful noise with which my church family worshiped -- only after we finally moved into our new sanctuary did I realize that the theater-style auditorium where we had been meeting was acoustically engineered to maximize the audience's ability to hear what was happening on stage and minimize their ability to hear each other. Toward the end of the ten-year sojourn in a rented space, a friend commented that some members were so tired of not having a church building that their judgment about the building process was impaired -- they were ready to do anything, including unwise cost-cutting or unreasonable debt, to get into our own building that much faster. In retrospect I can't but think that the auditory limitations of our rental hall exacerbated that impatience -- how could the acoustical deadening not have a spirit-deadening effect? But I digress.)

Some years later, I visited a church in my city for Easter Vigil, only to later learn that I had been present for one of the last acts of worship by that congregation in that place. The next day, they walked away from their denomination, their building, and even their church name, and founded a new parish in which they believed they could be faithful to their convictions about scripture and human sexuality. Looking back, I feel like I was an unwitting witness to a sacred moment -- the painful leave-taking of a people saying goodbye to something they valued for the sake of something they valued more.

As much as I admire these churches for having the strength to walk away from their buildings when they were convinced they could no longer stay in their denominations, I am by no means convinced that this is the obvious right choice for any congregation in such a predicament, as many of my evangelical brethren and sistren seem to think.

(FWIW, I'm most sympathetic with the congregations that choose to stay and bear witness within denominations they fear are headed to hell in a handbasket, but that's not really the point of this post, so enough about that already.)

"It's just a building," insist the advocates of walking away. These believers -- many of them members of churches that meet in converted warehouses or rented cineplexes -- bear witness to the church's status as aliens and strangers in the world. But can lack first hand knowledge of the deep sanctity that can attach to a particular place. It is not mere sentiment that gives gravity to the rooms that have held the prayers of generation, to walls and windows erected through the sacrifice of our own forebears in faith. When they insist, with good reason, that every place is sacred, they can miss the power of a place long recognized as sacred to open the eyes of people so easily blinded to sanctity of any kind. A building that has been loved and used for God's glory may well become what the Celtic Christians called a "thin place," where the seen and unseen realms are especially close.

In situations like these, the statement "It's just a building" sounds like "It's just a body" spoken with regard to a person who has died. Poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch recalls the swift and furious rebuttal of a bereaved mother offered to the supposedly comforting bromide, "It's just a shell": "'I'll tell you when it's "just a shell,"' the woman said. 'For now and until I tell you otherwise, she's my daughter.'"

We don't believe that the earthly remains of our loved ones are "just" a body; nor should we. There's a reason we honor the bodies of our dead with Christian burial, and it's not just a moot ritual that we go through to help us adjust to our grief. Human bodies are integral to our identities, created and loved by God. We believe in the resurrection of the body; we believe that God cares about creation, about the material world.

We believe that a person whose body dies yet lives, but that bodily death is still a real and grievous loss. In an analogous way, we might say that a congregation that loses its building certainly still lives, but has lost something precious. It is not simply rank materialism that leads people to be attached to their buildings. To live is Christ and to die is gain, but we do not believe it denies his Lordship to avail ourselves of medicine in order to prolong life. Likewise, we can believe that all of a church's assets ultimately belong to God while also thinking it might be proper to take steps to preserve the use of these particular assets for this particular family of faith.

On the other hand, sometimes the better part of faithfulness might just be to release a building to a whole new life of ministry.

I read with interest in USA Today (via Duke Faith & Leadership) about the efforts of Mary Our Queen Catholic Church to relocate the decommissioned St. Gerard's Church from Buffalo, New York to greater Atlanta, Georgia. At first glance, the idea seems sort of ridiculous: couldn't they build a whole new church building for less money than it would take to dismantle, move, and reconstruct an antique church from 900 miles away?

In short, yes, they could.

But as you read how Father David Dye and his congregation came to the point of considering this move, you can see how the idea grew on them. It will cost more than an economy-model new church, to be sure, but substantially less then it would cost to build an edifice of comparable quality out of new materials. They get to do the good work of saving a well-loved work of art that served other generations so well. Maybe they're even being green. (I don't know the comparative carbon footprints of recycled vs. new church construction.)

And then there are the little serendipities: the amazingly close match between the footprint of St. Gerard's and the original design commissioned for Mary Our Queen; the fresco of the coronation of the queen of heaven gracing the ceiling of St. Gerard's, visually invoking the patron of the adopting parish (alas, there is no way to transport the fresco intact -- it will have to be recreated at the destination); even the presence of a woman who grew up in St. Gerard's as a current member of the choir at Mary Our Queen.

While some Buffalonians are resisting the removal as a sort of cultural piracy, the former pastor and parishoners of the church are supportive; some even plan to travel to Atlanta to attend the first Mass in the new location. The last pastor of St. Gerard's told USA Today: "This church is a testament to the people of this neighborhood. They realize times have changed. Their faith will be alive in another setting."

Among the artifacts to be transfered with the building is a plaque on the back wall of the church honoring the members of St. Gerard's who died in World War I. This could be seen as a false appropriation of someone else's history, or it could be seen as a visible reminder that the worshipers at St. Gerard's in the twentieth century and those at Mary Our Queen in the twenty-first are all part of one communion of saints. Moreover, they are linked not only by a common faith but by a common building.

Moving an entire church building 900 miles so it can have a new life with a new parish is at least a little bit crazy. But to me it seems that it is also a testimony to resurrection.


The Muser (aka Beautiful Mama) said...

Yes, we are in the midst of a lot of such controversies here in CO (actually, I'm taking a class from the dicoesan lawyer, so I've heard a little bit about all the legal ins-and-outs of who owns church buildings). As a bisexual woman and a Christian, my sympathies tend to more naturally fall toward the Episcopal dicoese than the AMIA and CANA dissenters in CO, but I, like you, do admire those who follow their convictions and God to the best of their ability and seek out the most loving and peaceful way to do so (even if I think they're hearing God wrong!).

Steve Lansingh said...

Your post reminded me of a passage in N.T. Wright's "Surprised by Hope," one that struck me as convicting when I was feeling all cool about my church meeting in a candle-lit coffeehouse (how unconventional!) and now hits me as largely wistful because that coffeehouse still holds so much history and meaning and beauty for me and we have since moved on.

"It is nothing short of dualistic folly, then, simply to declare without more ado (as many try to do today, supposedly in the interest of 'mission' but in fact in the interest of dualism - or a quick profit) that old church buildings and the like are irrelevant to the mission of God today and tomorrow. Of course in many cases a church building has served its purpose and can now be demolished or given over to alternate use. But many are discovering in our day that there are indeed such things as places sanctified by long usage for prayer and worship, places where, often without being able to explain it, people of all sorts find that prayer is more natural, that God can be known and felt more readily. We should reflect long and hard about a proper theology of place and space, thought through in terms of God's promise to renew the whole creation, before we abandon geography and territory. Yes, territorial claims can become idolatrous and abusive ... but the answer to abuse is not dualism but proper use."

Rachel said...

Steve: thanks for the quote. I actually had that very passage in mind when I wrote that paragraph, but I don't yet own a copy of _Surprised by Hope_ (read it from the library), so I couldn't refer to it. :)

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