In the midst of local controversy in my town over the pending demolition of a former Anglican Church rectory, I was saddened to hear a more disturbing news report: an estimated 9.000 Canadian churches will close over this next decade ( Bonnie Allen, CBC, March 10.) This would represent a loss of about one-third of our country’s faith-owned buildings. Her report was based on research compiled by the National Trust for Canada.
It was not the drastic decline in numbers of Christian worshippers which was the focus of these researchers; their concern was for the loss of those historic buildings, many of which served for decades as centres of community life. These places of Sunday worship also provided space for scouts and guides, meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, musical productions, Christmas pageants, gatherings of seniors and many other town functions.
Many historic churches also feature architectural treasures which are in danger of being lost. From magnificent stained glass windows to elaborate, ornate oak and walnut carvings and woodwork, from pine floors and pews aged to a warm golden patina, to stately, sky-reaching steeples with singing bells on Sunday mornings, there exists a priceless heritage at risk.
For many faithful members. the deconsecration or destruction of their church is not primarily about losing architecture nor housing community events; their mourning is for powerful and personal memories woven over passing years, a tapestry of poignant family happenings. Congregants may have been baptized here as infants, attended Sunday school to learn dramatic Bible stories and then confirmation classes to reflect on their faith. Perhaps it was during the fun-filled activities of youth groups where he fell in love. Here is the long, flower-festooned aisle down which his radiant bride slowly walked. A lifetime later, this was the sanctuary where his funeral was held and his widow quietly wept.
Why will so many churches be closed? Certainly, in most rural farming communities, our population is decreasing along with the numbers of family farms. One small town, Indian Head, Saskatchewan, has witnessed their churches slump from 11 to 4 places of worship. Larger urban regions, are quickly growing in size, but just as quickly are declining in church attendance. In 1971, Protestants comprised 41% of Canada’s population, but by 2011, that number had dropped to 27%. During the same time span, the percentage of non-religious climbed from 4% to 24%. (2011 census)
By total numbers, the Anglican Church In Canada has seen its numbers decline from 1,360, 000 in 1964 to 641, 865 by 2001. A while back, the United Church predicted a slow but steady decrease in membership of two percent per year. While this statistic does not sound alarming at first glance, that formula would mean a loss of 40% of membership in twenty short years.
On a personal note I was surprised and dismayed to learn that in Peterborough, where I previously ministered, one of its downtown landmark edifices, the 165 year old St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, is
currently being systematically demolished. Its estimated renovation cost of $2.4 million was far beyond the financial resources of its congregation. I once had the honour of being a guest preacher in this magnificent structure. Over the past 20 years, I have also had the privilege of being associated with 25 local churches throughout Bruce County either as occasional “pulpit supply” or at other times as interim pastor. In each congregation I found dedicated and welcoming congregations and staff. In most instances, I also found they were concerned about declining numbers and aging membership.
Those projected 9,000 churches which will close face two options: they can be torn down as St. Paul’s was; they can be renewed as another worthwhile resource like the former Knox United Church in Owen Sound was , now a well-utilized and community-based Harmony Centre.
It must be mentioned that not all local churches are in numerical decline or in danger of eventually closing. Port Elgin United, where I served as Associate Minister for six years, still has a large multi-generational congregation with an active children and youth programme. In a recent phone conversation with a staff person at Sauble Christian fellowship, I learned of their current expansion to support a growing kids and youth ministry. Still other local churches, if not growing numerically, are growing spiritually while maintaining current levels of membership.
Before I hear from theologians anxious to correct my use of the word “church,” I will add this final note: what the CBC reported on were church buildings. The “church” is its members. Whether many Christians will some day gather for worship in homes or as small groups in rented space, the “church” will indeed continue. After all, that is how it started 2,000 years ago. In a next column, we will describe a “house church.”