What happens when a church closes?

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A 13th-century Dominican church in Maastricht, the Netherlands, is now a bookstore. Photo: Sb2s3/Wikimedia Commons

By now it has sadly become a familiar story that we hear about or read in the news—a church is being closed, deconsecrated and put up for sale somewhere in the country.

The reasons for closure are almost always identical—the congregation has steadily and dramatically declined, the buildings needed many repairs and the cost of maintaining them was prohibitive.

Sometimes the closures happen voluntarily, sometimes after a long, drawn-out battle with church leaders. But when they happen, they are heartbreaking, to say the least.

The effects are profound. Many parishioners have compared it to losing a loved one. Often, the church is woven into the fabric of their own personal history: it is where they or members of their family were baptized, confirmed and married. In some cases, it is where their loved ones have been buried and where they would like to be buried one day. It is where they have celebrated happy occasions or found solace in prayer and people.

Oftentimes, the church is also part of a community’s narrative. It is where historic commemorations are held, where potlucks and fundraisers take place or where the Girl Guides meet, for example. Or it is part of the area’s tourist attraction.

What happens when a church shuts down? We often read about how parts of the church are parcelled out—solid oak and maple pews, elaborately carved beams, commemorative plaques and magnificent stained glass windows are donated to other churches, auctioned off or live on in homes of long-time parishioners. We read brief mentions about whether or not the church building is set to be demolished or what the plans are for its conversion to other uses.

But more often than not, we lose touch about what really happens after.

I was kindly reminded of this by Anglican Journal reader Pamela Moorhouse, who recently wrote me an email with a great suggestion.

Moorhouse began by saying that long before the advent of the Internet, she embarked on a personal project of taking photographs of churches across Canada that had been repurposed. “I found many,” she said. “A bait and tackle shop, a wedding cake store, many antique markets, a dance studio, restaurants.” What she enjoyed most, said Moorhouse, was interviewing people from the communities where these changes took place. “People seemed very willing to talk and share their story.”

What if the Journal could challenge people to submit photographs and reflections of stories about the effect that the closure of their churches had on them and their communities? she asked. “So many small churches are shutting down. I think that people could relate to this,” Moorhouse said. “And, oddly enough, it may provide hope and ideas for carrying on as ‘church’ without the building. After all, ‘church’ is the community of people.”

Moorhouse acknowledged “the deep pain” that a church closure brings, but suggested it can also give birth to other things. “I’d like to find out more about this and it seems to me that a collaborative effort could lead to some interesting reflection and sharing of stories.”

The idea is not to document death, but resurrection and transformation, she added. “We are no longer in the time of Christendom, where most people go to church. Christianity, it seems to me, is again counter-cultural. We are also in a period of time where we are discerning what it means to be ‘church.’

So what do you think, dear readers? Whether or not you agree with this trajectory, we’d like to hear from you. If you’re up for the challenge, please send us your photographs, reflections or anecdotes to letters@national.anglican.ca

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Marites N. Sison
Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

2 COMMENTS

  1. A labour of love has been this blog, which traces former Anglican churches in the City of Toronto:

    lostanglicanchurches.wordpress.com

  2. I think it’s important to sell redundant church property and use the proceeds to increase outreach into the LGBT community.

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