This past summer, my father-in-law took us to see the church in which he worshipped as a child. Church of the Herald Angel, just outside of Orangeville, Ont., has been closed for many years and is now a well-cared-for home. A workman was repointing the mortar of one of the buttresses when we stopped to take a look. Many churches simply fall into disrepair and eventually vanish.
It was good to see this church lived in and loved, and yet, there was a certain sadness in realizing the church no longer served its intended purpose, that the life of its worshipping community had come to an end. It was a bit like visiting the grave of a loved one in a well-tended cemetery; even amidst the beauty of the place, there is a profound and enduring sense of grief and loss.
Like the Church of the Herald Angel, many churches across our country have closed or are facing closure. Sometimes those churches are in “four corners” communities where the community has vanished; sometimes they are in suburban locations where religious and ethnic demographic changes have made an Anglican church redundant or irrelevant; and sometimes they are urban churches where neighbourhoods have been replaced by industry. Whatever the context, it is clear that sometimes the life of a church must come to an end. We do everything we can to avoid allowing a church to die, and yet, sometimes it is for the best.
I know many clergy who are afraid to close a church. They somehow feel that closing a church will reflect badly on them, that they will be branded either as professional “closers” or as pastoral failures. Yet, one of the things we are trained to do as clergy is to deal with death. Spiritual palliative care is an important part of our ministry. Are we failures when a parishioner inevitably dies? The answer is an emphatic, no, for our faith teaches that death is not the final word. We proclaim hope and new life in the midst of death. Even at the grave we make our song, “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!” At the death of a church, however, we may lose faith and forget that we are a resurrection people.
Many years ago, I was with a family when they had to remove their father from life support. It was Maundy Thursday. The doctor offered the family the option of waiting until after Easter. The family decided not to wait. “After all,” the daughter stated, “if we truly believe what we believe as Christians, this is the weekend for this to happen.”
I wonder what the closure of churches might look like if we were to embrace our hope in the resurrection in this way? The church in which I was baptized closed several years ago, and through a remarkable-one might say, divine series of circumstances-it has become home to a lively Chinese-Anglican congregation.
One of the Rev. Featherstone Osler’s churches, Trinity Bond Head, closed many years ago after the congregation dwindled. It was lovingly restored and is now used by a Ukrainian Catholic congregation. Every year they celebrate a requiem eucharist in honour of its Anglican founder.
In some places, folk who have expended much time and energy holding on to a church building for dear life, find relief, and new life, when they make the courageous step to let go of their building and join with other members of the family in another place and discover new mission together.
Death is always sad, but it is not the final word. It should not be the final word with respect to the closing of churches. Our belief in the power of the resurrection should be just as strong with respect to the church as it is with respect to ourselves and our loved ones. As Jesus himself said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves is the incumbent of Trinity Church, Bradford, Ont., and editor of the Journal of the Canadian Church Historical Society.