Is the church captive to its buildings?

By George Clifford

During the course of a recent weekend in the English town of Ludlow, I visited six Church of England (CofE) parish church buildings, each hundreds of years old and two more than a thousand years old. All six benefices now belong to “team ministries,” a group of churches served by a clergy team. Unlike most U.S. churches, all six facilities consist of only a worship building; none include a parish hall, offices, or education spaces; any children’s programming occurs in a corner, side aisle, or former chapel.

I attended the Sunday Family Communion service at St. Laurence in Ludlow, where I found a thriving, welcoming congregation with good music and respectable preaching. This parish, prominently located in the town center, is the principal parish for a team ministry comprised of fourteen parishes served by three full-time and numerous retired clergy. St. Laurence also has two musicians; the clergy team benefits from a full-time administrator and part-time secretary.

Another parish church, St. Mary Magdalene in Eardisley, which I visited on Sunday afternoon was exceptionally clean, tastefully decorated for their harvest festival held that morning, and appeared to host as numerous and active congregation as one might expect in a small village. Even empty, the church felt welcoming and like a place of prayer.

My other four church visits were uniformly depressing. All four buildings are still used. Two are located some distance from the nearest village, each adjacent to a large country house; two are in small villages. Although I did not attend worship in any of these four churches, none gave any sign of especial love or care. Books and pamphlets were dusty, dirty, or even moldy. Several altar hangings were decrepit. Notice boards listed the worship schedule, usually one or two Sunday services per month in each place. In two, I could find no indication of children being regularly present. Each church had distinctive architectural features; a grant from the English lottery was funding a partial renovation of one. To avoid unhelpfully shaming any of these four churches and their small, probably elderly, and definitely struggling congregations, I will not name them.

Reflecting on my six visits, I found the plight of the CofE – at least in that corner of the Diocese of Hereford, though visits to numerous other rural and urban CofE churches and two years of service as a CofE priest suggest that the these six parishes are not atypical – thought provoking. First, the CofE’s resource base does not align well with England’s current population. The CofE has too many churches located where few people live and too little money with which to fund ministry adequately in more densely populated areas.

The Episcopal Church (TEC) faces a similar problem. Shifting demographics have left TEC with too many small congregations in geographic areas in which the population is at best stable and often declining. Conversely, TEC has often failed to plant new churches, or to plant them effectively, in growing suburban and urban areas. Worship attendance, not the number of worship facilities is the objective measure of vitality in any Church.

Second, neither the CofE nor TEC exists to promote cultural or local history. God calls the Church to promote the good news of God’s love manifest in Jesus and to incarnate that love by loving others. Consequently, both the CofE and TEC should act aggressively to close small congregations. (Of course, the devil is in the details. What is “small”?) Organizations and people committed to preserving cultural or local heritage should maintain any closed church building deemed important. When a putative disciple sought leave to bury a deceased family member, Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury their dead.”

Obviously, not all members of every small congregation are spiritually dead. At least a few among the relative handful of people in each small CofE and TEC congregation quite likely lament the demanding congregational focus on building maintenance rather than a mission focused on incarnating God’s love in a broken world. (Small parishes are not alone in worshiping stone idols in lieu of the living God, but that’s another problem.)

Closing underutilized buildings emphasizes that buildings are a means to an end, not the raison d’être for the body of Christ. Those committed to Christ’s cause may feel saddened, even aggrieved, by closing a building that has many significant spiritual memories for them. But committed Christians will not abandon the Church. In England, they will travel a few miles to another parish. In the U.S., they may travel to another parish or perhaps move to a different branch of the Church. Remember, we Anglicans have never claimed to be the only branch of the vine that is Christ. In both countries, a number of new house churches may emerge, permitting healthier small congregations freed from underutilized, financially draining buildings.

Third, neither the CofE nor TEC acts as if they fully recognize the costs of operating so many small congregations. These costs, monetary and other, include:

1. Attempting, often unsuccessfully in England and struggling mightily in much of the U.S., to repair and operate aging buildings, expending funds and costly staff time on tattered vestiges of once important fabric rather than investing in people;

2. Unintentionally signaling, thereby, to the larger society that the Church values maintaining its legacy of underutilized buildings more than it values life-giving missions to hurting, dying people in underserved urban and suburban areas;

3. Dilution of focus (e.g., “small church ministry” is generally a euphemism for serving a dying congregation) rather than clarity of vision and singleness of purpose (e.g., “small church ministry” connoting planting new congregations in under-churched areas).

4. Providing members of small congregations “third-rate” worship and spiritual opportunities because these congregations generally lack the numerical and fiscal strengths to ensure high quality choral and instrumental music, excellent and diverse youth, religious education, and parish life programming, and first-rate pastoral and priestly ministry. If they had such resources, most of these small congregations would no longer be small!

I like old church buildings, both in the States and abroad. I enjoy seeing what was important for different spiritual expressions and traditions; as an amateur ecclesial architect formerly responsible for several church/chapel construction projects, art and architecture interest me. If I did not appreciate old churches, I would not visit so many of them. But as a Christian, I know that I must distinguish between pleasurable avocations and the Church’s real business of incarnating God’s love for the world.

George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years and is now a visiting professor of ethics and public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, blogging at Ethical Musings (

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