I heard a minister who’s been ordained a lot longer than me, say recently that we should close the churches that ‘aren’t working’.
It was one of those moments when you feel like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I think my face must have blanked out at that moment. I stared feebly as he continued to elaborate, and to my shame I said nothing. This was for a number of reasons.
a) I didn’t want to pick a fight with another Christian. Although I’d known him for a while we’d never had a proper conversation, and I respect him, so it seemed like this one ought to be a positive conversation, not one that became an argument, even a good natured one.
b) He was more experienced than me in ministry and he exuded that gentle but firm authority that makes someone sound like they know exactly what they’re talking about.
c) He was a man & slightly older than me (pathetic, I know).
But as he talked on, this is what I was thinking:
- Maybe, just maybe, you haven’t worked in small churches that feel the threat of closure.
- If you had, you wouldn’t say that we should close the churches that ‘aren’t working’.
- Because you wouldn’t think of them as failed groups but as people that are beloved.
- It may not have occurred to you that I might be working in churches that fall into this category, even if only narrowly.
- What does ‘not working’ even mean?
I can at least try to answer the last question, I suppose.
I suppose by ‘not working’, people mean not financially viable, or perhaps that it’s possible for a congregation to lose the real reason for their existence and to be just going through the motions. Or just to be so unlucky as to be somewhere so small that one day there are no more people to come to it.
As purpose dies, numbers dwindle and quite simply, bills cannot be paid. I do know that churches with very small struggling congregations are sometimes unable to carry on. I know this is a fact, so my friend is right in identifying it as an issue.
But closure surely must always feel like a death, and not simply one less column on a deanery spreadsheet? Who could, in all conscience, initiate that death? Who in the C of E, where we pride ourselves on local ministry and locally expressed faith being able to change communities?
I recall a priest colleague who came back from a public consultation about the closure of the smallest church in his group. He was so crestfallen. No one in the village had really cared enough to come to the meeting, and with no collective will to revitalise the tiny congregation, the church was closed soon after.
He felt like a failure.
If that congregation had had just 10 people, would it still have closed? If six, or five? Abraham famously argued with God in Genesis that if just five righteous persons could be found in Sodom, the Lord should desist from ‘closing it down’…
God seemed to listen in that instance. Because God always has a purpose and when it comes the Church universal, the gates of hell will not prevail against it, as Jesus promised.
Ethically, there’s a difference between active and passive euthanasia. You can terminate someone’s life, or you can let them die in the fullness of (their) time.
When it comes to church closure, I’m just grateful that the decision as to how and when to let one die doesn’t lie in my hands.