Thursday, April 20, 2006

post-modern angst!

i've been on the vestry of my church for a year and a smidge now and i'm having trouble with my conscience. my church is over 100 years old, it is comprised of a campus of four buildings (church, rectory, parish house, apartment building for staff)and the whole of it is absolutely beautiful. however, all the money we raise at the church goes toward maintaining the buildings. they are an albatross around our necks. rather than making money for us, they cost - a lot! the roof on any one of these buildings is always falling apart (to the point where as soon as one is repaired, another one starts to fall apart!)our utlities have gone up, like everyone else's. something always needs extensive repair at my church.
we do wonderful outreach at my church. we have a shelter for homeless men in our parish hall. we have an after-school program. we have a summer camp at a very reduced cost. we serve dinner for the homeless every saturday night. years ago, the past rector created a seperate organization to handle the outreach, hoping that organization would get foundation money that a church might not.
unfortunately, it feels like that entity and the church are becoming "us vs. them"
christ taught us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give money to the poor, not put all your energy and hard work to keep a bunch of buildings going.
i'm getting the "emerging church" idea that church does not have to be in a building.
i feel like our outreach program could do a lot more than it does, but is having a hard time raising money because people give their money to the church first. and there are never enough volunteers.
i co-chair a major fund-raiser for the church, a street fair that's coming up next month. this is my 3rd year on this event. it's starting to upset me that all the work i'm putting into this event is not to raise money for our outreach programs, but to pay the utility bill.
i'm meeting with my rector to talk about it this weekend. maybe when i'm done with my vestry term, i should sit on the board of the outreach organization.


LutheranChik said...

As much as I love beautiful buildings with a history, I take your point.

My own church is a little white clapboard affair built around WW I. Because our congregation has made do with it, we've been able to focus our attention outward, and that's been wonderful. But...our building is not safe (two people -- my mom and our pastor's wife -- have taken headers down a hazardous set of steps and broken limbs, and we've had other near accidents happen), and because it's not handicap friendly we have members who can no longer worship with us because they can't get into or out of the church. So after much prayerful deliberation and research, we have decided to build an addition that will house a new, barrier-free sanctuary. This is exciting, to be sure...but I admit to being anxious about our developing an "edifice complex" that detracts from our wider mission.

What Now? said...

I had similar conflicts for the three years I spent on the vestry (just concluded earlier this year). Like lutheranchik, our building hasn't been handicapped-accessible, and I think this is a serious justice issue. And I do think that there's something about aesthetic beauty that can lead people into worship and uplift spirits. But I also found that almost the entirety of my work on the vestry was taking care of the building, which was so not what I felt called to do. Very difficult; I never did decide what the answer was.

Miss Eagle said...

This is where the rubber hits the bitumen. And yours is a parish church. Try the same situation with a cathedral. Churches are not even a good use of space since - for the majority of every week - they are unused. The space - for most parishes - is inflexible although there is one Angican church here in Melbourne which got rid of the pews (which make the space inflexible). Miss Eagle just thought (did you hear the light switching on) - that might be part of the answer. It might not be easy to get rid of the church from the parish but it might be possible to think about how to utilise it differently. Part of that might be how to use all of the space better or more flexibly. This could mean that while you were raising funds for the roof and the utilities the function of the roof and utilities might be more outwardly directed than once or twice a week worship. Another suggestion about making the church more flexible. In the long, long ago Miss Eagle went to a Catholic parish school which did not have a school building. School was in the church. Big folding timber doors were brought across the sanctuary - and then opened back up for Mass. Miss Eagle also thinks about a big old Catholic pile in King's Cross in the heart of Sydney. The homeless would sleep around the exterior of the church sheltering in its big buttresses away from wind and cold. The church had a very large portico - so, to make things a tad more comfortable, the parish laid indoor/outdoor carpet in the portico. (Gee, fancy all those things coming to mind. Miss Eagle has surprised herself. Now I wonder if I should suggest all those things to the Bishop of North Queensland who has the albatross of St James Cathedral around his neck.)

Anonymous said...

I sympathize. Even a small church building can pose problems that become exhausting for the congregation, if the congregation is of a modest size.

Removing the pews seems like the quickest, easiest way to make the space more usable during the week. Immediately, it becomes useful for exercise classes, community meetings, and other activities.

However . . . be warned, a smallish sermon is coming upon me . . . I passionately believe that beauty (including artistic and architectural beauty) is part of our Christian life. Yes, a church can meet in a dank basement and be vital -- and I had that experience for a number of years.

But, the more troubled and needy people are, the more physical beauty is a gift to them. That's why I kind of like the fact that the glorious 19th-century churches tend nowadays to be in poor city neighborhoods.

Sister Mary, have you asked congregation members what the building means to them? I wonder if it fees them spiritually. The pointless extravagance of carvings, stained glass windows, woodwork, etc., etc., is all part of every generation's expression of love both to God and to the inheritors of that church building.

I know - the balance needs to be right. But our faith is not a utilitarian philosophy. Jesus himself disagreed with the disciples who complained, "The oil could have been sold and the money given to the poor." We need to buy expensive oil and use it to wash Jesus' feet -- we are embodied, and our God came to us in embodied form. We need to praise and thank our God with gifts of beauty, as well as with acts of charity and justice.

Ummm, end of sermon?

Sister Mary, maybe you should be on another committee! But, if it helps, I believe you were doing something good when you helped fix the roof!