Currently, three small Episcopal churches in my area are combining, my home parish being one of them. This means two churches will be sold. Much of the contents in the three churches will be superfluous, and many items will make their way to new owners. Understandably, this is upsetting to some of the parishioners in my church who have put an incredible amount of time, energy, and money maintaining and improving the building and grounds. Moreover, some of these families have been contributing members of this parish for four generations. There is a long history of service to the church, and a long history of church being in that place. Now as we look to move place, we begin to scrutinize what church is, and how we take it with us.
When we think about ‘church’ we often think about a building with a proper roof, walls, windows and doors. We think of an altar, and perhaps pews or a long aisle. We think of items like candle, robes, chalices, and symbols like the cross. They are all things of the physical world, and therefore logically placed in the mundane category. But given their role in aiding the faithful in transcending to the divine realm, such physical items start to dance on the boundary. I have argued for the significant overlap of mundane and divine. I believe the interplay between these two categories to be integral to both personal spirituality and community practice. This principle considered, I think these physical / functional aspects are largely needed for church. While a church may need these things, they do not define what church is. Church is community. It is a community of the faithful looking for spiritual growth and the opportunity to serve those in need in the effort to bring the spirit of the divine to our supposedly mundane life on earth. Beyond this criteria, everything ‘needed’ for church is secondary. I firmly believe that place, along with the art and symbolism of ritual items can do wonders in facilitating spiritual growth, but no physical infrastructure or items are strictly required to achieve this.
As this merge moves forward I hope we can take with us the most precious items to be shared and enjoyed by the new, joint congregation. I hope that we can let our building go with a sense of grace, while not forgetting the faithful work that went into its creation. But most of all I hope we can look forward with gladness rather than sadness, remembering not what we’ve lost, but at what we’ve saved: the people, the body of Christ. Not to mention all we stand to gain: new friends, new stability, and a new chance to not just survive but thrive as a community based in faith. It won’t be easy. I’m sure a rather bumpy road lies before us as we come to terms with the divine, the mundane, and everything in between.