By Charles Stirling - Retired Canon, now deceased, Christ's Church Cathedral
Published: November 2008
Related Topics: Current Issues, Ecclesiology, Leadership
There was nothing, in my mind as a child, lovelier than old St Mary's Church, in the former Hamlet of Bartonville, and now many miles inside the City of Hamilton. I was eight when I began to go there and stayed until my wife and I bought our home in another parish. We were married there fifty years ago. Built in 1881 of local limestone it was complete in every way. The Altar Guild always saw that it was at its loveliest at Harvest Festival. It was a lovely place to grow up in and was more than a valued experience for me. I still have two much valued good friends from that time, and the Venerable Earl Clark is happily still with us.
People and progress came to East Hamilton and a larger church was needed, and great arguments were held as to whether a new church was necessary. The Bishop said it was and so it came to be. Most of the nave became the chancel, and the old chancel became the sacristy. A new nave was constructed to the west, taking out most of the west wall. It was this way for a while and then again a renovation. The walls of the chancel were stripped to the stone and expanded to the whole of the old nave, and the new partly stone altar was set forward. The east window, the porch and bell cote were all removed and replaced inside and out with stone. Fixtures became brass. It was quite a transformation with another large room, offices, chapel and main entrance. The old and historic hall was torn down.
It might be argued that the old building could have stayed and a completely separate new one built, perhaps, but then the property was situated on a difficult hill. One could also argue that much had been changed or sacrificed for the new building. On the other hand the first building is with us yet, being now 127 years old. People have made it work. It is a good place to be.
But, what is the future for some of our parishes? Who knows when it may come to a point that a new and larger building might take the place of two or three others, in another place? How will the people feel, what will be the major obstacles? The best answers will lean toward what is right for the Church and the people should move on to the next phase of their life of faith and witness without too great a sense of loss and mourning. It will be a tough choice, yet above all things, people must be called to understand that they alone are the Church wherever it gathers and that the building as much as it may be loved and treasured is quite something else. In life people do move and change parishes for many reasons and surprisingly they survive!
We now are at a space in time when some of our buildings are becoming burdens, and not always because the demographics have changed, but more specifically because they no longer allow us to explore and develop liturgy in new and exciting ways. Two or three small parishes should surely thrive if given a new chance in a new place to worship and mix and mingle in new ministries and good witness. Many folk have already made changes in their lives to good effect.
Not too long ago a parish in Toronto recognized that its ministry in that place was at an end. The congregation was largely elderly and many had been coming at distance from where they had moved. With happiness they approached the close of their parish. Most had found new spiritual homes, so they divided up their assets, giving many away, and closed the building. The time had come. It was a courageous decision. Whatever that parish meant to those folks was taken with love to their new places of worship. The reality of the parish did not die.
The hardest things people have trouble with are furnishings and windows and bits and pieces given in love and in memory. We need to remember that they were given and no longer ours. But there is wonderful opportunity for the parishioners to give these things away to another parish, who could use them. As I said before it will be tough, but we need to walk away in joy and love, and in the conviction that we have ended a good ministry and are now called to new service in a new place. Let me say again in slightly different words; wherever the people of God come together in worship, that is where the Church is.