The tragedy of a shuttered church

Churches across Scotland are closing, never to re-open. Ross Ahlfeld can find no upside.

There is an old Covenanters Conventicle known as Pulpit Rock on the moors directly behind my house in Gourock. On a clear day, you can walk up to Pulpit Rock and enjoy an amazing view down the Firth of Clyde.

Conventicles were remote outdoor places of worship, where the faithful would gather in secret during that brutal period of persecution known as the Killing Time in seventeenth-century Scotland, when the Crown sought to impose Episcopal Church polity on Scottish Presbyterians

The equivalent for us Catholics would be the numerous Mass Rocks dotted all over rural Ireland, where Mass was celebrated in the hills during the times of the Penal Laws, when the same Anglican ascendancy, which had outlawed Presbyterian worship in Scotland, also made it illegal to be Catholic in Ireland. 

I have a strong emotional attachment to these clandestine places of worship, my Ritchie ancestors were strict Calvinists who belonged to the secessionist party at the time of the great disruption of 1843 when almost 500 ministers broke away from the Church of Scotland. I still have my Gourock Free Church forbearers’ big family Bible which sustained them through those times of tumult and trial.

Some locals believe that many Gourock Free Church adherents were descended from those same Covenanters who had worshiped out on the moors, generations before.

I thought of all my Scottish Presbyterian, Irish Catholic and German Lutheran ancestors recently, as I watched the Church of Scotland’s General Synod announce the closure of hundreds of Churches due to a decline in attendance and rising running costs. 

Our friends in the Kirk debated new and creative ways of worship without Church buildings and this conversation is painfully familiar to us Scottish Catholics, who are also currently having the exact same debates and facing the same dilemmas. 

Maybe we’ll all end up back out on the hills again at our Coventicles and Mass Rocks, perhaps both denominations could ‘rock share’ on a rotational basis?

Yet, before that happens, I feel that there needs to be more lamenting and honesty about the sadness and trauma caused to faith communities by collapsing church attendance and the closures of Church buildings. I don’t agree with those who see this problem as an opportunity for renewal and diversification. 

I cannot agree with those who say, ‘Well Ross, Churches are people not buildings’ and view the loss of buildings as positive; it’s not positive, it’s infinitely tragic. I think we have to admit that it is heartbreaking to see exquisite wood-carved pews end up in skips or beloved Churches become trendy restaurants and bars or worse – luxury flats.  

Similarly, I don’t accept that online worship and outreach at shopping centres are suitable replacements and I cannot get onboard with a vision of Church which sounds more like a cross between social care and counselling. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things but as T.S. Eliot says, ‘you are here to kneel where prayer has been valid’

Whenever Church hierarchies turn around after 500 years and say to congregations ‘Good news folks, we’ve decided that you guys can now get a turn of leading the parish and doing all the stuff’. I just don’t feel that the laity ever buys it as an authentic gesture, because it’s a policy shift and a positivity which isn’t entirely rooted in truthfulness.

Those of us working in the 3rd sector for vol orgs tend to use this kind of patter too – ‘Good news folks, we no longer employ full time paid staff to manage this community project, we’ve switch to a voluntary community-led model’ (because we ran out of funding) and it’s the same with Churches, let’s be honest.

Yet, admitting that Church closure and decline is regrettable, need not be understood as a crisis of faith or a loss of faith. Church closures, does not mean that God has abandoned us, nor does it point to God’s apparent inability to maintain to his own worship.

Rather, the truth of how sorrowful it all is, needs be acknowledged and named, as to allow the faithful to heal and move on, to pretend otherwise is emotionally damaging and dishonest. 

Congregations without a church often feel lost, formless, empty and afraid, they find letting go very difficult and it is not possible for a new sense of self, vision or purpose to emerge until the community has gone through a grieving process.

Indeed, Churches aren’t only temples of God, they are temples of place, memory and belonging, which were built on the literal blood and sweat of our forefathers.

When I look at local places like the now derelict Methodist Church in Greenock, I imagine the place where Wesley once preached. When I see Gourock’s locked up Episcopal Church, I visualise all the weddings, funerals and baptisms of generations of Woolwich Arsenal workers who moved to Gourock.

Sit down in an old parish and close your eyes, you can almost see generations of pastors, priests, readers, cleaners organists, elders and pass keepers who sanctified this holy space with their prayers 

This explains why there are so many folktales about the dead gathering for Mass at the stroke of midnight on Hogmanay and old stories of clergy catching glimpses of recently deceased parishioners among the congregation in the communion line.

Churches are spaces where the distance between the living and the dead is thin; they are places where we might encounter our ancestors in faith. To quote John Ford’s 1941 film How Green Was My Valley ‘They are with me still, real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever’.

In more recent generations, parishioners have abseiled off tall buildings, ran marathons, washed cars and held coffee mornings to install wheelchair ramps, repair roofs and replace boilers, only for them to be told they needn’t have bothered because communal worship is an ‘outdated model’

Most of all, the collapse of Church attendance is part of the atomisation and disintegration of wider society and those institutions which once bound communities together.  

Don’t get me wrong, small congregations can survive and thrive without big buildings. The suffering but irrepressible Underground Church and House Church movement in China is testament to the power of the Holy Spirit to blow wherever it wills. 

Nonetheless, ‘For everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven’, this is a time to mourn. 

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