Another Episcopal cathedral shoe drops

It is the year 2012, do you know where your local Episcopal cathedral is? Are you sure that there still is one?

Veteran religion-beat pro Richard C. Dujardin at The Providence Journal had a short, but important, story the other day about a church closing that — if what I am hearing is correct — represents a bit of a trend in the hard-hit liberal Protestant economies of the Northeast and Midwest. What we have here is a story that needs a few more facts on the ground and in the pews.

The basic question: Is there an official list somewhere of the Episcopal Church cathedrals that are being closed and/or sold? Does anyone have a website up with folks placing bets attempting to predict which of these lovely sanctuaries will be the first to be turned into condos? A really spectacular bed and breakfast? Here is the opening of this timely report:

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The Episcopal Cathedral of St. John — which began as King’s Church in 1722 and is the Diocese of Rhode Island’s fourth oldest church — is shutting down, with a final service set for April 22.

Parishioners of the cathedral church, the seat of Bishop Geralyn Wolf, learned the news on Sunday from the Right Rev. David Joslin, the cathedral’s interim dean, and Deacon Barbara May-Stock, during the parish’s annual meeting on North Main Street.

Parishioner Marjorie Beach says many were in tears when advised that because of declining numbers of pledging families and the cost of salaries and benefits, the parish could no longer continue — at least for now. The church closed temporarily once before — during the American Revolution.

This is where things get complicated.

You see, what is shutting down is the worship and community life of the parish congregation that meets in the cathedral building. The story goes on to note that the “St. John’s building at 271 North Main will retain its status as the cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island.” The members of the cathedral parish are being urged to join one of the six other Episcopal parishes in Providence.

Dujardin also notes, perhaps with an eye toward future coverage:

The last Holy Eucharist for the cathedral congregation will be held on Sunday, April 22, at 9:30 a.m., followed by a time to celebrate St. John’s many years of service.

Now, this story leaves me with so, so many unanswered questions.

For starters, how many active family units remained in this parish until the very end? I have read somewhere (the work of mainline researcher Lyle Schaller is as logical a place as any) that it takes a bare minimum of 85 strong pledging units to pay the salary of a full-time Episcopal priest and that an increasing number of parishes in this declining mainline body are struggling to clear that hurdle.

This is such a short, short report. It appears that editors decided that there was no room to cover the hard economic facts that created this collapse. When I first read the report, I noted that one comment attached to it claimed to have the hard facts on the situation — but that comment seems to have vanished. This often happens, with good cause, when people leave comments making strong fact claims, yet without offering URLs that point to on-the-record information.

Still, It would have only taken a few words to provide the basic facts. I would assume that the diocese must have moved heaven and earth to keep the cathedral open, which raises another question: How much diocesan support was the parish receiving, money drawn from other parishes? How is the economic health of the diocese as a whole? How many other parishes are at, or near, the magic 85 pledging-units number?

Also, how many other Episcopal cathedrals have had to close, downsize or relocate? I know of the Delaware story. There is the strange case of the Diocese of Western Michigan. Are any others up for sale or being closed due to cost?

Just asking. It seems like a hard-news story to me, one requiring some reporting of the facts in the pews.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Martha

    It is sad to read this story, because Bishop Wolf seems (so far as I can judge from reading various blogs) to be well-regarded over the range of the Episcopal spectrum of opinion, so if her diocese is having trouble, it’s sobering news.

    I wonder if there is anything similar at work in the announcement by the Diocese of Washington that it is suspending the discernment process for holy orders for the time being?

    “Given the number of relatively healthy congregations and the appeal of our location, the Diocese of Washington has far more people interested in pursuing ordination than can reasonably hope to find employment in the Church. There are currently almost 30 people in the ordination process, a number that well surpasses the diocese’s current need for clergy for traditional parish positions. In addition, there is a significant number of unemployed and underemployed priests in the diocese who are seeking to be called to stipendiary ministries.”

    If it is not an insensitive saying to use nowadays, is it a case of “Too many chiefs, not enough Indians” in the current Episcopal Church? To quote again from the above letter of the recently-consecrated Bishop Mariann Budde:

    “A Roman Catholic colleague once asked me if the Episcopal Church was also experiencing a clergy shortage. “No,” I said. “What we have is a shortage of lay people.” The work before us is to rebuild our congregations into the vital centers of Christian community, discipleship formation, and mission that Christ needs us to be. The ordination process, as with all other aspects of our diocesan life, is ultimately in service to that work.”

  • Bill P.

    The print edition had more — but not much — about the financial issues. See below.

    As a local, I will say that Richard Dujardin is usually quite solid and knows all the questions to ask. He is, as you say, a pro. This may be, as you question, an editorial decision to keep the word count down. I’d be willing to bet that a more in-depth piece is planned.

    Also, the paper has very abbreviated on-line versions of stories. And that all changes tomorrow when the free content goes away. (Luckily I get the print edition seven days, so I’ll get the e-edition free.)

    Anyway, here’s more from the print story.

    In a profile of the diocese distributed to candidates for bishop, diocesan officials acknowledged that many of the diocese’s buildings — including the Cathedral of St. John, the fourth-oldest church in the diocese, require “a great deal of money and care to be properly maintained, and many of ours have not been.”

    It goes on: “Our cathedral, in particular, faces an uncertain future given the repairs needed to keep it as a viable building and the small size of its congregation. The future of the property where the cathedral and diocesan offices are located is very much an unknown. … Whatever develops in the coming months, this issue will need a great deal of attention in the next few years to determine whether those facilities can be repaired and updated or must be relocated elsewhere.

    “The new bishop will obviously be a key leader, either in choosing the direction that is taken, or in helping to implement whatever decision has been made.”

    Bishop Wolf was said to be out of the country and unavailable for comment Monday.

    An accompanying report to the candidate package suggested that the church’s endowment covered 64 percent of its operating revenue, and that at that rate — spending 28 percent of its endowment in a single year — the endowment would be fully depleted in 3 1/2 years.

  • sari

    Drawing from a friend’s church experience–is it possible that the buildings are no longer safe to inhabit and that the diocese lacks the funds for repair?

    Another question, have there been population shifts to explain, at least in part, reduced membership or has membership declined due to movement to other churches or people seeing religious life as less relevant? We’ve seen many religious entities shuttered due to migration to other areas.

  • Bill P.

    Sari: Good questions. I don’t have the kind of specifics I’d be comfortable posting here. However, as a general comment, that area of Providence has increasingly become the home to college students from Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design. Across the (very small) river is a bunch of new condo buildings, but I would image they’re filling with younger professionals that may not be making up for the losses from Brown and RISD.

    And this isn’t just an Episcopal issue. Another very recent loss in Providence was the departure of the Roman Catholic Franciscan Chapel and the diocesan parish that they staffed. The parish went to a priest of the diocese, but the chapel is closed. The Roman Catholic cathedral has become the home for many daily communicants that went to the chapel downtown.

  • sari

    Thanks, Bill. A number of historic synagogues have been shuttered as population shifted elsewhere. Some, like the historic Eldridge Street Synagogue, become museums, but most are sold, usually to other religious institutions. The first synagogue we attended in Texas is now a Christian church.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I’d be interested to see some comparisons across religious lines. How many pledging units does it take to keep open an Orthodox Christian Church with a full time priest?? A Jewish synagogue with a full time rabbi??? (both of which usually have to take into consideration a wife and family to support.) What about a Catholic parish. In the Boston Archdiocese it is said 40% of parishes are financially under water but that the big problem is shortage of priests.

  • sari

    Deacon John,
    Interesting question and a hard one to answer, since so much is dictated by the community’s resources, the congregants standard of living, the size of the congregation, and, in my experience, the age and stature of the clergy person. When we lived in a wealthy area of S. Florida, clergy of many denominations (Christian and Jewish) routinely asked for a minimum $150K plus housing and car allowances. That was over fifteen years ago.

    Here, Jewish clergy, at least, make less and are given fewer perks; that, combined with smaller and fewer congregations and the absence of Jewish amenities, has made it hard to attract or keep Jewish clergy for any period. Several left when their children reached school age. Others see a cause and move here. Only two synagogues have permanent residences; a third has pledged to build, but we have yet to see ground broken.

  • tmatt

    BILL P:

    Does the print edition answer the key question — the attendance patterns and the current number of strong households who are pledging money?

  • Bill P.

    tmatt: Those questions are touched on — barely.

    PROVIDENCE –– One of Rhode Island’s oldest churches — the historic Episcopal Cathedral of St. John on North Main Street — will soon be shutting its doors.

    Parishioners of the church, which was known as King’s Church when it was founded in 1722, learned during a meeting on Sunday that because of a downturn in revenues brought on by a drop in the number of pledging families, the parish can no longer pay its expenses, and that the final liturgy will be held on April 22.

    The announcement was made by the Right Rev. David Joslin, the cathedral’s interim dean and assistant to Rhode Island Episcopal Bishop Geralyn Wolf, and by its deacon, Barbara May-Stock, who gave a PowerPoint presentation detailing the parish’s financial straits.

    The story quotes a parishioner that she and others

    were told that even after the cathedral closes, a portion of the remaining endowment money would be set aside to make sure that the building is maintained enough so that if the decision is made in the future to reopen, it can be. “I think it’s behind everyone’s mind that it will reopen one day when circumstances are better.”

  • Bill P.

    The local ABS affiliate had this story, noting

    the problem is a combination of fewer people going to the church and the ones who do go giving less money.


    [Assistant Bishop David Joslin] said the church has been running a quarter million dollars in the red for about three years, and now even the reserve money is gone, which leaves parishioners and the 250 people who rely on the church’s food pantry with no place to turn.

    No hard numbers on registered families (other than “100 or so” that go to services), average giving, etc.

  • sari

    No hard numbers on registered families (other than “100 or so” that go to services), average giving, etc.

    Should these numbers be released and would they be relevant without context?

  • Bill P.

    Sari: I’m not sure. I was referring to tmatt’s question in #8. If I see any other stories with hard info, I’ll forward them along.

  • Bob Weaver

    A more fundamentla question for all faiths, is why is belief in God and attendant religious faith declining?

  • tmatt

    Spiking away.

    This is not the place to express your fury at The Episcopal Church or liberal Protestantism in general.

    Stick to the journalism questions, please.

  • Terry

    To whomever removed my comment:

    I neither feel nor was expressing any “fury.” I was just trying to make the point, inelegantly I’m sure, that there is an actual factual reason why the number of pledging families is down in this denomination. It seems to me that this might be an appropriate line of enquiry for journalists.

  • FrVan

    I don’t get it…100 ASA, 85 pledging units, minimal staff, endowment, and yet closing? Why has it taken so much of the endowment to run it? Or do they just want the endowment for the diocese, and consider it worth closing the Cathedral congregation?

  • Captain Dg

    This is not just an Episcopal phenomenon as Catholic and other churches are closing in the North East. But the “other shoe” if you will is also to ask if other churches are opening elsewhere in the country. On this the Catholic church can take heart while the Episcopal less so.

  • Park Slope Pubby

    This happens all the time. I attend a healthy Lutherna congregation in Park Slope Brooklyn. It was formed from a combination of four churches — three closed down over the years as the original German and Scandinavian families moved to the suburbs. Now we attract a lot of different kinds of people, including young people, families, etc. If we were spread over four churches, each one would be pathetic.

    Another reason we’re growing now is that Brooklyn’s population is increasing — there are several new condo buildings near us. Not in our control, and if it went the other way — people moving out — we’d be losing congregants.

    So before we make broad generalizations, we need to look at each indivicual church situation.

  • Robert King

    You see, what is shutting down is the worship and community life of the parish congregation that meets in the cathedral building. The story goes on to note that the “St. John’s building at 271 North Main will retain its status as the cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island.”

    To a Catholic, this raises some theological questions. I’d simply assumed that Episcopal bishops (like Catholic ones) had a public church as their seat. I’m not sure what a cathedral would be if it wasn’t at least open to the public for worship services. The theological impact of “closing” a cathedral would be of great interest to me. But perhaps that’s expecting too much of such a short piece?

  • Cranmer

    tmatt and terry — with respect, the break-up of the Episcopal Church as the result of the liberals’ ascendancy is the elephant in the room as far as this article is concerned. A lot of orthodox Christians have migrated from the Episcopal Church to other denominations, or formed “Anglican” churches the keep the faith as received from the likes of John Stott instead of L. William Countryman.

    The changing demographics of an area is an old dodge for shrinking mainline churches. Much more often than not, while they shrink, other nearby churches are growing. I have seen this first-hand time and again.

    Finally, if Episcopalians ever tithed, they would find they need far fewer than 85 to employ one clergy.

  • Just passing through

    One can find the attendance, membership and pledging information here – choose the diocese of Rhode Island and then St John’s Providence. You see membership holding steady at 400 – a bogus stat filled with names that came once and never again or are now dead, etc., Attendance is more reliable and had fallen dramatically from the 2003-4 numbers (recall a certain 2003 event). Attendance had been creeping up over the past couple of years. I suppose they burned through their endowment to carry on. Another article quoted the assistant bishop of RI as saying, “He said the church has been running a quarter million dollars in the red for about three years, and now even the reserve money is gone, which leaves parishioners and the 250 people who rely on the church’s food pantry with no place to turn.”

    I wonder if religion reporter know of this online resource. It seems that they merely parrot the Episcopal spokespeople in articles about the demise.

    Liberals can never own up to their responsibility. If liberals can’t maintain a liberal parish in the liberal northwest, how is it going to go over in the conservative midwest, say? The more liberal the denomination, the faster the decline. The UCC and the TEC are the most liberal mainlines and the fastest declining. The Methodist and Southern Baptist are the least and the slowest declining. Still we have the new female “bishop” of Washington doubling down on liberalism, promising gullible communicants that it is possible to be liberal and grow. In the Episcopal News Service article about the closure, they actually allowed one negative comment ( ). But no one is allowed to criticize the liberal takeover of the denomination and suggest that might be causative.

    The liberals have made their voices clear. Traditionalists are bigots, haters, homophobes, fundies, etc. The Episcopal Church Welcomes You(TM)…if you believe in abortion on demand, homosexual normalization/marriage, syncretism, etc., otherwise there’s the door. The liberals “won” the day.

    How does the good book say we can tell false teachers? By their fruits.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Does the 85 “pledging units” covering the salery of a priest mean only a priest? Would that be without any clerical staff, musical staff or any other paid staff at the parish?

    I did a search recently on articles about closing Episcopal parishes. Some were down to 10 people or fewer attending services on the average week.

  • Bern

    Economic downturn, anyone?

  • tmatt

    I have spiked at least 20 comments that fail to address journalism at all and simply tee off on doctrinal issues.

    This is not the website for that, folks.

  • Aaron C

    The point of my post was that unless journalists ask the deeper question of what motivates giving, it is easy to reach conclusions that may not be accurate. Yes, there is an economic downturn, and yes, there are some locations where people who used to attend and support a church have moved away. However, there are many churches that are flourishing in areas where other churches are dying. I would think that a journalist would have to stop and ask the question of why? Exploring that question gets one into the doctrinal issues that are facing mainline denominations in general and the Episcopal Church USA specifically.

  • Fr John
    They seem to have the full story here.

  • Karen

    Sari, When I worked at Landmarks in the 1970s we had trouble finding anyone to sign authorizations because the Eldridge St. Synagogue was congregationally owned and the congregation had largely died or moved to Florida. I wonder how many congregationally owned churches houses of worship are in limbo for reasons like this? Would be interesting to see coverage on that aspect.

    PS Pubby, As a fellow Sloper I belong to a large and growing synagogue and while I agree with you that size matters (and in our corner of the Slope population size is more stable), we are able to grow because we provide a number of worship groups that have different levels of ritual observance, more or less Hebrew, different amounts of music, orientation for families with children of different ages, adult study several nights a week and on Saturdays,etc. While many liberal synagogues are losing people like in mainline churches, we have reversed the trend, Justpassing. Before my conversion I attended a Reformed church, one of the largest Protestant congregations that was rarely able to support attendance of 80 and had only one service plus Sunday school. With more going on and a variety of small groups I have at least quadrupled my hours of attendance and increased my donations.

    While I hardly ever see MSM coverage on why there is diminishing attendance in religious services, my experience is that programmatic variety, opportunities to grow spiritually and intellectually without fear of offending a party line, more diffuse management styles, opportunities to put faith to work and a variety of starting times all contribute to church growth. The evangelical megachurches understand that better than mainline churches, IMHO. I tend to think the specific theology is less important for healthy congregation size. Demographics has an effect, but varied offerings which have different targets without restricting attendance may be even more important, as many families will travel significant distances to attend services that meet your needs.