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.