Scarcely was the post "Sacred Sales" (Argus 16 February 2012) on the blog than the Weekly Times ran a front-page lead on church closures in rural Victoria. It seems that the cull of churches forecast by Argus is already under way.
"Divine intervention is needed to save country Victoria's churches," announces a heading on the Weekly Times story (22 February). Reporter Chris McLennan likes a nice ecclesiastical metaphor: "The last rites are being given to hundreds of churches across rural Victoria," he begins. "Closures show no signs of slowing, with one faith (sic) alone having shut dozens of places of worship in the last three years." This turns out to be the Uniting Church, which, as mentioned in the Argus post, regards a third of its churches in Victoria as dispensable. According to the Weekly Times it has so far closed forty-four churches in country Victoria.
Other denominations, says the story, are in the same boat. According to church authorities it's all part of rural decline. "The bank manager has gone, the policeman, the post office, now the clergy... the last thing to go will be the footy club," Anglican Archdeacon John Davis of Wangaratta is quoted as saying. Unidentified "church officials" give it as their opinion that the closures are "symptomatic of a major rural population shift, particularly to the large regional centres." A spokesman for the Presbyterian Church of Victoria believes "the city" is the lure: "Many young people who move to the city for post-secondary education and employment never come home." One wonders whether these young people were churchgoers before they left and if so whether they continue to be in the city. A Catholic priest in Bendigo goes so far as to blame population shifts on "drought, then flood, and even uncertainty caused by the proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan", as though there had never been drought and flood and water-management schemes in the bush before.
But is it really so straightforward? If it's just rural decline and depopulation what explains the rate of urban church closures? Besides, some country towns are growing in population, with "tree-changers", elderly urban "empty-nesters", inner-city arties, bed-and-breakfast operators, "gourmet" restaurateurs, wine experts, old-wares-and-collectibles dealers and suchlike moving in - plus of course the urban poor who move to the country because it's cheaper and settle on the fringes of the town behind a barrier of rusting station wagons on blocks and old refrigerators. But there's no indication that the churches in such towns are doing any better than in places where the population is visibly shrinking, because in general these new arrivals don't go to church.
And this, more than population decline, is surely the main reason country churches are shutting down. The remaining inhabitants of rural districts, long-term residents and urban immigrants, no longer use their churches as much as people once did. While there is a still a pro rata demand in reduced rural communities for the post office, bank and football club, the percentage of rural churchgoers has undoubtedly fallen. If it had stayed the same as in, say, the 1930s there would be fewer churchgoers in the countryside today but not as few as there are. "The young ones don't come," a devoted church cleaner, a cheerful English lady, told me when I looked inside a tiny Anglican church near Portland in western Victoria a couple of years ago. "We used to have the Smiths sitting in that pew and the Browns in that and the Whites in that," she said, referring to local farming families. "Then the older Whites died and their children are still on the farm but not in the pew, even at Christmas."
Multiply that across Victoria and it will be seen that falling population is not the only cause of church closures and I suspect may not even be the principal one.
25 February 2012