SACRED SALES

Is there a church cull looming? I've written before (in "Buildings at Risk", Argus 20 January 2012) about the particular vulnerability of churches among public buildings to unsuitable alteration and demolition. There's been so much destruction over recent decades. Some of it has been in the name of liturgical "renewal" and some of it is the result of church sales forced by "dwindling" (as they are also described in the media) congregations and the need for "better use of resources". I sometimes suspect that in a very few cases the congregations and resources reasons are exaggerated slightly to justify selling up some extremely valuable properties and stashing the cash away - sorry, using it for "mission" - but I could be wrong. Anyway the concern about vulnerable buildings is all the greater now because, yes, it looks as though a real church cull is under way.

The Uniting Church announced not long ago that a third of its churches in Victoria were surplus to requirements. This is not surprising in a denomination that when it was formed in the 1970s inherited at least two churches in every parish. Each of them must have had a congregation of sorts at the time, but before long at least one church had been closed and in many cases profitably sold. There is some anecdotal evidence that people in the church marked for disposal - say the former Methodist congregation - were bullied to combine with the former Presbyterians up the road. Certainly one wonders whether the blended congregations ever really "united". There is also evidence that some churchgoers who still regarded themselves as Methodists, Presbyterians or Congregationalists couldn't relate to the new hybrid and fell away.

The union was intended to be a work in progress - ah, the heady ecumenical 1970s when even the prelates of what had previously considered itself the one true Church, filled with a new-found openness to their "separated brethren" supposedly enjoined by the Second Vatican Council, were taking part in "joint acts of worship" and participating in "interchurch" councils as one "faith tradition" among many and everyone supposed that wholesale Christian reunion was just around the corner. It was in this happy expectation that the new denomination gave itself a present participle as a name. But in the event no one else joined and it is extremely unlikely that anyone ever will. In fact there'll probably be nothing to join within a generation or two, given the rate at which the Uniting Church is declining. At the time of the union the three participating denominations accounted for over 20 per cent of the Australian population, even allowing for the fact that a not inconsiderable number of Presbyterians stayed out. At the last census that figure was down by about half.

So the Uniting Church is now about as united as it is ever going to be, and it has more churches than it can use. Its reduced local presence is perhaps to some extent masked by the high profile it gets in the media. It makes a lot of noise about "social justice", for which read the various modish obsessions of the chardonnay-and-sympathy classes, which appeals to the Left-liberal media and, quoted and publicised, make the church seem more of a force than it is. But progressive utterances on gay marriage or refugees are not going to re-fill the pews of that redundant third of its remaining churches and the Uniting authorities seem resigned to this.

Quite a few of these churches are architecturally important and this is a worry for those who care about church buildings. For some reason when Uniting churches are sold they tend to end up converted to residential use, usually as apartments and maisonettes, and this results sometimes in external disfigurement and always in the complete loss of the interior and its fittings. Notable cases around Melbourne over the years are in Armadale, Brighton, Middle Park and Kew. A more recent sale, presumably one of the first of the redundant third to be closed down, was of one of the prettiest churches in Melbourne, the former John Knox church in Brighton (which prompts the question of why so many churches put up for sale are in upmarket suburbs. Is it the tempting value of the land, the indifference of the well-to-do to religion or both?). The John Knox church with its graceful spire and polychrome brick is now, along with its handsome manse, the centrepiece of a "luxury" housing complex and has had ugly square windows cut into its roof. I sometimes think it would be better for a church to be demolished entirely than to suffer this degree of mutilation. Property developers might well agree, since the price of giving a banal design a cute focus in the form of an empty husk of a church is expensive and bothersome compliance with all sorts of inconvenient "heritage" requirements.

To its credit the Uniting Church has been known to discount its asking price if a prospective purchaser such as a smaller denomination proposes to keep the church as a church. This happened most recently in East St Kilda where the former Congregationalist church was sold to the Russian Catholics. It is far and away the best solution from the point of view of architectural conservation (and faithfulness to the intentions of the builders of the church) but there are nothing like enough ecclesiastical buyers for all the churches that will come up for sale.

And what of the other major Christian denominations with churches to dispose of? While the Uniting Church has announced that a certain number of its churches have to go, the Anglicans just keep whittling away at their architectural patrimony, closing one here and another there without a publicly stated policy of disposal. In the Melbourne metropolitan area in the last three decades the Anglican Church has closed churches in Alphington, Armadale, Brighton, East Brighton, East Brunswick, Darebin, Deepdene, Highett, Malvern, Middle Park, Mont Albert, Northcote, Port Melbourne (where development has brought in large numbers of new residents), Syndal and Thornbury and there are doubtless others I have overlooked. In every case the reason has been a depleted congregation that can no longer raise the diocesan "quota", the minimum figure for paying its way. The strange thing is that not one of these churches is in what would once have been called a deprived area. As noted above, it is in the affluent suburbs that churches struggle, and increasingly fail, to survive. Churches are closing for no other reason than that the people who live around them have stopped going to them, and this in predominantly middle-class suburbs that were once the heartland of Australia's mainstream denominations. Almost imperceptibly from one Sunday to the next the congregations have slipped away - moved, died, found they had too much else to do on a Sunday, lost interest. Faces in the congregation disappear and no new ones take their place. An elderly churchgoing couple sell their house and the people who buy it (and naturally extend it to give themselves space and facilities undreamt of by previous owners) don't go to church, though in all probability they will send their children to what are supposedly church schools (the sale of the church across the street from the school, when it happens, must surely say something about the effectiveness of such schools as communicators of religious belief). Quietly, without the melancholy long withdrawing roar of Arnold's sea of faith (census returns indicate that some 70 per cent of Australians still say they believe in God) churchgoing has given way to indifference.

Several of these disposed-of Anglican churches have been sold or leased to smaller, usually immigrant, denominations. This is the case at one of the architecturally finest and best sited of them all, the Church of the Epiphany in Northcote, with its pinnacled tower high on a hill and visible from all over inner eastern Melbourne. This 1920s church was among the more ambitious designs of the architect Louis R. Williams (see "Buildings at Risk"). Its interior has been mucked around with a bit by the new owners but at least the building is still in use as a church. The same cannot be said for an even more distinguished work, St Alban's in Armadale, a splendid edifice of the type known as a town church, that is, rising directly from the street. Rich red brick inside and out, it was built in 1898 to a design by the inventive firm of Inskip and Butler. Its lofty interior was stripped bare last year when the church was put up for sale. Now, with its purchaser's intentions unknown (at least to me), St Alban's stands forlorn and empty in the heart of one of the most prosperous residential districts in Australia. I looked  in one evening when I saw lights on and there was a contemporary dance class in progress, a Fellini-esque spectacle in which the arches enclosing the soaring clerestory windows could dimly be discerned high above the eerie spotlighting.

Unless churchgoing picks up again, which to put it mildly does not seem likely if left to human agency, we are going to see many more fine churches gutted, secularised and, in the worst cases, altered deleteriously. Many, I predict, will be Roman Catholic. I have left the Roman Catholic Church till last in this consideration because, although it has disposed of a few minor churches, mostly in depopulated rural areas, it has never to my knowledge had to sell an urban church in Australia because the congregation had fallen away (convents are another story). Most Roman Catholic parish churches are comfortably attended on a Sunday, but - what cliche shall we use? - this is the calm before the storm. The deluge is imminent. Look around that congregation in a typical RC church and count how much of it is under seventy. Perhaps 25 per cent? Time's winged chariot is about to decimate Roman Catholic church attendance. In ten to fifteen years that comfortably attended church will be much emptier, and it can't be too long after that that the sales will start. Then we shall be faced with the loss or mutilation of some of the most important architecture in Australia.

The fate that has befallen other denominations has been staved off longer in the Roman Catholic Church because of a much stronger legacy of churchgoing. But that legacy began to dissipate a generation ago and the vast sums of church - and even more of taxpayers' - money spent on the Catholic school system have not succeded in perpetuating it.

I remember when I lived in Italy years ago walking a along a street in Ferrara and being confronted with an imposing domed basilica that had been turned into a carpet emporium. Deconsecrated churches, especially big ones, are not common in Italy and the sight was all the more striking for that. But I thought if such a thing can happen in a country steeped in Catholicism, what is in store for churches in a country such as Australia where organised religion has put down much shallower roots? Hang on to your hats because we are about to find out. The Uniting Church's wave of forthcoming sales will be just the start. We are in for a very distressing time for lovers of ecclesiastical buildings, their architecture and art.

16 February 2012

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