By Mike Clark
There’s a church for sale in a town near here. It has been there as a Sunday school since 1897; the present structure has been there since 1937.
It’s a beautiful building, with all the traditional stained-glass windows, bronze plaques, and wooden pews that have been burnished to a glassy smoothness over the years by wool suits, cotton dresses, and the restless limbs of small children.
I am concerned when churches go up for sale. I worry that they will be converted to secular use when they are sold. It happens. I’ve visited a few of these altered structures on candlelight tours and other occasions. Instead of being uplifting and spiritual, they were eerie and devoid of atmosphere, in spite of the creative use of space and contemporary décor.
Americans used to be some of the most churchgoing people in the world. That has changed in recent years, though. There is a growing number of people who, although they say they are spiritual and believe in God, are not members of any particular church.
Consequently, many churches are struggling to meet financial obligations through tithing. That is what is happening to this church. The notion of the declining church reminds me of a poem by English poet Philip Larkin called “Church Going.”
The character in Larkin’s poem is a bicycle traveler who stops at one of the archaic churches that dot the bucolic English countryside. Attendance at these churches is dwindling, as it is here.
The tone of the poem is reflective and a bit melancholy. Although the traveler lacks strength of conviction regarding his personal faith, he laments the emptiness and deterioration of what he calls a serious house on serious earth.
The tentative and indifferent visitor enters the church after he determines the place is inactive; he peruses the surroundings and surveys the contents. From all appearances, this could be any one of a number of forlorn holy structures that were once filled to capacity with the faithful.
The traveler is acutely aware of the present stillness but is also aware that a caretaker or worshipers have recently been there.
Mats, seats, books, and the organ are neatly in their proper place, offering a sense of hope, but the fading flowers reveal the subtle truth of the “tense, musty, unignorable silence.”
The traveler wanders about the church and ponders the whole experience. Before leaving, he chucks a worthless coin in the offering plate and determines the place wasn’t worth the stop.
In spite of his disdain, the traveler always stops at these places, never certain of what he is seeking. Of course, like all of us, he is looking for existential answers. And if the answers are in these holy places, what will we do when they are gone? We can only imagine.
Will these marvelous structures, devoid of their spiritual essence, be relegated to nothing more than pastoral scenery? Will architects and preservationists go about their routine business of interpretation, uninterrupted by those who once sought the grace that could be found there?
And will all the books of instruction, Bibles, collection plates, and holy vessels lie with other relics at a museum somewhere while the curious guess at their former purpose and value?
As time passes, the elements of weather, human neglect, and vandalism will take their toll on every structure—the stones will crumble and fall, and the wood will rot away as they become “a shape less recognizable each week, with a purpose more obscure.”
There will be those who remember why these sacred places existed. They will take their children in the hope that just the touch of a single stone will steel them against harm; the sick, out of desperation, will still seek relief; and those in grief will look for some sort of resurrection of familial souls.
And finally, when faith and superstition are no longer a compelling force, the earth will reclaim the elements of each structure, altar by altar and stone by stone.
The traveler finds solace and feels the spiritual power of this holy ground.
“It pleases me to stand here,” he says.
And if, in all his cynicism, he still feels the power of this place, then the truly faithful must remain vigilant in preserving the church—not just for themselves, but especially for those in doubt.
Mike Clark writes a regular column for The Globe Leader newspaper in New Wilmington, Pa. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior/Applied Psychology from Albright College. Mike lives outside Columbia, Pa., and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.