church closings

Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Every working day when I am teaching in New York, I walk past the historic Trinity Episcopal Church. I don’t go in that direction on Sundays, because I head over to Brooklyn for a rather different, clearly Orthodox liturgical experience.

But back to the dramatic sanctuary at Broadway and Wall Street. We are talking about some prime real estate. And if you are interested in the dollars and cents of all that, then The New York Times recently ran a long, long story that you will need to read.

Actually, this sprawling epic is three or four stories in one. You can kind of see that in the massive second line of this double-decker headline. So sit down and dig in.

The Church With the $6 Billion Portfolio

While many houses of worship are warding off developers as they struggle to hold on to their buildings, Trinity Church has become a big-time developer itself.

Frankly, I think this story should have been a series of some kind — to allow several of the valid religion-news angles to receive the news hole that they deserve. In a way, saying that is a compliment. Maybe.

For starters, you have that whole “$6 Billion Portfolio” thing, which deserves (and gets) a rather business-page approach. Then you have a perfectly valid church-state story about the tax questions circling around that vast bundle of secular and sacred real estate and development. Then you have a separate, but related, issue — New York City’s many other historic churches in which people are, often literally, struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

Oh, and Trinity Wall Street is still an actual congregation that is linked to a historic, but now rapidly declining, old-line denomination.

Want to guess which of these stories received the least among of ink in this epic? #DUH

If you guessed the “church” story, you guessed right. Yes, there is an important religion “ghost” in this big religion story.

Let’s start with the overture, then I will note one or two passages that point to what could have been. To no one’s surprise, a certain Broadway musical made it into the lede:

Since the blockbuster musical “Hamilton,” tourists have been swarming Trinity Church, part of an Episcopal parish in Lower Manhattan that dates to the 17th century. Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, are buried in the cemetery there.

Recent years have been good to the church and the rest of its campus.

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Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

No doubt about it, get ready to see more and more stories about church closings.

You know a topic is big news when Pope Francis starts talking about it.

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

First, here is the context for this discussion — a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.” Here’s the poignant overture:

WARRENTON, N.C. (RNS) — On a chilly December morning, 100 years and one week after its sanctuary opened, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, an African-American congregation with a proud history, was formally closed.

Bishop Samuel Rodman presided over the Eucharistic service in an elementary school a block away from the church, where weekly services ended more than three years ago. Several longtime members returned to read Scriptures and sing hymns. Afterward, the group of 100, including history buffs and well-wishers from North Carolina and Virginia, shared a meal of fried chicken and baked beans.

All Saints is hardly alone among mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations. Faced with dwindling members, crumbling infrastructure and costly maintenance, some 6,000 to 10,000 churches shutter each year, according to one estimate. More closures may be in the offing as surveys point to a decline in church attendance across the country.

But All Saints is an example of an even sharper decline. Historically African-American churches across the South are fast disappearing.

What do the numbers look like? The story notes that the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina “once boasted 60 such churches. Today, a mere dozen are left and, of those, only three have full-time clergy.” This long, deep, story has few, if any, signs of hope for the future.

Note that this feature is focusing on trends in “mainline Protestant and Catholic” churches.

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Monday Mix: McCarrick deep dive, Willow Creek future, Catholic losses, religious freedom worry

Monday Mix: McCarrick deep dive, Willow Creek future, Catholic losses, religious freedom worry

Welcome to another edition of the Monday Mix, where we focus on headlines and insights you might have missed from the weekend and late in the week.

The fine print: Just because we include a headline here doesn't mean we won't offer additional analysis in a different post, particularly if it's a major story. In fact, if you read a piece linked here and have questions or concerns that we might address, please don't hesitate to comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion. The goal here is to point at important news and say, "Hey, look at this."

Three weekend reads

1. "Decisions could be made by one [Vatican official] who says: ‘Screw this, I’ll reroute it through the basement.’" Washington Post religion writer Michelle Boorstein takes a deep dive into “How the Vatican handled reports of Theodore McCarrick’s alleged sexual misconduct and what it says about the Catholic Church.”

Boorstein’s compelling overture:

In November 2000, a Manhattan priest got fed up with the secrets he knew about a star archbishop named Theodore McCarrick and decided to tell the Vatican.

For years, the Rev. Boniface Ramsey had heard from seminarians that McCarrick was pressuring them to sleep in his bed. The students told him they weren’t being touched, but still, he felt, it was totally inappropriate and irresponsible behavior — especially for the newly named archbishop of Washington.

Ramsey called the Vatican’s then-U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, who implored the priest to write the allegation so it could be sent up the chain in Rome. “Send the letter!” Montalvo demanded, Ramsey recalls.

He never heard back from Montalvo, and Ramsey has since destroyed his copy of the 2000 letter, he said.

“I thought of it as secret and somehow even sacred — something not to be divulged,” Ramsey told The Washington Post. It wasn’t the concept of a cleric occasionally “slipping up” with their celibacy vow that shocked Ramsey, who believes that’s common. It was the repeated and nonconsensual nature of the McCarrick allegations.

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You think? There may be faith angles in all those stories about fading flocks in urban America

You think? There may be faith angles in all those stories about fading flocks in urban America

Frankly, it's one of the biggest religion-news stories in America these days.

You are going to be reading these news stories over and over in newspapers from New York City to Los Angeles and every major urban area in between. Thousands of people are involved, along with millions and millions of dollars.

We are talking about prime urban real estate -- specifically the sale of land (and sometimes the reuse of facilities) belonging to dying churches, synagogues and other religious institutions.

News organizations have to cover these stories, of course. It's an old doctrine of news, as well as real estate: Location, location, location. The question is whether editors and reporters will be interested in the totally valid religion-news angles in these stories, as well as the financial ones.

Yes, it's valid to focus these stories on newsy questions like: What happens next, in terms of the people and the properties? Who gets the money? What happens to the art, pipe organs, pews, altars, burial chambers and other items inside these sacred spaces?

However, journalists may also want to ask these kinds of questions: Why are some urban churches -- take New York City, for example -- closing while others are not? Why are there thriving churches in urban areas, while others are dying? Why do some have lots of members, converts and new children, while others do not? Might there be religious factors at play here, as well as relevant "secular" factors? Might demographics and doctrine be linked?

OK, I'll ask another question that some readers may be thinking: Do your GetReligionistas plan to keep noting these faith-shaped holes in all these real-estate stories, over and over and over? Good question: I think the answer is still "yes."

The New York Times recently covered religious real-estate issues in a pair of unrelated stories that ran August 6-7. Here is the overture to the first one, that ran with the headline, "Struggling to Survive, Congregations Look to Sell Houses of Worship."

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Catholic archdiocese bullies a church to death, at least, as mainstream media see it

Catholic archdiocese bullies a church to death, at least, as mainstream media see it

OK, I get it. People come to love a church building. It's more than bricks; it's relationships and history.

Throw in a 24/7 prayer vigil for nearly 12 years, and you can see why the closing of the St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (Catholic) Church near Boston got a big story in the Christian Science Monitor. But the newspaper somehow spins the story as sex abuse and Big Bully versus the Little People.

Yes, they deserve sympathy for their loss. They feel like a church is their home and that Cardinal Sean O'Malley evicted them. The Monitor captures that feeling well:

On Sunday, about 200 parishioners of the Roman Catholic church in the coastal New England town held their last mass after years of protesting the Archdiocese of Boston over its 2004 decision to close their sanctuary. For more than a decade they took turns keeping a vigil, 24/7, to make sure that at least one person was in the church at all times.
After the United States Supreme Court declined to hear their case this month, however, letting stand the rulings of lower courts that found they were trespassing, parishioners ran out of options to keep the doors open. They agreed to vacate the building by 11:59 p.m. Monday.
"Today is like a death in the family: Sad, yet relieved that the pain is over," a choked-up and teary-eyed Margaret O'Brien told WCVB news on Sunday. The 86-year-old says she raised her family in the church.

And the paper says honestly that St. Frances Xavier was among dozens of parishes slated for closing back in 2004 in the Boston archdiocese. What's more, attendance at St. Frances Xavier itself had been falling for years, the Monitor adds.

So why does the paper take wing on the following flight of fancy?

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'I believe I've seen an obit for a Chihuahua that was longer,' reader says of story on major church's closing

'I believe I've seen an obit for a Chihuahua that was longer,' reader says of story on major church's closing

So, according to a headline from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a "major Presbyterian church" closed.

Question: How much ink did the local church's closing merit in that major daily newspaper?

Answer: 233 words on Page 1D of the Living section. 

At least that's how the AJC handled the news, despite the hot social issue — think same-sex unions — involved in the story.

Let's start at the top:

On Sunday, after 66 years serving parishioners on Lawrenceville Highway, Rehoboth Presbyterian Church closed the doors to its sizable campus near Tucker, apparently a victim of changing social mores and a divided congregation.
The church recently voted to allow gay marriages to be performed there, following last year’s Supreme Court decision, and many influential members left, according to a GoFundMe page intended to help rescue Rehoboth.
This challenge was aggravated by the church’s financial difficulties, as it faced $160,000 in repairs, according to the same page.

Those three paragraphs amount to half the story. Let me rephrase: They amount to half of what the newspaper printed. They're nowhere near half the story of what actually happened. 

"I believe I've seen an obit for a Chihuahua that was longer," said the GetReligion reader who tipped us to this story. (For the record, I Googled for the Chihuahua obit but couldn't find it. So put that claim under the heading of "funny but unverified.")

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News trends in latest numbers from Italy: What is going to happen to all those churches?

News trends in latest numbers from Italy: What is going to happen to all those churches?

Several years ago, I had a chance to go to Italy for a quick first visit. The work I was there to do involved lots of churches, naturally, and riding around in a van that seemed to pass 100 churches for every church that we went in.

For two days, I kept thinking the same thing: In a land with a sinking birthrate of about 1.40 -- that number would be lower for non-immigrant populations -- who was going to be worshiping in all of these lovely sanctuaries? You know, the whole demographics (and doctrine) is destiny equation.

This led to another thought: If there were no people to worship in these buildings, then what (Hello P.D. James) was going to happen to these treasures?

So with that in mind, reporters in the audience, look at this amazing little Religion News Service story from the other day.

ROME (RNS) -- Italy may be the spiritual home of 1.2 billion members of the Catholic Church around the world, but a new poll shows only 50 percent of Italians consider themselves Catholic.
The poll, published in the liberal daily L’Unita ... challenges long-held perceptions that Italy is a ”Catholic” country, despite the popularity of Pope Francis and the historic role of the Vatican City State in the heart of Rome.

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B-I-B-L-E with a lowercase 'b': Hey Wall Street Journal, what's up with that?

B-I-B-L-E with a lowercase 'b': Hey Wall Street Journal, what's up with that?

Pop quiz for GetReligion readers: Without checking your handy-dandy Associated Press Stylebook, pick the proper journalistic style for the following terms:

1. Is it Scripture or scripture when referring to religious writings of the Bible?

2. Is it Bible or bible when referring to the aforementioned writings?

3. Is it Mass or mass when referring to the Catholic religious observance?

I'll provide the answers soon, but all three questions figure in a Wall Street Journal report today on tearful farewells at Roman Catholic churches in New York:

Parishioners of the Roman Catholic Church of All Saints in Harlem openly wept at Mass on Sunday as the sounds of the choir lifted up to the soaring ceilings.
Rosalind Maybank, president of the usher board, broke into tears as she thanked congregants for spending one last Sunday “with your family.”
“It’s very hard, but the love that we share among each other will always be with us no matter where we go, whatever church we go to,” said Ms. Maybank, 68 years old, as sunlight poured in through the stained-glass windows. “Family is always together, forever.”
The final Sunday services for thousands of area parishioners marked another step in the broad, controversial reorganization of the Archdiocese of New York parishes. Across a region stretching from Staten Island to the Catskills, 368 parishes are set to merge into 294, effective Aug. 1.

The WSJ story prompted this very GetReligion-esque note from a friend:

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Churches into condos: Great story, but where did the people in the pews go?

Churches into condos: Great story, but where did the people in the pews go?

Location, location, location.

Is it just me or has anyone else noticed a news trend -- stories about urban churches being closed and going up for sale? Try to imagine the property values involved in that wave of change that's hitting the Catholic Archdiocese of New York. How many angels live in the air-rights space over some of those prime addresses?

These stories tend to focus either (a) on church politics involving which churches will close and which will stay open or (b) the business deals involved in redevelopment. Both are logical angles for news, yet I have often wondered why journalists are not all that interested in the often painful, poignant and significant stories linked to WHY the churches are closing.

Not all urban churches struggle and die. What are the forces that are at play in these structures, which often have played historic roles in their communities. GetReligion readers will know that, in particular, I am intrigued with the interesting mix of doctrine and demographics that affect many fading Catholic parishes. Demographics is destiny? Ditto for doctrine. You see this in the death of many oldline Protestant churches, as well.

So where are the faithful going? What happened to the families and children in many of these flocks? Among Catholics, what happened to the priests and nuns? Are the families leaving? Shrinking? Non-existent? All of the above?

Look at this new Boston Globe story (a very interesting one, methinks) about some historic churches that are going condo.

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