Commentary: Church must be more than a building
Although church conventions tend to get attention for decisions on sexuality and gender, I am more intrigued by a movement among Episcopalians to sell their national headquarters building in New York.
Whether the staffers would leave "815" (815 Second Avenue) or remain as tenants is unclear. Nor is it clear where they would go next if they left. Suggestions range from a large cathedral property (New York or Washington, D.C.) to a middle-of-the-country site. (Presbyterians chose Louisville, Ky., when they made a similar decision in the late 1980s.)
As a cost-cutting measure, a building sale strikes me as unpromising. Nor am I persuaded by anti-Gotham arguments. Having a church center here isn't a "Babylonian captivity" or the last relic of an "imperial dream," as critics put it.
Nor, finally, do I see "sell 815" discussion at the Episcopal General Convention in Indianapolis, which runs through July 12, as the latest bleak chapter in a once-proud denomination's relentless collapse. Mainline churches aren't imploding because their national staffs are incorrectly located, but because congregations lost touch with a changing world and are still struggling to look outward.
Rather, I see this as an important opportunity to do two things that badly need doing: liberating church life from its obsession with physical facilities, and opening the doors for insiders to look outward.
Let's start with doors. As an occasional visitor to 815, I find it hostile (too much security) and cold (too much bureaucracy). I understand the need for security and office space. But closed doors are a fundamental flaw in church life. They are barriers. They communicate distance and encourage an attitude of "stay safe inside," as opposed to what Jesus said, "go forth."
Church workers lay and clergy, paid and volunteer become people who work inside doing inside things, like holding meetings, attending classes and conducting worship. Those activities matter, but they are barely a fraction of what Jesus wanted. We were called to be pilgrims, not settlers; speakers of truth to power, not occupants of safe places; and a disruptive, transformative force in the world, not custodians of grandeur.
We should be asking what the world needs and how we can respond, not perfecting our internal life.
That raises the question of physical facilities. We call them "sacred space," and we devote as much as 90 percent of our budgets to using them a few hours a week. We obsess over every detail, from seating to lighting, from altar placement to organ selection. Every detail has a constituency, the strongest being those connected to music.
Changing any detail stirs outrage not just mild disagreement worthy of space visited two hours a week, but end-of-civilization outrage.
Facilities feed our addiction to control. Even worse, they divert our attention and give us occasion not to do what we should be doing. Our religious spaces become the perfect excuse for not being "church," that is, faith communities of sinners seeking wholeness, servants seeking mission, pilgrims seeking temporary shelter.
We allow property to be our identity. Rather than letting the world know us "by our love," we ask the world to notice our properties and enter our properties as the critical step toward belonging. Faith, we seem to say, means sitting in a pew. We play it safe in order to avoid offending those whose giving pays for facilities.
More open doors, I say, and more out-there ministry in a dangerous world.
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York.