Posted by on Jun 24, 2018

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Sanctuaries, Thin Places, Dojos, & Launching Pads – 

When Buildings and Ministry Interplay and Compliment

Job 38:1-11, Psalm 133, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, & Mark 4:35-41

Sunday, June 24, 2018 — The Fifth Sunday After Pentecost 

A Day of Prayer for and with Indigenous Communities in the United Church of Canada

Knox-Metropolitan United Church — Regina, SK — Treaty 4 Territory

Cameron Fraser

If I asked you, What is God’s Mission in the World? I wonder how you would respond.

Would that question elicit an idea for you, or perhaps does that way of putting things feel unfamiliar.

I am going to come back to this question, but first I want to tell you about a friend of mine…

My friend Graham Singh is an Anglican Priest who specializes in closing churches.

This may seem like an odd skill set, but it’s actually exactly what he was trained for.

Graham, was formed for ministry in the Anglican Church through Holy Trinity Bromptom (most commonly called HTB) in London, UK, under the leadership of the Rev. Nikki Gumble, who is the creator and host of the Alpha Video Study Series.

When Graham, who while Canadian had studied at the London School of Economics, was a lawyer he began attending HTB, and one day heard Gumble express that the Bishops of England were projecting massive church closures in the coming years, and that he would not stand for it. Humble wrote a letter to Lambeth Palace (the centre of governance for the Church of England) stating that if you highlight a church looking like it will close, we will come in, take it over, and re-start it.

And they have.

They have been handed over scores of churches, and first they shut them down. They celebrate the ministry that happened there for years up to that moment, recognizing that what got them there, won’t get them where they need to go. Then a group of leaders from HTB, specially trained for this, come in and spend a year or more, preparing to relaunch the church.

Graham, trained and ordained for this ministry, after working on two such projects in England, was sent back to Canada.

His first church here in fairness had already been shut down. Norfolk United in downtown Guelph, ON had closed and sold its building to Lakeside, a large evangelical church on the edge of the city, who as of yet did not know what to do with it.

So they asked Graham.

He helped them renovate the church first so that it could be home to the local food bank, the city’s High School remediation program, the local neighbourhood association, a free breakfast café, and created attractive, usable, multi-use spaces that could be used by a variety of educational and spiritual programs.

Then they relaunched a church.

After his work here was done, he moved to Montreal, this time answering a call from his home denomination and from the Bishop of Montreal, with an invitation to take one of the flagship buildings of the Anglican Church in that City, St. James the Apostle, a stunning yet aging facility with a shrinking congregation, and do what he does.

Graham closed the church.

In a recent interview with the CBC’s Doc Project (which by the way will be on our Facebook Page tomorrow), Graham confessed, “People think I am a Pastor. But secretly I am the leader of a Community Association”.

Graham dreams of churches once again becoming hubs of activity for the people in their community, not just the church running events that people come to, but the community running events, co-sharing the space.

Trained at the London School of Economics, he can’t help but see some things through the lens of a business model. Rising expenses of aging buildings with deferred maintenance costs and increasing operating expenses are being borne by congregations alone, congregations that are shrinking.

But that can be shared. Renters, permanent tenants, even the creation of new incorporations, of which the church is a vital part, that co-own buildings, sharing costs, and sharing the burden of care-taking of the facility in the future (and by care taking I don’t mean mopping the bathrooms, I mean together planning for what happens should the roof leak or the boiler give out).

You’ll hear more about Graham in the presentation after worship.

Our readings today lifted up the theme of shelter and sanctuary — they are two of countless passages in Scripture which do so. In fact, we could extrapolate, as people have done, that when we speak of the very nature of God, we can speak of finding Sanctuary.

It is no coincidence that in so many of our buildings, the room that is most peaceful, most serene, is called the Sanctuary.

I wonder how often we think of church architecture as an articulation of theology.

For several years, we have been asking an Open Question phrased like this…

What building design will support our future ministry?

And if our ministry springs from our understanding of the nature of God, then we might think of this as asking…

What building design will allow us to articulate a living vision of God?

In A New Creed we declare some wondrous truths that animate our ministries, as individuals, congregations and throughout the United Church of Canada. They are of course not unique to us.

I want to draw your attention to a few phrases and allow us to imagine what these look like when considered in the light of our on-going exploring around the future of the Building.

We Are Not Alone

God, who has Created and is Creating 

Who Works in Us, and Others

To Reconcile and Make New

We Are Not Alone — If it is the very nature of God is to draw people together, that all would know that they are not alone, but valued, included and beloved, what sort of building makes that possible? What sort of building allows those who are lonely to find space and friendship, not just for an hour plus coffee once a week, but all the time?

Our friends at Knox United downtown Calgary, have named Social Isolation as one of the greatest problems in their city and neighbourhood. In response they are opening beautiful café space in the back of the Sanctuary, managed by a staff person, open to all. They are now developing a pay what you can restaurant and coffee shop to accompany this. They are making the line We Are Not Alone come to life with comfortable seats, warm meals and hot drinks, and invitations to community.

God, who has Created and is Creating — If creativity and creative action is at the heart of what we say about God, not just a divine watch-maker who made something and sits passively observing, but an enlivening spirit in the on-going work of making then as we think about buildings, we might ask what sort of communities are growing around churches, and how might a congregation structure its building to participate.

St. Jax’s (the new name for St. James the Apostle in Montreal) sees their community seeking to build cohesiveness, accessibility, and so they are re-creating their space so it can be a vital part of that project. Their commitment to this is so tangible that the Mayor of Montreal is part of their Stewardship Campaign (more on that later too).

The Moncton Peace Centre, a new creation spear-headed by Central United in the downtown of that NB city, holds a vision where a more inclusive and just Moncton is built through collaboration — and so it created space where Community Based Organizations would be housed under one roof to consolidate resources (and expenses) leaving more energy and capacity to work on their particular issues while also exploring the cross-overs and connections.

Who Works in Us, and Others —If part of our core confession about God is that God’s creative, connecting, redemptive and healing work is not the property of any one church, any one denomination, or even any one faith, what sort of building allows for intentional partnership?

Trinity St. Paul’s United Church and Centre for Faith, Justice and the Arts, recognizes the healing power of beautiful music, and so sees it’s identity as a professional concert venue not just a way to pay bills, but a manifestation of their vision of God.

Graham Singh notes, no one congregation can do everything, but maybe you can join forces with those who do what you wish you could, perhaps even better than you can. Action Refugee de Montreal has worked out of St. Jax’s for decades, just as the Regina Anti-Poverty has here.

Finally, To Reconcile and Make New, if part of the core nature of God is to bring together that which is estranged, and forge from brokenness something new — what does it look like to embody that in a building.

In downtown Cleveland, a city formed by the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, you will find the National Offices of the United Church of Christ (with whom we are in full communion). Their chapel, found right on street level, visible through beautiful glass walls is named the Amistad after the infamous slave ship. It’s dimensions and bench seating mimic the design of the ship itself, and stunning art work on the ceiling depict constellations of a beautifully clear Atlantic Sky, recognizing that the bodies transported in that ship were never allowed on deck. You cannot worship there without remembering that part of their history and pondering how your prayers of that day might bring healing to the on-going pain of that past that continues in the present.

What design element would reflect the history of the Regina Indian Industrial School as an invitation to never forget and learn, what partnership might be forged with organizations who have resources and passion to provide community programming around reconciliation beyond what we could do as a congregation?

Church buildings can be sanctuaries, places of solace and comfort.

Church buildings can be thin places, where what the Celts called the veil between heaven and earth (because for them heaven was all around, hidden in this world).

Church buildings can be Dojos (literally house of practice). Now we have two martial arts groups who teach from our gym, but that’s not what I mean (although it’s a great use of an underused space). They can be places where we practice in here ways of peace, prayer and compassion, that we might better embody that the rest of the week (not simply recharge hoping some goodness will keep us through Thursday or Friday at the best).

And Church buildings can be launching pads, where we find ourselves propelled into creative new ways of being in the world.

One reality is that we can no longer do this sort of thing on our own, with less resources it is hard to be all of that, and it should also probably be said that we should no longer do these on our own, for if we do, we offer these things to a decreasing number of people, which is neither a sustainable model, nor, I would suggest a generous offering of treasures we hold within our Tradition.

This of course brings us back to Pentecost and the season following it — remembering that the church emerged from an act of creativity, of learning to speak in new ways to new people, and then building relationship with those that they never thought possible.

What building design will support our future ministry?

What building design will allow us to articulate a living vision of God?

I asked earlier about what would say is God’s mission in the world because what we do with our building, and what we believe (and believe could mean intellectual agreement, or heart-stirring provocation) about the nature of God, and how God is present and working in the world, is not a separate question from what we ask about out building.

And maybe we’ve never tried to pull all the threads of this answer together, because we declare in our prayers, our songs, and our reflections. Perhaps this is something we should seek to name more often.

And if our understanding of God includes the idea of collaboration and bringing together, then our questions around building will eventually invite us to ask things like, with whom we will join?

Who would want to join us? Who else believes in ending social isolation, who else sees energy in collaboration, who else dreams of reconciliation?

Incidentally, all of those values above were listed in some form as Vital Statistics in recent reports by the South Saskatchewan Community Foundation.

We are not alone is our declaration to ourselves and to our world at the core of what we say about God, and I believe that given the example of so many others who have found in community partners invitations to new and exciting opportunities and expressions of ministry, and also sustainable operating approaches to maintaining buildings that reflect and facilitate this vital work.

I believe that the phrase We Are Not Alone, and it’s invitation to seek co-conspirators, partners, cheerleaders and yes even investors, may also be one of the keys to answering our questions about our building, and helping us towards our goal of Being There When the Future Comes.