One of the most difficult lines of conversation in these days at Old South is connected to our sanctuary. The sanctuary exists in a building separate from the building that contains the offices, kitchen, classrooms, etc. The sanctuary building is a good-sized building made of granite. In addition to the sanctuary, the building contains a vestry, a choir room, and, of course, the sizable organ.
One of the biggest problems with the sanctuary building is that it is used for only a few hours every week—about three hours for Sunday morning worship and another couple of hours for weekly choir rehearsal.
In a harsh climate as we experience in Maine, it’s hard to justify the expense of the sanctuary. The tall ceiling makes it an expensive place to keep warm in the winter months. The building also requires a fair amount of maintenance. Some of the maintenance has been put off, as funds are scarce. The concrete stairs to one of the primary entrances may not survive another winter, crumbling as they are under the strain of ice melt.
As the congregation shrinks, and our financial resources too, it’s hard to know how to deal with the problem of our buildings. For some people, the church simply isn’t the church without our sanctuary building, or without the organ, or without the sense of space that the sanctuary provides. But, it’s also hard to justify the funding required to keep the sanctuary building heated and maintained.
This is a problem not easily solved.
During my recent trip to Venice, Italy, my daughter and I visited quite a few churches. The sense of space is indeed significant. While we can try to focus on the people “being the church,” it’s hard to ignore what a large space can do to help one feel the presence of God. And, it’s not only the size of the space, but the feeling of sacredness, of a space set apart for something holy.
Along with many in my congregation, I feel deeply torn when it comes to the practicalities of our future and our buildings. On the one hand, the math indicates that there really is only one choice, and that is to keep the parish house and try to sell the sanctuary building. On the other hand, it feels like a sort of betrayal to consider selling the sanctuary building. It feels like we are giving up on a space that conveys holiness that the parish house simply will never convey.
That sense of holiness is not simply for us, but for the community of which we are part. The people who live in the small city of Hallowell are largely a secular bunch. With that in mind, I must admit that I feel even more called to keep the sanctuary building and keep it holy. It stands as witness to our belief in the presence of God and in our trust in God’s love and hope.
But, the sanctuary building will not maintain itself and the money that is and will be required to keep that building boggles the mind. It’s also hard to escape the fact that the money that we’ll need to maintain that building could go to other, very important places and causes that are also a significant aspect of our mission as church.
How to proceed, then, is a tricky business. It will, I suspect, test our trust in our God whom we worship and will demonstrate our ability to listen to God’s voice and to follow where God leads.