It is madness.
Working out the sequence of Sunday services for the month of September to send to the editor of the parish newsletter was a challenge. There being five services in the month and being absent for the fourth and fifth of those Sundays made it a difficult month to plan. There will be a Sunday when there is no Holy Communion, but unless someone can pull a priest of a hat, there is no other choice.
Six churches for 353 Church of Ireland members, all of whom could sit in the largest of the church buildings and still be able to welcome 200 visitors; it is madness.
But which one could one close? Which group of faithful worshippers, who dig deep in their pockets to pay for their Rector and to maintain their building, would be told that their place of worship will be no more?
Church of Ireland buildings are rarely medieval gems; mostly they are nineteenth century buildings, often plain, sometimes dull, occasionally charmless. They are not places that would be loved by anyone, except by those for whom they are special. Each of the redundant churches that dot the Irish countryside are a reminder of the pain of those who once went there Sunday by Sunday.
Those who govern church affairs are mostly suburban people; look at the bishops and there are few grew up among the farms and the townlands of rural Ireland. Few who speak at synods fully comprehend the intensity of the attachment to buildings that to ecclesiastical administrators are no more than names in the pages of the church directory.
The sense of place, the sense of attachment to the land, are profound emotions. John B. Keane’s classic play ‘The Field’ only scratches at the surface of how people feel about the land they regard as their own, a depth of sentiment that extends to the church. Closures of buildings in the 1990s brought death threats to one rural bishop.
It is madness, but the madness has deep, rational roots. These buildings are the place where people have come each week with their parents; they are the place where they may remember younger siblings being baptised; they are the place where they will have attended family weddings; they are the place from which they will have followed family coffins; they are the place where loved ones may lie yards from the doorway, awaiting the final trumpet.
If this were your family’s place, would you wish it closed? Would you be happy for the key to be turned for the last time and then to watch as the passing years saw the windows broken, the slates slip, the timbers begin to sag, the stonework crumble? Would you be happy as the graveyard, once so neat, was slowly colonised by briars and thistles,the headstones engulfed in creeper, even the gate slowly succumb to rust?
Of course, the building is not the church; of course, the church is the people; but hurt the people and what does one say about the church’s regard for its members?