Now here is an interesting thing to ponder. What we have here is a Baltimore Sun story about a controversy in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland that does not appear, at first glance to have anything to do with evolving sexual ethics or alcohol. The latter, of course, is a reference to the various charges brought against Bishop Heather Cook, including multiple charges of drunken driving, after the car that she was driving veered into a popular bike lane and hit a cyclist, killing a 41-year-old father of two.
No, this story has to do with a shrinking parish and conflict about the sale of a valuable piece of property that includes a church sanctuary. Thus, what we have here is a Baltimore-area story linked to a much larger national and even global trend about what religious leaders can do with properties held by flocks that are, to be blunt, not producing their fair share of converts and/or babies.
The issue, of course, is whether the Sun editors know about this demographics-is-destiny connection and whether they want to cover it. It is clear, however, that they know their local diocese has major financial problems (even before the DUI bishop case) and that the parishioners at the tiny Church of the Ascension allege that their property is being sold, against their will, because of that. Thus, readers are told:
The Church of the Ascension is an unremarkable Middle River landmark, just a squat, brick building on an isolated peninsula south of Martin State Airport. But for Episcopalians in eastern Baltimore County's Wilson Point community, the small church has been a fixture for generations -- home to such cradle-to-grave memories as baptisms, weddings and funerals.
And on a street of mostly fenced-in front yards, the church's rolling lawn has served as an informal waterfront park to the entire neighborhood since aircraft pioneer Glenn L. Martin donated the property to the community 75 years ago. Residents walk their dogs to the tree-lined shore. A sliver of beach provides a popular spot for fishing. And a wooden bench perched amid a community garden beckons visitors to sit and gaze at the ducks on Stansbury Creek.
But these days the garden is dead, the creek is frozen and the church is locked.
As you would imagine, the secular and canon laws involved -- including an old document giving the parish a quasi-independent status -- are complicated. The Sun also makes it clear that the church has about 20 members (elsewhere described as a core of 10 to 15 families) that was struggling to exist as a church, yet was paying its bills, collecting modest assets and operating in the black. The story also connects this long-running drama with the tensions caused by the Cook scandal and national church battles.
Nationally, the Episcopal Church has been ensnared in a number of property disputes. Typically such fights are triggered by congregations breaking away over issues such as the denomination's support for same-sex marriage and gay clergy, experts say. The Maryland diocese experienced such a defection in 2010 when Mount Calvary Church in Baltimore voted to become Catholic. In that case, the diocese simply sold the building to the departing church.
The issue in the Middle River case is different, inflamed by local passions for a property that many in Wilson Point see as a tribute to Martin's benevolent legacy.
Here is where I see the problem. This is a story about money, in other words, not doctrine. Yet readers never really learn to details of how the Diocese of Maryland is doing, in terms of the basic facts about finances and the health of its parishes.
It's clear that many churches are in sharp decline and that gray hair is the norm in far too many pews. It's clear that the diocese needs money to pay its bills and even to wrestle with complications like the Cook case. But where are the facts? If the parishioners believe their sanctuary, land and assets are being seized by a greedy diocese, do they have any facts with which to make that case?
As I mentioned earlier, this is a story that is unfolding everywhere -- at the local, national and global levels. Yes, the Catholic Archdiocese of New York is closing churches and making headlines. But have you been to ROME ITSELF lately? There are lots of empty pews sitting on lots of very valuable land. The clock is ticking.
Thus, The Wall Street Journal recently reported (with Rod Dreher taking us behind the newspaper's pay wall):
The Church of England closes about 20 churches a year. Roughly 200 Danish churches have been deemed nonviable or underused. The Roman Catholic Church in Germany has shut about 515 churches in the past decade.
But it is in the Netherlands where the trend appears to be most advanced. The country’s Roman Catholic leaders estimate that two-thirds of their 1,600 churches will be out of commission in a decade, and 700 of Holland’s Protestant churches are expected to close within four years. ...
The U.S. has avoided a similar wave of church closings for now, because American Christians remain more religiously observant than Europeans. But religious researchers say the declining number of American churchgoers suggests the country could face the same problem in coming years.
Check out this devastating quote from a kid who frequents a facility that once was a church in Arnhem, but is now a skateboarding center:
Another regular, Pelle Klomp, 14, says visitors occasionally stop by to complain. “Especially the older people say, ‘It’s ridiculous, you’re dishonoring faith,’ ” he says. “And I can understand that. But they weren’t using it.”
In other words, there is no painless way to cut a shrinking pie. When churches age, fade and die, someone gets the assets.
I am not arguing that the Sun team needed to add a dozen inches or more to this story to get into a deep discussion -- yes, demographics and doctrine often mix -- about why so many of these oldline church pies are shrinking and facing the demographic reaper.
But, in this case, readers certainly needed to know a bit about the statistical health and finances of the local diocese, since those facts are directly linked to claims made by the angry parishioners about why their beloved little church -- with its nice views of the water -- is being sold out from under them.
It's that old journalism saying: Follow the money.
So how is the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland doing, in terms of finances, converts, babies and demographics? How many other little churches are threatened and how much might the church leaders make by selling some of them? This are fair questions during hard times. Sun editors needed to push their reporters to ask them.