Frankly, it's one of the biggest religion-news stories in America these days.
You are going to be reading these news stories over and over in newspapers from New York City to Los Angeles and every major urban area in between. Thousands of people are involved, along with millions and millions of dollars.
We are talking about prime urban real estate -- specifically the sale of land (and sometimes the reuse of facilities) belonging to dying churches, synagogues and other religious institutions.
News organizations have to cover these stories, of course. It's an old doctrine of news, as well as real estate: Location, location, location. The question is whether editors and reporters will be interested in the totally valid religion-news angles in these stories, as well as the financial ones.
Yes, it's valid to focus these stories on newsy questions like: What happens next, in terms of the people and the properties? Who gets the money? What happens to the art, pipe organs, pews, altars, burial chambers and other items inside these sacred spaces?
However, journalists may also want to ask these kinds of questions: Why are some urban churches -- take New York City, for example -- closing while others are not? Why are there thriving churches in urban areas, while others are dying? Why do some have lots of members, converts and new children, while others do not? Might there be religious factors at play here, as well as relevant "secular" factors? Might demographics and doctrine be linked?
OK, I'll ask another question that some readers may be thinking: Do your GetReligionistas plan to keep noting these faith-shaped holes in all these real-estate stories, over and over and over? Good question: I think the answer is still "yes."
The New York Times recently covered religious real-estate issues in a pair of unrelated stories that ran August 6-7. Here is the overture to the first one, that ran with the headline, "Struggling to Survive, Congregations Look to Sell Houses of Worship."
At first glance, the preservation battle over the nearly century-old synagogue on a tree-lined block of West 93rd Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan looks familiar, even tired. One group wants to save the stately granite building, emphasizing its history, neoclassical architecture and towering stained glass windows. Another group wants to turn it into a high-rise condominium.
But in a twist, it’s the synagogue that is fighting for the change.
Across the city, financially struggling religious congregations, facing dwindling attendance and shrinking donations, are looking for other sources of revenue. Increasingly they are turning to their most valuable asset: location, location, location (and, in some cases, the air above it).
The state attorney general’s office, whose approval is required for all sales of religious properties in New York, received 165 sale petitions in 2016; so far in 2017, it has received 124.
OK, there is the obvious question: Why are these specific congregations "struggling to survive," why are they facing "dwindling attendance and shrinking donations"? Here is what readers are told, in a rather generic paragraph that Times journalists may has well have programmed into an auto-insert key on their keyboards.
This situation is playing out again and again across New York City. Upward mobility, suburban growth and the dissolution of traditional ethnic enclaves have all contributed to empty pews, said Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute. Twenty-seven percent of New Yorkers identified as religiously unaffiliated in 2014, compared with 17 percent in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center.
Now, look right there!
That last sentence hints that there are other issues, even religious issues, involved here. I would also suggest that -- if one contrasts certain types of Jewish congregations -- there are issues linked to birthrates and intermarriage. I can think of some doctrinal issues that might affect conversion and birth rates in Catholic and Protestant flocks, as well.
Now, a story that talks to leaders in growing and shrinking religious congregations is a different type of story. I know that. It would take lots of extra work. It would mean allowing a religion-beat professional, or two, take part in the coverage, too. I know that.
But this is a big, big story. It isn't going to go away. For example, take that second Times story, the one with the headline, "18 Shuttered Catholic Churches May Soon Be Up for Sale."
This story does a great job of pondering the financial side of these closings, perhaps linked to changes in New York mass transit (hint, hint). Take this passage, for example:
Kal Chany, who was a trustee of St. Elizabeth of Hungary and also appealed on its behalf, questioned whether his church and others on Manhattan’s East Side had been closed because of their increased real estate value.
“The Catholic Church is putting up the white flag of surrender and saying that demographics have shifted,” Mr. Chany said. “In our area, we’ve been told Yorkville will get hot. It will improve because of the subway.”
Mr. Chany said he, too, will appeal to the Vatican.
He noted that six of the deconsecrated churches are along the Second Avenue subway line, part of which opened this year and extended the Q line through the Yorkville neighborhood, raising real estate prices in the area. St. John the Martyr, for example, sits across from the new 72nd Street subway station.
But that's that. That's all there is.
So many religious sanctuaries. So many dollars. So many news reports. So few religion angles.
MAIN IMAGE: St. Elizabeth of Hungary parish photos posted at The Real Deal real estate site.