It’s not hard to imagine a small church in some small town in some distant corner of a remote diocese. The building probably couldn’t hold more than 40 people comfortably but it hasn’t been full in at least 2 generations. It’s probably made from the wood of trees that grew nearby or maybe brick that was hauled along the old railway decades ago. The thin windows are small and the inside is dim without the new compact fluorescent bulbs turned on. It’s quiet too. Quiet in the way only an empty church can be. It smells like a hundred years of quiet and prayer and Sunday morning. It’s a sacred place.
But the little town around it has changed. There are not that many young families in town anymore because the work is all farther north or farther south. It’s not that far a drive to the slightly bigger town down the road and the shopping is cheaper there. There’s a bigger church there too and they have a Sunday school.
The handful of Sunday regulars has decided that this little church’s time has passed. The decision is made and the paperwork is done. The bishop came out this morning and led a service of deconsecration. Everyone there said it was a beautiful service. It really was too. It was a holy goodbye.
So the church is quiet and empty now. Sometime in the next couple of days, a “for sale” sign will somehow appear and eventually, this little space will become something else. Maybe an art studio, or a concert venue, or an odd little home.
But today, it’s still quiet. Quiet, that is, except for the occasional sound of a rubber mallet on wood and the gentle sound of a softly applied crowbar. These are strange and foreign sounds here so it’s probably hard to imagine, but there’s a person moving around the altar. The bishop has come back this afternoon.
The bishop is not an imposing figure. She’s the sort of woman who’s stood behind you in line at the local Timmy’s. She knows the town and she knows the people. Her face is etched with lines of laughter and care from years of mothering those related, and unrelated, to her.
With great care, and the occasional grunt of exertion, she’s taking apart the altar. Not exactly taking it apart as much as taking parts off. The altar is like lots of others in lots of other places. It’s big and heavy and made of wood and anchored to the floor. It wouldn’t be worth moving and even if it were there’s no place to move it to.
But still, she works. She carefully lays rags under the curve of the crowbar to protect the wood and gently levers the corner of one of the front panels. There are three front panels and each one bears a carving of a cross, or a dove, or a tongue of flame, or Greek letters. She’s been at it for a while and she’s only now starting to make progress. It took her some time to figure out how the panels were attached. She’d even brought an electric saw but was relieved that she didn’t have to use it.
By the time the sun goes down she’ll have pulled those three panels off and will have bundled them up in the back of her car. She’ll say the appropriate goodbyes to the appropriate people and make her way back down the highway towards her cathedral. It’ll be almost a full day before she’s home.
But the panels from the altar won’t go with her. She knows what it cost that last faithful remnant to willingly close their church. She knows that they made the choice in the hope of something new happening. They hope that new thing will happen in this small town, or maybe in the town down the road. She knows they made a holy sacrifice in hope. So before she drives away she’ll leave one of those panels with each of the last families. She’ll make sure to present each panel as a sign of remembrance but also as a sign of promise. There might be more tears as she presents these signs to those families. There will definitely be hugs and an exchange of blessings.
But there may not be more tears. The time for tears may have passed.