Monday, January 24, 2011

Memphis Church Preservation -- Sighings

As a historian I hate to see the loss of historic buildings, because they offer insight into periods of time (though there are periods of architectural style that might benefit from being forgotten -- i.e. the 1970s).  As a pastor I recognize the importance of making sure that scarce dollars go to ministry and not preserving aesthetics, for the sake of preserving them.  In recent years churches have gotten caught in a bind as they no longer have the funds to keep up properties, but are prevented from demolishing them or selling them because of historic landmark status or community heritage groups.  So, what to do?  Martin Marty helps us wrestle with the problem in today's issue of Sightings


Sightings 1/24/2011

Memphis Church Preservation
- Martin E. Marty

This season it’s Memphis. Last season it was in some city near you. Next season it will be a challenge in your city, or, if you “have” one, in your denomination. “It” refers to what in my eyes is one of the sad insolubles on the “public religion” front. Making sense of these “its” and “insolubles” elicits a story. This time it is in the Wall Street Journal, where Timothy W. Martin tells of conflict over a church building that, in the eyes of its last few surviving members, cannot survive, and Memphis Heritage, an organization which seeks to prevent destruction of historic and aesthetic properties.

In this case, Union Avenue Methodist Church is featured. The roof and walls of the building are falling and failing. Only forty church members are left in this congregation after most Union Avenue members moved to the suburbs decades ago, and they cannot begin to fund restoration and preservation, to say nothing of other needs which make strong demands on them and their church's mission. To the rescue came CVS Caremark Corporation, which is paying, or ready to pay, good money to raze the building and put the space to new CVS purposes. Memphis Heritage stepped in to prevent the changes, but now tempers, legal fees, and civic controversy rise. No surprise there.

What to do? From this distance, neither church, corporation, nor preservationists are natural villains. They are all caught between forces they cannot control. The building does not display aesthetic merit—pardon me, good Union Avenue folk—with its boxy look and plastered-on flat pillars. But removing it would disrupt preservation efforts for those who are working to restore the neighborhood. Can the locals profit from the experience which has analogues in countless urban (and sometimes rural) settings? We have known and cheered groups like Inspired Partnerships in Chicago, and Partners for Sacred Places nationally, and we have seen them put energy into addressing the issue.

From where might funds come? Weekly you will read of debates as to whether tax money can be used. Mention that and you get into church-state issues and citizen concern over taxes for anything. What about the host denomination? Not much luck: if it is doing any fair part of its mission, it’s broke. What about non-denominations? Too dispersed, not focused, not obligated, distracted by their own legitimate agendas. Former members? They are long gone over the hills of Tennessee to greener pastures for church life. Present members? Pastor Mark Matheny knows that most of the forty are aged or aging, without great financial means, and they, too, support living missions rather than vestiges of earlier ones. Matheny complains that Memphis Heritage came along with too little, too late. Philanthropists who care about the appearance of a city? Groups like Inspired Partnerships and Partners for Sacred Places scare up some dollars from some of them, but too little.

Tour Europe, including the English and French countrysides and you can see hundreds, perhaps thousands, of empty churches of dead congregations, buildings whose aesthetic and historic value exceeds that of the church in Memphis. No CVS is on hand to rescue them. They fall into the ground, through the centuries. Anyone who has a way out of these preservation plights: speak up, and pay up. Pastor Matheny has his own perspective, which he sees as biblical: “If you look through the New Testament, it says next to nothing abut the preservation of buildings.” It says nothing. Still, if we have cared about sacred places and spaces and memory and hope, we can regret, and we can shed a tear.


Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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