I’ve just finished skimming Michael Weldon’s 2004 book, “A Struggle for Holy Ground: Reconciliation and the Rites of Parish Closure” (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn). Being Catholic, Weldon writes from the particulars of his own tradition, but he has something to teach all of us about the role of ritual in the process of closing churches. In the two parish re-structures he studied (San Francisco and the Chicago suburb of Englewood), he gives attention to the practices used to foster group discernment and decision making, and the liturgical rites that best helped a congregation deal with their anger, grief and hope for the future. (In fact, he considers group discernment to be a liturgical practice in itself, a novel idea for me!)
Weldon’s observations remind us of some of the dangers of heirarchical processes that short circuit the feelings and insights of the laity in a church closure. He notes that some church members will carry resentment for many years, in some cases severing their ties with the church permanently, because of the lack of appropriate inclusion and rituals that assists them to let go and move on in hopeful ways.
He writes, The main reason why religious congregations, parishes, or dioceses resist renewal is a failure to mourn or ritually detach themselves from ‘that which is lost’ or ‘no longer apostolically relevant.’
In other words, we cannot renew and resurrect our dying way of doing church unless we ritually and emotionally grieve for the old models we so dearly loved.
Weldon’s book is heavy duty reading, but I recommend it for any judicatory leader who must navigate the rough waters of church consolidation and closure. A helpful set of resources in the back of the book gives ideas for how to ritualize conversations about grief, the dismantling of physical worship space, and other occasions in the life of a dying church.