The Epistle of Q — Chapter Seventy-Six

Have I got an idea for the churches who need to turn their real estate into longer-term survival plans? Let me try to explain…

Things are happening in Penticton these days in part because there is an election coming. There will be people wondering who they can get to run for office so that the School Board will return its focus to the kids, so that City Hall will quit giving away the city (such as allowing a Casino to be built without a concomitant parkade so that we now have to buy more land for parking), or so that taxes will be paid by all parts of the community in a truly shared fashion (why apartment towers downtown get tax breaks that no other residences get is still a mystery, especially when they sell for more than those paying the full-freight). There also are churches getting together to determine how better they can work cooperatively for the betterment of their congregations and the improvement of life in the community. There is a group of dedicated volunteers trying to provide the city with a world-class performing arts theatre. There are all kinds of kids wanting to enjoy and perform in plays, musicals, and other kinds of arts at a higher level than simply that provided at schools.

So where does all this converge? Where am I going on this brain-wave?

Churches, by and large, are finding it harder and harder to financially survive. Congregations are shrinking and in many cases are getting greyer and in many ways older. Some still have vibrant Sunday School programs. Some still have wonderful musical offerings (although not always each Sunday, nor in genres that some worshippers find uplifting or comforting). Some still have architectural gems that beautify the city landscape. But as travel through almost any city in Europe will illustrate, great architecture won’t save the churches as churches or congregations. Many decry the tearing down of church buildings due to some faint memory of being married or baptized in them. Others wonder where their funerals will be if there are no churches. Legitimate questions I suppose, but why should a building be maintained only to provide a person with a place for three moments in one’s life: christening, marriage, burial? Even on PEI, where there remains a fairly strong Christian community, the Roman Catholic bishop has been closing some long-standing, beautiful churches because as he has stated: “if you don’t want to pay on a regular basis for the support of a particular church, the church can no longer maintain its buildings for those few days in your life when you think you might need it. And the Presbyterians have shuttered many fine little country churches as people now drive into larger centres to worship or else the community itself has vanished due to changing work habits (including travelling to the oil patch for adequate earnings so the families can at least stay on the Island).

But I digress. I really want us to think about each local community – in my case for the moment, Penticton. Perhaps it is time for us to re-visit an idea a group of young potential theologians had back in the early sixties when churches were expanding into the suburbs. I was fortunate enough to be part of a very vigorous young people’s organization at the time, the PYPS (Presbyterian Young Peoples Society). A good many of us were thinking of following a vocational path that would lead up into either the pulpit or theological college work. So we would spend time at conferences, camps, retreats and in conversations talking about what the church should look like going forward. One idea that kept coming up was the idea of partnering in the suburbs with the local school boards – not just during that period of time when a new church building was being constructed, but permanently. These schools were never used on Sundays, and often during the week the evenings were devoid of much activity other than in the gyms. So why not build into the facility a multi-use auditorium with extra storage rooms, and tracks along the sides where special false walls could be wheeled in and out. In such a fashion on Sunday mornings several congregations could share the same facility, but at different times. Each could wheel out their particular walls, with their particular stained-glass windows or wall-hangings, to create an atmosphere fit for their particular worship. And on and on…The idea didn’t catch on, in part I think, because people wanted their own statements of faith and so they built separate churches, and the schools remained under-utilized.

But Penticton has a new opportunity to revive this concept in a very exciting way. Why don’t the mainline churches in the downtown core get together and consider a partnership with the proposed South Okanagan Performing Arts Centre (SOPAC)? There are at least four congregations that could really make a statement in the following fashion. And I am talking about St. John Vianny (Roman Catholic on Wade), St. Saviour’s (Anglican), Penticton United (the big blue building) and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian (church with the bright red door). They could retain their own identities but merge their collective real estate assets and invest in the new SOPAC. Now, before you get all excited and panicky, the concept would keep St. Saviour’s as it is – good church building, with good acoustics. That would be the building for all/each to use when there is a need for a traditional church structure: weddings, funerals, baptisms, jazz vespers, and the like. Some accoutrements could be brought in or taken out depending on which denomination was using the facility – so it would feel Anglican for those services, or Presbyterian when the St. Andrew’s folks were worshipping there or whatever.

The rest of the properties would be turned into residential real-estate. This would add a diversity of accommodation in the downtown core – with good planning there could be social housing, rental units, mid-income (with younger couples/families) and high-end condos. With innovative architects working on the projects, the resulting buildings could add significantly to the beauty of the core community. And some of the various towers could even be named after the churches and congregations that originally were on the sites.

As importantly, the interior components of the churches could be utilized in a variety of fashions. Each stained glass window could be removed and put into a sturdy but movable secure frame. The best of the musical instruments could be donated to the new SOPAC for use in practice rooms or if of sufficient quality, even the stage. The pulpits and lecterns can be saved and kept in handy storage to be used during the regular services. Pews could be sold to wineries, donated as park and trailside benches (again with little plaques acknowledging where they came from). Kitchen and washroom equipment could be transferred to other locales (cabins, temporary worker shelters, wherever useable). On and on it could go, so that nothing that is currently valuable couldn’t be used.

But where does SOPAC fit in. Well, that’s the central point. The main auditorium that is the focus of the Centre would become the site of Sunday morning worship for at least two of the congregations, and Sunday evening worship for the third. The fourth would be using St. Saviour’s. Congregation A would have access from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. with it’s service probably starting at 8:30. Congregation B would have access from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 noon with its service beginning at 11:00 a.m. Congregation C would have access from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. with its service beginning at 6:00 p.m. Congregation D would be at St. Saviour’s from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. with its service at 10:00 a.m. Immediately the benefit would be that there would always be an evening service for travellers or those who prefer that time of day due to work or recreation. The congregations would rotate the times on an annual basis. There could be Saturday late afternoon & evening masses and communion services held each week at St. Saviour’s – mass at 5:00 p.m. Anglican communion at 6:30 p.m. Reformed tradition communion at 8:00 p.m.

SOPAC could be built with several multi-purpose rooms that would allow each congregation during its time slot to operate its Christian Education program. As well each congregation could have an afternoon each week (Monday through Thursday) from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. to put on programs at the Centre as part of their community outreach. These might range from children’s theatre, noon lectures, Bible and other church-related studies, specific ladies or men’s church groups, volunteer or special interest groups/committees, community town hall sessions – the list could be endless. This would ensure that there was always a sense of activity at SOPAC including cars in the parking lot and people coming and going. It would not impact evening or Saturday and even Sunday afternoon performances or weekday maintenance. The congregations themselves would get more opportunities to mix and mingle and work on cooperative ventures with a local focus or even more national and international.

At a recent introductory session that SOPAC hosted to show what a Centre could look like it became evident that new performance-art theatres have some incredible technologies to draw upon and incorporate into their physical structures. This is where I see my sixties ideas again coming into play. In the main auditorium, along all the walls could be built permanent tracks complete with motor-driven “mini-mini-robotic-like-tractors” that could move panels back and forth. These panels could then include the various windows and other architectural components brought from each congregation and when each church was meeting their walls could be wheeled in, complete with special back-lighting, to create a unique church-like environment. In fact, with some cooperation, each congregation might allow the others to utilize the best of their art and decorative components. In addition, the audio-visual components of the Centre could be utilized by each minister or priest to reinforce or add to the impact of sermons, scripture readings and hymn singing. The theatre could even be designed so that the lighting blocked out empty sections – the smaller the attendance on any given Sunday the less need for balcony and other seating, and it would still seem like a goodly number of people were participating. The appropriate pulpit and lectern would be brought out for the service along with piano, organ and other instruments as appropriate. All these would be stored in dedicated congregational storage rooms so that their care and attention would be the responsibility of that congregation (or shared responsibility as the case might be). As for the outside, the main thing would be a very contemporary signage system that would announce the church service of the moment as well as let people know of other congregation gatherings; of course it would also inform of all the other events currently on the schedule. In addition, a special foundational structure could be built, wherein when a church service or other major congregational event is being held a cross or other significant religious symbol could be placed. By the way, it might even be possible for the architects to incorporate some of the exterior and/or interior materials into the building itself (e.g. the stone work from St. Andrew’s, some of the interior beams from PUC, etc.) which could add to the sense of shared ownership.

There is a great deal more that could be said about this concept. The important thing at the moment – there is a conference this weekend in Penticton whereat several congregations are gathering to talk about the church going forward – is that we need to start the conversation. Imagine if all these churches, along with the current SOPAC committee, along with people involved with youth programming were to come together to see how much money might be readily available on a pooled basis. It could be significant enough to then lever funds from the provincial and federal governments. It would certainly be an attractive concept inspiring other donors to come forward to participate as it would be a year-round facility, quite likely with something happening at least 18/7 each week, and how many performing arts theatres can claim that from the get-go.

Oh, and another thing, since health care is supposed to be universal and part of our Canadian social fabric, how about the province giving us back the $20 million we had to raise for the hospital and giving that to our performing arts centre. Call it a gift for our collective mental wellness!!