Sightings: Memphis Church Preservation

Religion scholar Martin Marty’s latest Sightings column asks how and whether it’s possible (and worthwhile) to preserve historic houses of worship. Read on at the jump.


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 esthetic properties.
In this case, Union Avenue Methodist Church is featured. The roof and walls of the building are falling and failing. Only 40 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 Corp., 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 esthetic 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 40 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 esthetic 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.
References
Timothy W. Martin, “From Pews to Prescriptions: Fight Over Fading Church’s Sale to CVS Reflects Woes of Urban Congregations,” Wall Street Journal, January 19, 2011.
Martin E. Marty’s biography, current projects, publications and contact information.
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Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Submissions policy
Sightings welcomes submissions of 500 to 750 words in length that seek to illuminate and interpret the intersections of religion and politics, art, science, business and education. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. The editor also encourages new approaches to current issues and events.
Attribution
Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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2 Responses to Sightings: Memphis Church Preservation

  1. Dianne says:

    I drove past the Union Ave. United Methodist Church hundreds of times while living in Memphis. The building is a classic brick church with steep steps, located on the south side of Union Ave (the main route into downtown Memphis).
    Photo: http://historicsiteblog.com/?tag=unionavenueunitedmethodistchurch
    It’s sad to see the lot developed by CVS pharmacy as there are plenty of other pharmacies nearby.
    In the golden days of Memphis, Union Ave. was a residential area with a long row of immense cotton-maker mansions. Only the “Nineteenth Century Club” mansion remains. The others were demolished to build gas stations, liquor stores, fast food joints, and strip malls.
    http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2010/dec/21/beaux-arts-belle/
    Crime has driven Memphians to move east to Germantown and Collierville, north to Cordova and Bartlett, or south into northern Mississippi.
    The same thing is happening in York. We have beautiful churches in our city, but people have moved to the suburbs and no longer attend city churches either fearing for their safety, or have lost a desire to join religious organizations.
    It’s a matter of time until our architecturally beautiful churches are threatened, too. Many local congregations are dying now.

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