Church as house but not home

St. Clement lofts Toronto

I’d like to take a break from the usual subjects of this column – movies, TV and books, mostly – to talk about something that might not seem at all related: real estate. I live in a city (Toronto) where real estate – buying and selling, house values, property taxes, neighbourhoods, amenities and development – are talked about far more than cultural activities like plays, films, books, music, or TV shows. I’d go so far as to say that real estate and all of its activities and trends play more of a role in culture here than anything else, and I don’t think my city is unique.

I work for a popular blog devoted to city news, reviews of restaurants, theatre, art and music, and features on city history. Since Toronto is in the middle of an ongoing and apparently never-ending boom in condo construction, news on the latest new developments are a regular feature, and the site recently ran a post on one of the latest, a project in the east end of the city that will turn what was once St. Clements Anglican Church into a 40-unit condo, with 18 of the new residences housed in the shell of the 98-year-old church.

Church conversions aren’t a rarity in Toronto; decline of mainstream Protestant denominations has sprinkled the city with empty churches that have either been taken over by Baptist or evangelical congregations, turned into mosques or renovated into condominiums that are sold on their appeal to homebuyers with an interest in helping “preserve history.” An even more unusual selling point for homes in former churches was suggested by the writer of the post on the St. Clements condos, who ended the piece by wondering aloud if the saleability of the church condos “depends largely on what you’ve vowed to never do inside a church.”

The conversion of churches into homes was also common enough to inspire a feature in the United Church Observer last year, which the reader may consider richly ironic, given how many onetime United Churches have hit the market. The story quotes a study by Nicholas Lynch, a doctoral student at UBC, who said that buyers of homes in former churches “were deliberate about wanting to live in a former church because that was somehow ‘cool’.”

The story said, “Lynch speculated ‘they had “a latent wish to recapture a (now) commodified part of their heritage.’ In other words, they might not be churchgoers, but religion and its symbols had played some role in their lives.”

You could argue that we had to come to a point in history where there is an unprecedented surplus of empty churches allowed us to discover a measurable part of the population who respond to the spiritual in an uncommitted but intrigued sort of way; some interested in furnishing a part of their lives once occupied by religion with its trappings and artifacts, others somehow titillated by the thought of living their very secular lives within the confines of a once-sacred space. In either case, it’s a whole new cultural subdivision that’s being revealed as secularization rolls back the tide of established religion.

This newly minted, putatively agnostic tribe must have been noticed by the statisticians, and it has – a new report by Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life chronicles the rise of the “Nones,” which is to say those who tick the box that professes no religious affiliation on surveys, the majority of whom are classified with the acronym “SBNR,” short for “spiritual but not religious.” Reporting on the study for the National Post, writer Mireille Silcoff says that the acronym has showed up on Facebook and dating sites – “shorthand,” she says, “for open-mindedness, sensitive enlightenment or, at the very least, a tight Kundalini bod.”

In other words, these are people who are happy to discard organized religions but not their intuition that a higher power exists, that life isn’t finite and corporeal, and that the sacred can have a physical presence, even after you put marble countertops and a rainfall shower in it. The rise of this group has increased among the demographically trending Millennials or Gen Y, known more specifically as the children of the Baby Boomers, and the Post’s Silcoff notes that “once unchurched, people tend not to rechurch. And so what will the spiritual life of the children of these Millenials look like?”

For the pro-life movement, it’s also worth wondering how this group will answer when asked to take a position on the sanctity of life itself. They might consult whatever they consider to be their inspirational texts and maybe even their conscience and conclude that life is sacred from conception to death. Or they might find scarce purchase for such a stand amidst a belief system that has no role models or spokesmen or any definite concept of sin or redemption, and gathers its iconography from the big box store of world religions.

They might answer like a politician – Joe Biden comes to mind – and say that while they might personally consider human life sacred, they’d hate to force their beliefs on anyone else. What’s frightening is the vision of a future where the churches still stand and light still comes through their windows, but behind them no one is at prayer as much as they’re making dinner, watching TV, or checking their e-mail. We will, in fact as well as metaphor, have emptied the house of God and filled it with man.

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