I waited until I was inside, and had shut the manse door behind me. Then I let out one long, deep-throated yell, for the sheer unmitigated heartbreak of closing churches.
Yes – churches, plural. Since arriving on Shetland, my team and I have overseen the closure of twelve of them, with ten still to go. That evening I had just conducted my second closing service. We had finished with ‘The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended’, and I had stood at the door as people left, able to do little more than acknowledge their tears and blink back my own. I had only known that building for a year. They had known and loved it for a lifetime.
Earlier that evening, I had stood at that same door with Annie, who together with her husband had kept the building running these past few years. We looked down at the carpark below as all the people began to arrive for the service. And from patient, gracious Annie there came a sudden flash of anger: If only these people had come before, we wouldn’t be in this situation now.
When we close a church, these flashes of anger are everywhere. Church members are angry at the wider community and the community is angry at the church. Much of the anger gets deflected to ‘121’ or ‘Presbytery’. Yet more of it is aimed directly at the minister, representative of a church that had promised it would always be there for the community, and is now abandoning it. Outraged letters get written to the local newspapers. Journalists lob hostile questions. Family members demand to know what has happened to the legacy that was left to the church in 2010. Sometimes it feels like my job is to be a kind of padded wall for people to throw themselves against. All I can do is absorb that anger, and carry their sorrow as my cross. And make sure that I don’t get angry myself.
Anger isn’t the only emotion. Among the church folks especially, another big one is guilt. If only we had somehow tried harder, or done things better, the pews would still be full on a Sunday morning. The sense of failure is profound.
And for others, the overriding emotion is relief. The burden of running the place has at last been lifted from the few elderly shoulders that were bearing it.
But for all, there is sadness. We are laying to rest our old friend. And we will miss her, and wish her back, and say in the years to come that it is just not the same without her.
So what can I say to these angry, hurting, desperately sad people? How do I talk about faith and hope and love, when their faith has failed them, when hope has deserted them, when the love of God feels distant and abstract?
All I can do is point them again and again to scripture. What is happening now has happened before. God’s people have lived in the wilderness before. God’s people have been exiled before. The temple has been destroyed before. God’s prophets have wandered before through the rubble of Jerusalem. God’s Son has borne, before we ever did, the anger and disappointment of the crowd.
And the disciples have lived through Holy Saturday before. Resurrection may yet happen, but on Holy Saturday, we don’t know that yet. This is our season of ashes and torn garments. All we can point to is a promise, the faintest of hopes, that the Lord will rise again, that the Lord will come.
Meanwhile, I recall again the words of Jesus to his mother and the beloved disciple. “This is your mother,” he says to John. And to Mary he says, “This is your son.” In other words, look after each other. Be kind to each other. Cling to each other. Cling to God. We will get each other through this.