Renting Church Buildings to Other Christian Groups. # 59. 11/01/2022
Out of Many, One People
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Renting Church Buildings to Other Christian Groups.
Whilst I love thinking about the influence of post-Foucaultian epistemology on Critical Race Theory as much as the next person this Blog also aims to be practical. So, a down-to-earth start to the New Year. What are the theological and practical issues raised when the historic, well-established churches in this country are asked to rent space in their churches or halls to other congregations, particularly those focused on ethnic minorities?
On the one hand this is a bread-and-butter issue of routine finance and building issues for many churches. But it is also very often an important interface of ethnic encounter with a clear backdrop of unequal power relationships and inherited privilege. Our use of our material resources can communicate our theology and our understanding of racism, justice and society more powerfully than formal, abstract statements. So it is important to try to map out the issues behind renting church buildings to other churches, frequently having minority ethnic leaders and members.
For two or more Christian groups to use the same building whilst not sharing the same church order and identity is of itself a confession of failure, made the more scandalous if it is underlined by substantial ethnic differences between the churches, and worse still if they are worshipping in the same language. This is an implicit denial of the vision of united, ethnically diverse worship we are given in Revelation 7:9. Thus I have always been glad not to have had to face the question, having been vicar of a church centre with two congregations worshipping in Asian languages and no spare capacity (apart from one brief exception referred to below).
Nonetheless we are where we are, for myriad reasons - including substantial cultural differences in modes of expression and behaviour, racist attitudes and institutional momentum and inertia, so what follows are some issues to consider when churches looking for places to meet encounter those with space to offer.
* Anglicans need a faculty before renting church buildings for other Christian groups.
* Requests to use the church for special occasions: weddings and funerals in Anglican churches need to be formed around the basic Anglican liturgy, though ministers of other churches are welcome to take part. Responsibilities in such services need to be clearly planned.
2. How are we affecting Christian unity?
Given a situation marked by broad-brushed ethnic differences, the following questions ask how can rental arrangements further rather than hinder unity between churches.
a) Is the renting church part of any inter church group?
Are they, or will they become, part of a local fellowship, prayer group, or minister’s meeting? Do they have broader connections, either with a denomination or a group such as the Evangelical Alliance?
b) Do they recognise you and your fellow members as being ‘really Christian’? Or despite the rhetoric of oneness do they see your members as merely ‘nominal’, and therefore fair game to be evangelised?
c) What sort of fellowship together will you have? Praying together, occasional combined events or worship, shared commitment in serving the community?
d) If not entirely new, then does this congregation have good roots? What may be presented as a simple heart-felt desire to share the gospel, can cover an ungodly desire for ‘pre-eminence’ (like Diotrephes, 3 John 9). I remember the heartache of a Sinhalese Sri Lankan Pentecostal friend after being phoned on the Sunday morning by Tamil members who said they were leaving and starting their own congregation. Are you unwittingly encouraging division and pride in the body of Christ by not asking serious questions about the origin and good faith of this congregation?
If all those questions are answered negatively and there seems to be no intention for closer unity, then renting to them may well be further fragmenting the church in your area. Small, independent congregations are easily susceptible to power struggles and diviseness. We need to be wary.
3. Are we taking forward God’s mission in the area?
a) Will this congregation be developing the mission of the whole people of God in your area? I am not sure that Tottenham really needs one more African congregation, but my mission-heart was encouraged when three ordinary Spanish-speaking men approached us about starting a congregation in our hall. (Sadly, we had no space to rent).
b) Are our views aligned sufficiently? Understandably there will often be significant differences of emphasis in theology, worship style or pastoral practice; but are there possible aspects which you find unacceptable and damaging? A heavy emphasis on ‘prosperity theology’ is one example, or misleading and unsustainable claims for miraculous healing – in both cases the risk of the new congregation doing more harm than good should be seriously considered. For example, I believe the Brazilian, billionaire-led Universal Church of the Kingdom of God should be avoided.
c) What effect is our congregational fragmentation having on mission? Despite the excitement of planting new churches, do we really need more? Ealing Road in Wembley is an impressive sight on Friday lunchtimes as the crowd of worshippers coming out of the mosque and spilling into the road bears witness to the strength of Islam in the area. There may be as many worshipping Christians around, but our fragmentation in numerous small or medium sized congregations gives a public impression of weakness and marginalisation.
d) How might the host church’s ministry and spirituality benefit? They may well find that the congregation they are renting to has a much more vigorous commitment to prayer and fasting, greater commitment to evangelism, a stronger sense of God’s presence in worship that has the potential to greatly enrich them if they are able to enter into an open and learning relationship.
4. Are we making just and fair arrangements?
The power imbalance between renter and rentee is usually aligned with an ‘host/immigrant’ heritage. In this context what is a fair rental? Making a profit for the renting out church? Breaking even? Generously subsidising the ministry of disadvantaged fellow Christians?
Is the owner of the building operating with the cold disdain of cultural superiority, or hampered by guilt into being unwisely generous? The charge for rental can lead to either side in the arrangement feeling aggrieved by what they see as the ‘unChristian’ behaviour of the other party. Transparently discussed, clearly written agreements, possibly with a trial period thus become important. So, what is a fair rent?
Being responsible for a building is a bigger burden than rentees often realise when they feel aggrieved at the rent they are paying. I was minister of a church plant on the Kingsmead Estate in Hackney for three years, where we rented the youth centre on the estate. Being free from all the administrative and maintenance demands of a building was a great liberation and gave me much more time for the ‘real’ pastoral work of ministry. By contrast the demands of buildings weigh heavily on the time, skills and energies of congregations that own buildings, often with a smallish number of mainly elderly members. A fair rental needs to recognise these ‘hidden’ costs on the life of the host church.
Other points to bear in mind are:
* what is a realistic time slot, so that ill-feeling is not caused by over-running?
* what is the responsibility for leaving the building tidy, and should cleaning costs be built in?
5. Pitfalls to be aware of?
Damage can be caused in various ways, and it is important to be aware of some of the dangers.
* Supervision of children. We did rent for a short time to a Congolese francophone congregation before they affiliated to a neighbouring parish. Whilst the adults were taken up in worship in the ‘church’ part of our building the children were left unsupervised in the hall part and got into the storeroom of the nursery, where amongst other items they discovered a camera. Checking the pictures soon revealed who the culprits were!
Similarly, a neighbouring Methodist church found their newly renovated and painted pews at the back of the church damaged by unsupervised children.
It may be an important condition that rentee congregations have an effective, supervised children’s ministry; and that furthermore there are proper safeguarding provisions in place.
* Reputational damage. One example could be allegations of child abuse, which - whatever the responsibility - redounds badly upon the renting church. Similar dangers are leaders accused of sexual or financial abuse, complaints from neighbours about the noise levels of the services, or even the bizarre syncretistic practices of a Brazilian cult which hit the national press some years back.
6. The Wider Context.
Given that renting out Anglican buildings to other, largely minority ethnic, churches is a significant part of the life and witness of many churches it would be helpful if the question was given more attention and an awareness of ‘good practice’ developed. A wider study than this ‘sighting shot’ may be needed. If you have comments or stories to add to this survey, please let me know.
Gestures of hospitality by Anglican leaders – for example, bishops hosting meetings for church leaders renting Anglican premises in their diocese – can be an important means of cementing inter-ethnic unity amongst Christians. Alongside the practical issues of business, money and buildings mentioned above, there needs to be a passion to develop relationships and further a sense of oneness amongst Christians of different ethnicities, cultures and traditions. We may be a long way from Revelation 7:9, but renting out premises may be one step towards developing stronger cross-cultural unity and mission, so leaders at various levels need to give thought, prayer and initiatives as to how shared buildings may draw us closer to our eschatological goal.
(My thanks to Rev Christopher Ramsay for suggestions in preparing this article).
Archbishop Desmond Tutu. No blog on ‘Church and Race’ should miss paying tribute to the life of one whose spiritual depth, personal warmth, political acuity and courage, generous forgiveness and joyful sense of humour exemplifies the store-house that Africa has to bring to the world and to the church. Hopefully, he has helped Ubuntu – ‘I am because we are’ – become a more central part of the world’s vocabulary.
Gresham Colleges on-line lectures continues to offer rich fare to readers of this blog. On Thursday 20thJanuary Dr Jorg Haustein, a scholar of Pentecostalism particularly, is lecturing on Christianity in Africa. Professor Alec Ryrie’s series on Missions continues on Wednesday 2nd February looking at Protestant Missions in the Americas, and with very important upcoming lectures on Missionaries and Slavery on March 9th, and Missionaries and Empire on June 8th. All at 6pm; all viewable on-line. Full details on the Gresham College web-site.
Scripture Verse for 2022: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to be angry. For human anger does not promote God’s justice” (James 1:19, 20 – REB). This verse is clearly relevant, whether or not you like the phrase ‘culture wars’ (blog possibly up-coming).
My email. It has just struck me that for historical reasons I have an unilluminating personal email address:firstname.lastname@example.org. Is that why most comments that come to me by email are from old friends? If you would like to comment on these blogs (I would love you to, negative and positive) then as well as using the voice icon on the blog itself, do feel free to email.