Hidden Toronto: inside six churches surviving the condo crunch

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swallow swallow's picture
Hidden Toronto: inside six churches surviving the condo crunch

Canada’s mainstream churches are in trouble. 

The United Church of Canada is closing churches at a rate of one a week – more than 400 in the last decade. And the Catholic church is in peril in rural areas and in Quebec, where 400 closed between 2003 and 2016. Anglican church membership is down from a peak of 1.36 million in 1964 to 642,000 in 2001 (the last year the church reported attendance). 

What’s the solution? In a city that’s being swept by a tsunami of renewal, the answer is often to close the church and turn a house of God into housing for whomever can afford it

These historic buildings are not just architectural landmarks, they are also institutions to the arts and myriad spiritual and social services the city does not provide.

In June 2018, Michael Wood Daly published the first phase of the Toronto Halo Project to measure the value of the city’s social infrastructure. 

The project posed the question, “If a congregation ceased to exist, what would it cost the municipality to replace the programs and services that congregation provides to its wider community?” 

Answer: $3.42 for every dollar a congregation spends. Contrary to the assertion that churches are granted a “free ride” because they are exempt from property tax, Daly found that the value of the services they provide is worth 11 to 12 times what they would pay in property tax. That’s the halo effect.

NOW Magazine: Hidden Toronto: inside six churches surviving the condo crunch

https://nowtoronto.com/news/hidden-toronto-churches-condo-development/

cco

Toronto Halo Project wrote:
The actual common good value those congregations produce, their “halo effect”, through weddings, artistic performances, suicide prevention, ending substance abuse, housing initiatives, job training – and a whole host of other areas that make cities so much more livable – is estimated to be more than $45 million per year. Every dollar a congregation spends could create $4.77 worth of service a city does not have to provide.

Applying that ratio just to the 220 parishes of the Roman Catholic archdiocese in Toronto yields a potential annual contribution of $990 million in common good services, and this represents only one religious tradition. The full impact of all religious congregations in Toronto would be staggering.

Well, that was good for a laugh. Now that "You'll burn for eternity!" is losing some of its punch, the case for letting religion not pay taxes is down to a very thin argument that it's a good business decision.

Those numbers, to say the least, only tell part of the story. I'd really like to see a similar analysis done on the cost of religion to society. If a First Nations person gets sent to a residential school, is abused by the priests working there, becomes a homeless addict, and then eventually gets helped through rehab by church programs, how do we count that in the ledger? What about a gay Catholic teenager who's suicidal because he can't reconcile his faith with his identity, but is eventually talked out of suicide by the priest who taught him he was worthless in the first place?

Do those count as net zero, since religion eventually solved some of the problems it caused? Or do we give religion all the credit for the good stuff and blame all the bad stuff on society in general, as seems to be the tactic of choice whenever anyone tries to hold religion accountable for anything?

The idea that the state should just let the church handle social services and not tax it has been tried before. It hasn't really ended well. And the project's argument is even slipperier than that:

Toronto Halo Project wrote:
Several studies in related sectors report on values for “soft” public goods. One example would be teaching children pro-social values.

Are we all comfortable letting the Anglican Diocese of Toronto, the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, FaithLife Financial, World Vision Canada, the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada, The United Church of Canada Edge Network, The Salvation Army, and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada decide what a "pro-social value" is? (Those are the organizations sponsoring that particular bit of pro-ecclesiastical propaganda.) The study also accepts self-reporting from religious organizations of when they stopped a congregant from going to prison (but not the opposite, nor when stopping their priest from going to prison led to the destruction of countless other lives). It also counts church parking as a net positive for the community. Seriously.

Of further interest, religious organizations take credit – right next to each other on the list – for preventing divorce (#33) and helping end abusive relationships (#34). Let that one sit for a minute.

Basically, this "study" involved asking churches for a list of reasons why they're awesome and ignoring all the damage they've done to society.

swallow swallow's picture

Every church in this article is for instance LGBT+ positive. Not much burning in hell preached in any of them and I don;’t believe the article made a case about taxation one way or the other. 

More than 160 years after it was built, St. Stephen provides free Saturday and Sunday morning community breakfasts; a Friday night drop-in; weekly hot meals for volunteers with the Moss Park Safe Injection Site; and a Sunday night soup kitchen. 

Reverend Maggie Helwig and a lay pastoral team provide spiritual support for people in crisis – in person or by phone – and visits to people in hospitals, shelters and homes. 

Sharing the space in St. Stephen’s are FreeChurch, “with a mission to be a light in our city,” and Generous Space Ministries, which holds meetings for LGBTQ+ people to “work together to dismantle fear, division and hostility at the intersection of faith, gender and sexuality.” Local Muslims who live in the neighborhood use the church for prayer space and Masjid Temple serves lunch to about 50 people, once a month.

Along with hosting book launches, concerts and conversations about social, theological and artistic topics, St. Stephen’s also supports community groups, including Kensington-Bellwoods Community Legal Services, Mining Injustice Solidarity Network and the People’s Assembly on Climate Justice.

The Toronto Seed Library, whose head offices are located in the church, provides free organic and heritage seeds to community gardens, including the garden at the church’s south side and the pollinator garden on its north side. 

Aristotleded24

swallow wrote:
Every church in this article is for instance LGBT+ positive. Not much burning in hell preached in any of them and I don;’t believe the article made a case about taxation one way or the other.

Indeed the United Chruch was ahead of this curve in welcoming LGBT+ people to fully participate in the worship life, and took a great deal of abuse from other denominations because of it. Only now are more denominations getting on board with that agenda because they're finding that it's a better business decision for them.

Timebandit Timebandit's picture

UCC has a congregation in Scarborough that has become secular. They are led by an out atheist and are the only congregation in the Toronto area that has grown in the last several years. Community is the key to survival for the mainline Protestant churches, and making the god bit optional is, IMV, a good idea. 

swallow swallow's picture

Yes, that was an interesting development! I have to admit I was surprised that the UCC was willing to turn agnsticism (common enough in its pews & clergy) into full atheism. Maybe there's a future for secular churches. 

Greta Vosper allowed to remain a minister despite atheism:  https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/atheist-united-church-minister-keeps-her-job-heresy-trial-called-off-1.4170525

Timebandit Timebandit's picture

Film about losing faith and secular communities (Gretta is one of the contributors):

http://www.losingourreligion.ca/home

Aristotleded24

Timebandit wrote:
UCC has a congregation in Scarborough that has become secular. They are led by an out atheist and are the only congregation in the Toronto area that has grown in the last several years. Community is the key to survival for the mainline Protestant churches, and making the god bit optional is, IMV, a good idea.

I'm not sure exactly what is meant by "making the god bit optional," especially since the United Church doesn't actually enforce a particular conception of god as a requirement of attendance or membership.

I actually think Vosper does the community a great service when she asks the hard questions that she has. Where I part company with her is she has decided to jettison the entire tradition upon which the church is based. Essentially throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Okay, that's what atheism is. What point would there be of the church continuing to exist? She's not the only clergy person to become an atheist and then write books about them. The only reason she's gaining attention is because she's an atheist serving in the actual clergy.

Personally, I think she's quite overrated. Of the few people I've spoken to, I have yet to find someone who agrees with her, and she seems to have a much bigger following among secular people who would never even consider going to church than she does within her own denomination. As to what to do about declining church membership? I ask myself that question all the time, and I don't have any answers. I would assume that turning your back on the very basis of the tradition upon which you were founded, however, is not the answer.

WWWTT

Glad to see churches losing followers!
Do humans a huge favour, and drag all the others religions with you as you fall into nothingness.
Churches are a big waste of space. Way overrated!
Turning them into condos is probably the best way to increase living space downtown.

Timebandit Timebandit's picture

Oh, lots to unpack here. 

First of all, Gretta Vosper’s (and West Hill United’s) difficulties with the UCC did revolve around whether belief in god was necessary to belong even in the big and usually accepting tent of the UCC. So you’re not entirely correct there. That it has now been resolved in West Hill’s case - and they would have left had Gretta been removed - doesn’t mean it will be easily accepted next time. And there will be a next time. 

I don’t think West Hill has entirely jettisoned the tradition, but they have heavily adapted it. I say West Hill because these changes, although Gretta coming out atheist was a catalyst, are congregation-led. I’ve been to a service myself. Also, have a look at the film I posted. 

As to babies and bath water, well, for a larger and larger proportion of the population, there’s just no baby there. So here’s the point of the congregation continuing to exist: a community of love and support. This has been the main point of churches since the beginning. COMMUNITY. 

I’m also well aware she’s not the only preacher/minister to leave faith. There’s a group called The Clergy Project who has 900+ of them as members and they’re just the tip of the iceberg. 

Now, I’ve met a lot of people who do agree with her - but I went looking. Some people who agree with her aren’t going to just announce it, primary because of dismissive and hostile attitudes like your own. 

And as to secular people who wouldn’t go to church (aside from West Hill obviously attracting enough of them to continue to grow), there are other secular communities that are more non-churchy but still form to provide that sense of community. 

So the answer, it would seem to me, is to realize that the basis isn’t god or belief and then build on what it *is* about. People and community.

Really, please do watch the film, I think it will address a lot of what you’re talking about here. 

swallow swallow's picture

As to declining church attendance - well, the generalization is not always true. The first church in the linked article, for instance, reports that attendance is up. 

It's probably true, though, that white people are going to churches less. 

Timebandit Timebandit's picture

ETA: A point about West Hill - not everyone in the congregation is an atheist. There are nominal believers as well. What they’ve embarked on is an experiment in inclusiveness. So the focus is on taking out what alienates agnostics and atheists and adapting it to something they all can get behind. 

Timebandit Timebandit's picture

Also Millennials of all races. And in the case of immigrant congregations, first generation tends to attend regularly, second generation much less so. 

Aristotleded24

Timebandit wrote:
First of all, Gretta Vosper’s (and West Hill United’s) difficulties with the UCC did revolve around whether belief in god was necessary to belong even in the big and usually accepting tent of the UCC. So you’re not entirely correct there. That it has now been resolved in West Hill’s case - and they would have left had Gretta been removed - doesn’t mean it will be easily accepted next time. And there will be a next time.

From a legal standpoint, the church would have been well within its rights to strip Vosper of her ordination. I'm glad they didn't go this route because history is not kind in that department.

Timebandit wrote:
I don’t think West Hill has entirely jettisoned the tradition, but they have heavily adapted it. I say West Hill because these changes, although Gretta coming out atheist was a catalyst, are congregation-led. I’ve been to a service myself. Also, have a look at the film I posted.

Well when she says things like:

Quote:
The prayer posted to the United Church’s web portal is one of the myriad responses and I appreciate that we chose to offer it in a timely manner. I question, however, the merit of such a response because it underscores one of the foundational beliefs that led to the horrific killing in Paris: the existence of a supernatural being whose purposes can be divined and which, once interpreted and without mercy, must be brought about within the human community in the name of that being. This belief has led to innumerable tragedies throughout the timeline of human history and will continue to do so until it fades from our ravaged memory. If we maintain that our moral framework is dependent upon that supernatural being, we allow others to make the same claim and must defend their right to do so even if their choices and acts are radically different from our own; we do not hold the right to parcel out divine authority only to those with whom we agree.

That's not the god that people in the United Church believe in, and regardless of whatever difficulties I have understanding things, I'm not going to sit in judgement of those who want to pray for this or any other tragedy.

Timebandit wrote:
As to babies and bath water, well, for a larger and larger proportion of the population, there’s just no baby there. So here’s the point of the congregation continuing to exist: a community of love and support. This has been the main point of churches since the beginning. COMMUNITY.

What does that have to do with anything? "Throwing out the baby with the bathwater" was an obvious figure of speech.

Timebandit wrote:
I’m also well aware she’s not the only preacher/minister to leave faith. There’s a group called The Clergy Project who has 900+ of them as members and they’re just the tip of the iceberg.

Exactly. She is a clergyperson, and her life journey led her away from the faith. Happens all the time. She is not breaking any new ground here.

Timebandit wrote:
Now, I’ve met a lot of people who do agree with her - but I went looking.

Active within the United Church?

Timebandit wrote:
Some people who agree with her aren’t going to just announce it, primary because of dismissive and hostile attitudes like your own.

Oh wow, I have so much power discussing this on an anonymous discussion board now? I have so much power that the expressing an opinion leaves people shaking in their boots, yet I'm still powerless to stop the decline of what is my home church denomination?

Timebandit wrote:
And as to secular people who wouldn’t go to church (aside from West Hill obviously attracting enough of them to continue to grow), there are other secular communities that are more non-churchy but still form to provide that sense of community. 

So the answer, it would seem to me, is to realize that the basis isn’t god or belief and then build on what it *is* about. People and community.

People and community can be anywhere inside or outside the church. What makes the church unique is an organization founded upon Christian tradition that believes God is at work in the world in some way, and there are probably as many different ways of expressing this belief as there are Christian congregations.

To use an analogy, if you knew an NDP member who started to espouse beliefs such as unions are not necessary and sometimes cause problems for employers being efficient, that it's not necessary to tax the wealthy but instead to grow the economic pie because a rising tide lifts all boats, that throwing money at government programs is not the answer and that government should be more efficient, that poor people need more incentives to work and that their benefits should be restricted,  people might wonder what that person is still doing in the NDP. It's the same thing with Vosper.

Aristotleded24

Timebandit wrote:
Also Millennials of all races. And in the case of immigrant congregations, first generation tends to attend regularly, second generation much less so.

That's because the mainline denominations are counting on people to bring their children to church and has not, by and large, made any serious outreach efforts targetting these children once they are of age to choose their own interests independent of their parents. Evangelical churches do much better in this regard.

Timebandit Timebandit's picture

Aristotleded24 wrote:

From a legal standpoint, the church would have been well within its rights to strip Vosper of her ordination. I'm glad they didn't go this route because history is not kind in that department.

I don't think they pulled back because of "history". Like most UCC ventures, this got to committee and there wasn't enough consensus to move forward. They stood to lose more than West Hill, and that calculus - along with the time and effort it would take to develop an excommunication protocol would have been onerous.

In any case, you can't bill yourself as the biggest of big tents and then start shrinking it. They were faced with shutting the barn door after the horse had left.

Aristotleded24 wrote:
Well when she says things like:

Quote:
The prayer posted to the United Church’s web portal is one of the myriad responses and I appreciate that we chose to offer it in a timely manner. I question, however, the merit of such a response because it underscores one of the foundational beliefs that led to the horrific killing in Paris: the existence of a supernatural being whose purposes can be divined and which, once interpreted and without mercy, must be brought about within the human community in the name of that being. This belief has led to innumerable tragedies throughout the timeline of human history and will continue to do so until it fades from our ravaged memory. If we maintain that our moral framework is dependent upon that supernatural being, we allow others to make the same claim and must defend their right to do so even if their choices and acts are radically different from our own; we do not hold the right to parcel out divine authority only to those with whom we agree.

That's not the god that people in the United Church believe in, and regardless of whatever difficulties I have understanding things, I'm not going to sit in judgement of those who want to pray for this or any other tragedy.

You're totally missing her point.

First of all, she's not specifying one or another deity, so it's totally irrelevant what shape of god the UCC believes in (and apparently not all UCCers even believe in that one!).

GV's suggestion is that invoking any deity is playing from the same handbook as religious extremists. She's not wrong. You figure yours is better, so invocation of YOUR god is perfectly acceptable, unlike the invocation of that OTHER god which isn't. When responding to religiously motivated acts, mayber it's good to think about or challenge religiously motivated responses.

Aristotleded24 wrote:
What does that have to do with anything? "Throwing out the baby with the bathwater" was an obvious figure of speech.

Right. I disagree with the meaning that figure of speech had in the context you used it. Or rather, played on it. If taking the god talk out of the services and traditions by adapting them is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, I'm assuming your deity is the baby. And for a lot of us, there's no baby there. If a congregation is in agreement that the presence of the baby is moot, they should be able to adapt their services, shouldn't they? It doesn't mean everyone has to.

Aristotleded24 wrote:
Exactly. She is a clergyperson, and her life journey led her away from the faith. Happens all the time. She is not breaking any new ground here.

No, not that part of it. But continuing to minister to her congregation is. Most unbelieving clergy either keep it to themselves or move on to other careers. Many of them miss ministry. Again, you might want to check out the film.

Aristotleded24 wrote:

Timebandit wrote:
Now, I’ve met a lot of people who do agree with her - but I went looking.

Active within the United Church?

Some of them, yes. Certainly a lot more than most denominations.

Aristotleded24 wrote:

Oh wow, I have so much power discussing this on an anonymous discussion board now? I have so much power that the expressing an opinion leaves people shaking in their boots, yet I'm still powerless to stop the decline of what is my home church denomination?

Who said you had any power? Geez Louise, you are a snarky beast and a drama queen to boot. "Decline"??? More like evolution. And no one is asking your specific congregation to change anything, just to let other congregations decide how they'd like to evolve as they learn more.

But that's ultimately my point. Given the hostile response to this, it doesn't surprise me that if you were talking to someone who disagreed with you on the subject, they'd be less inclined to express it to you - hence, no surprise you haven't ever heard anyone express that view. How could it possibly be worth it?

Aristotleded24 wrote:

People and community can be anywhere inside or outside the church. What makes the church unique is an organization founded upon Christian tradition that believes God is at work in the world in some way, and there are probably as many different ways of expressing this belief as there are Christian congregations.

Yes, and most atheists do find community in other places. (Really, watch the film. It's in there.)

However, some of those kinds of communities don't offer things that church-type communities do. Solemnizing marriages, celebrating the birth of a child, the structure around mourning the dead and the kind of help that people need in the face of an illness or other tragedy. So there are people who seek that either in a secular community, like an Oasis community or other humanist group. Some with a history with the UCC will apparently seek it there and don't see that kind of inclusive congregation as anathema to it.

Personally, having grown up in the UCC and in a family that was very involved in our congregation, my experience of the UCC was that "god working in the world" was pretty darned debatable and it was up to us to pony up some good works. God was optional, being a kind and loving person was not. So I don't see this as a stretch for the UCC, although more conservative voices, like yours, will continue to debate that.

Aristotleded24 wrote:

To use an analogy, if you knew an NDP member who started to espouse beliefs such as unions are not necessary and sometimes cause problems for employers being efficient, that it's not necessary to tax the wealthy but instead to grow the economic pie because a rising tide lifts all boats, that throwing money at government programs is not the answer and that government should be more efficient, that poor people need more incentives to work and that their benefits should be restricted,  people might wonder what that person is still doing in the NDP. It's the same thing with Vosper.

So the NDP should never evolve in a changing social and political landscape? How welcome were LGBTQ people in the original UCC? Sure, we were the first to recognize and even ordain them, but there was a lot of hue and cry over it. Same with women in the pulpit. This is the organization evolving, and there will always be dissent around that, but it's adapt or die.

Pogo Pogo's picture

What I have found in Richmond BC is that the churches have to provide a package to attract membership.  St. Joseph the Worker (Catholic) has a large immigrant support network.  St. Albans (Anglican) has a homeless outreach, Gilmore Park (UCC) did a rebuild and now is the main floor of a seniors housing complex, South Arm United is heavily into food security and agricultural issues.  I know of people who joined each of these churches because they were attracted to their non-religous programs.  Indeed the community meal co-ordinator (retired) at St. Albans even changed her denomination because it is a requirement that the position be held by a church member.

Also regarding the church closing issue, much of that is due to their financial liabiltiy for the residential schools. The Anglican church in particular had to combine memberships in order to sell off real estate assets.  This was also true to a lesser extent with the UCC.

Timebandit Timebandit's picture

It's never just one thing - definitely that liability is a factor. But the congregations' populations, especially for the mainline protestant denominations, were aging and shrinking already and have been for a couple of decades and is accelerating. Even fundamentalist churches aren't really growing, although there is consolidation into larger churches.

Church organizations are very useful for social justice work, like food insecurity and refugee sponsorship. Some secular organizations and humanist groups are following them in that model.

Aristotleded24

Timebandit wrote:
Aristotleded24 wrote:
Well when she says things like:

Quote:
The prayer posted to the United Church’s web portal is one of the myriad responses and I appreciate that we chose to offer it in a timely manner. I question, however, the merit of such a response because it underscores one of the foundational beliefs that led to the horrific killing in Paris: the existence of a supernatural being whose purposes can be divined and which, once interpreted and without mercy, must be brought about within the human community in the name of that being. This belief has led to innumerable tragedies throughout the timeline of human history and will continue to do so until it fades from our ravaged memory. If we maintain that our moral framework is dependent upon that supernatural being, we allow others to make the same claim and must defend their right to do so even if their choices and acts are radically different from our own; we do not hold the right to parcel out divine authority only to those with whom we agree.

That's not the god that people in the United Church believe in, and regardless of whatever difficulties I have understanding things, I'm not going to sit in judgement of those who want to pray for this or any other tragedy.

You're totally missing her point.

First of all, she's not specifying one or another deity, so it's totally irrelevant what shape of god the UCC believes in (and apparently not all UCCers even believe in that one!).

GV's suggestion is that invoking any deity is playing from the same handbook as religious extremists. She's not wrong. You figure yours is better, so invocation of YOUR god is perfectly acceptable, unlike the invocation of that OTHER god which isn't. When responding to religiously motivated acts, mayber it's good to think about or challenge religiously motivated responses.

That's actually my point. People don't like being lumped in with terrorist extremists, so I'm not at all surprised that people would react badly to it. Essentially, Vosper is saying to Christians, "don't be who you are," "your way of thinking about the world is wrong." Pretty much about as arrogant a response as I can expect from any religious fundamentalist.

Timebandit wrote:
Geez Louise, you are a snarky beast and a drama queen to boot.

You're absolutely right. I was part of a drama production group as a child, and that is something I hope to do again if I have the chance.

Timebandit wrote:
Given the hostile response to this, it doesn't surprise me that if you were talking to someone who disagreed with you on the subject, they'd be less inclined to express it to you - hence, no surprise you haven't ever heard anyone express that view. How could it possibly be worth it?

So now you know who I talked to, how these conversations came about, and what was said during these conversations as they played out in my actual 3-D life?

Timebandit wrote:
Personally, having grown up in the UCC and in a family that was very involved in our congregation, my experience of the UCC was that "god working in the world" was pretty darned debatable and it was up to us to pony up some good works. God was optional, being a kind and loving person was not. So I don't see this as a stretch for the UCC, although more conservative voices, like yours, will continue to debate that.

Even taking out "God" (however "God" is defined) there are other questions, such as how things are all connected, is there any moral reasoning, is there anything beyond the 3-D world of time, space, and matter that we sometimes experience but that our minds are incapable of making sense of. Without that, what makes a church unique? Sure, we're supposed to do good in the world. Everybody believes that. I haven't seen anything that suggests Vosper is interested in that.

Timebandit wrote:
Aristotleded24 wrote:

To use an analogy, if you knew an NDP member who started to espouse beliefs such as unions are not necessary and sometimes cause problems for employers being efficient, that it's not necessary to tax the wealthy but instead to grow the economic pie because a rising tide lifts all boats, that throwing money at government programs is not the answer and that government should be more efficient, that poor people need more incentives to work and that their benefits should be restricted,  people might wonder what that person is still doing in the NDP. It's the same thing with Vosper.

So the NDP should never evolve in a changing social and political landscape? How welcome were LGBTQ people in the original UCC? Sure, we were the first to recognize and even ordain them, but there was a lot of hue and cry over it. Same with women in the pulpit. This is the organization evolving, and there will always be dissent around that, but it's adapt or die.

You completely ignored the substance of the changes I listed in my post to make a point about adapding. These are very clearly points that move away from left-wing principles, and move towards being right-wing talking points. I brought the NDP into this because it would be a familiar example to many babblers about how watering down what you're about to the point where your core principles are no longer there, rather than being an adaptive strategy, is a way to become irrelevant. You're correct that the United Church has been declining in membership for decades. The more fundamentalist churches may be in decline now, but for much of this time they were growing. They had a clear understanding of what they believed, why they felt that their offer was of benefit to people, and stuck by that in the face of relentless critcism. People respect that. Sure, they are offering snake oil, but at least they are offering something. Similarly in the case of the NDP, the Saskatchewan and Manitoba provincial sections have most wholeheartedly embraced the policy path I outlined. Not only are they both at historic low levels of popular support, but as things currently stand, both are on track to be crushed in the next provincial elections again.