Martin E. Marty
Chapels, churches, synagogues, cathedrals and other buildings are often the most visible and stable signs that religious institutions exist. Urban landscapes are still marked by the steeples of downtown churches; suburbs still boast edifices surrounded by green acreage and topped by towers. Change has come to thousands of these because of demographic shifts and changes in ways of life.
Less noticed has been the changing fate of buildings known by the code-name “Headquarters,” which serve denominations, dioceses, synods, conventions, and other religious extra-local agencies.
Thanks to Michael Paulson in The New York Times (March 15, 2014) and the scholarship of James Hudnut-Beumler of Vanderbilt University, we have an update on the downsizing and relocation of these “Headquarters.” Both authors focus first on the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), whose buildings were edificial parentheses around the Massachusetts State House atop Beacon Hill in Boston. They are being sold, as the UUA replants itself in an “innovation district” in South Boston.
Paulson takes readers (see the source, below) on a tour of many abandonments of strategically situated, prestigious, prime sites as denominations scurry to relocate in affordable, unostentatious practical locations and buildings.
The Times headline says that denominations’ “downsizing and selling assets” occurs in a “more secular era,” and that we must reckon with era-change, ambiguous as it may be. But we can read other things into and out of the change.
Once upon a time, from the UUA on down, “Headquarters” buildings were statements of power: “Look! We are important! ‘Notice us!’” But just as cathedrals don’t tower in an age of skyscrapers, so impressive-looking headquarters no longer draw notice. And “secularization” is only part of the reason for this change.
When we look at secular analogues, we see that newspaper and other publishing empires are down-sizing for many reasons, including digitalization and the demands and opportunities that come with the internet. Today denominational and agency business is largely transacted in ways that permit employees to work from home, committees to meet by Skype, Conference Call, and other digital means. Many in the “secular” public make up their minds about the power and value of religious works and workings not based on images of huge Interchurch Centers or denominational Power Houses, but based on what they do.
The major exception to the “bowl-‘em-over,” dedicated-to-the-religious-service-of-publics approach, is often evidenced in some “megachurch” campuses and complexes. (Christian charity impels me to say that some of the sprawl of these results from the fact that at present much goes on in many of them—who am I to judge?—but as we read the accounts of the rise and fall of empires on this front, we find reason to withhold awe.)
Planners in religious agencies may regret turning the key to close the Big House doors for the last time, but wise planners are using their skills and energies to advance their work through non-elite, less-strategically-located bases of operation.
Readers who support a variety of religious organizations that seek to serve through efficient means are unable to locate the headquarters of most of these. These readers tend to get their sense of beauty and awe from their effective works and their awareness of the lives they change.
Paulson, Michael. “Denominations Downsizing and Selling Assets in More Secular Era.”New York Times, March 15, 2014, U.S. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/us/denominations-downsizing-and-selling-assets-in-more-secular-era.html.
Deakin, Michelle Bates. "UUA to purchase new Boston Headquarters." UU World, March 15, 2013. http://www.uuworld.org/news/articles/284714.shtml.
Image Credit: Chris Walton / flickr
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Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.