It’s not often as one scans through something like the New York Times that an article involving celebrities and a Presbyterian church jumps out. But that is what happened yesterday when I noticed this article about an Upper West Side Presbyterian church in New York that has become the center of a big controversy involving some unlikely players. The story is long and a little complicated, though you can read the whole of it in the article linked above.
Basically, however, it is the story of an historic church building (and congregation) in decline and facing allegedly huge financial hurdles to maintain the edifice and bring it up to code. Developers have long seen this prime piece of NYC real estate as the dream location for more condos (because NYC can never have too many of those) and so demolishing the historical building—that preservationists managed to get designated as a landmark some years ago—has long been on the planning table.
More recently, however, an unlikely contingent of celebrities who live in that part of the city—including Mark Ruffalo, Wendell Pierce, and Amy Schumer—have gotten together with others to lobby on behalf of saving a key piece of New York’s architectural but also religious history. Developers and even some in the dwindling congregation note that the hefty sum of money that is being offered to buy the church could fund incredible missions of mercy in the Big Apple. And indeed, they are talking about sums in the tens of millions of dollars. Somebody can cue Judas and note how something like this could be sold and the proceeds given to the poor. In this case, there may be something to that.
The article does not give much if any indication that the celebrities involved—chiefly Ruffalo—are advocating for the building out of pious or spiritual motivations. But one cannot help but look at this all and see a curious spectacle of unlikely people defending a church building and by proxy defending the idea of maintaining some kind of ministry presence in that part of the Upper West Side at Amsterdam and 86th Street.
Among the reasons this article caught my eye is that we are in a moment of wondering about the future of a church in a slightly different sense than something involving a physical structure. And if it’s a bit odd to see Mark Ruffalo and Amy Schumer involved in standing up for a church—even if it’s more the architectural aspect of it than anything religious per se—then it is striking to see and hear so many comments from others in and around the CRCNA these days following a synod that most everyone is describing as, at best, “difficult” and “sad.”
Like some of you reading this, I have heard from people in various venues who have spoken some heartfelt sentiments in recent days. As people have lamented the troubled landscape of the CRCNA—and particularly the semi-chaotic way synod ground to its conclusion a couple weeks ago—they have wondered if this is the end of the CRC as it has long been known. But what I find striking is that this troubles people on all sides and I have heard from people from all over the map who manage to share one common sentiment when it comes to the denomination:
“I didn’t realize I cared so much.”
Some of us have also heard from any number of ex-CRC members who left the denomination over the years (and in some cases decades ago) and not a few of these folks left due to disagreements on policy, practice, or theology and no doubt some in that number might characterize their attitude at the time they left as being one of “disgust.” Yet as they peer in on the CRCNA’s present moment, even some of them testify to feeling bad, that they, too, somewhere deep in their hearts, maintain an odd affection for their former denominational home—an affection a few people have said they did not know they still had.
Friends and colleagues and former students who were delegates this year have testified to some interesting things from their experience. A number of people—from all across the spectrum of opinions, ideas, and views—said that on key Advisory Committees processing recommendations for the floor of synod, people came together. They all said they wanted the best for the church. And all sides expressed sorrow over the prospects of leaving the denomination or even staying but seeing others leave.
Was this a dominant tenor at synod? I don’t know. I was not there in person. Likely there were crosscurrents that flowed in other directions too. But it is clear that despite the CRC’s long history of difficulty and disagreements over a range of issues these past 166 or so years, the denomination has had a way of growing into people’s hearts. People love it. And again just to be clear: this is across a wide range of perspectives and persists for at least some who said “Goodbye” to the CRC a long while ago.
We don’t know what will happen to the Presbyterian church on New York’s Upper West Side. We don’t know what will happen to the CRCNA. But if in NYC an unlikely coalition of people have come together regarding the future of a church, so in the CRCNA we see what some might regard as an unlikely coalition of people who look at each other and see an equal and ardent affection for the church in one another’s eyes. Feelings surface among diverse people that many did not even know existed in their hearts.
What does it all mean? That seems uncertain for now but while there is beauty to see in what was just noted, there is also a deep well of sorrow right next door to the beauty.