After Church is an emerging project, studying the dynamics of closure, abandonment, and transformation at religious sites, at a number of locations in Newfoundland, North America and Europe. The research had its start in a collaborative effort with Ronald L. Grimes, as we tracked the closure, deconsecration and transformation of Highgate United church, located in southwestern Ontario. Building on this initial study, the project will expand to consider church closure at a number of sites in North American and Europe, including cases in Newfoundland. The research is in its early stages, and work is currently directed at securing further funding.
Typically, research on sacred places has often focused on statically conceived symbolic meanings of religious architecture. In contrast, this project emphasizes moments of change in the uses and meanings of sacred places, because studying sacred sites during moments of crisis and change offers valuable insight into the dynamic interactions of religion and culture. A secondary aspect of the study is to examine cultural responses and attitudes towards the phenomenon of ruins and the motif of the "abandoned sacred" in religious texts, historical processes, and the arts.
The premise informing this research is simple: Ritual sites & sacred places have life histories. Such places include built structures (churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, longhouses) as well as natural sites (groves, caves, rivers, plateaus, mountains) marked as special through myth and ritual. Processes of abandonment (due to war, disaster, changing demographics, cultural shifts) are a consistent part of religious histories. After sacred sites are conceived, they grow, undergo transformations, and eventually die. Sometimes they or their parts are recycled.
Abandonment does not necessarily bring down the curtain on a place - religious significance or use but can instead be the first act in a larger, longer social drama: a synagogue becomes a mosque; a Hopi kiva, the centre piece of a national park; a city-center church, a thriving pub. Historically considered, religious sites and buildings have often been built by one religion and later appropriated by another. In addition, religious architecture, built for liturgical purposes, may be converted into a theatre or condominium. Like people, buildings can be "converted", bringing along in the wake a similar sense of heightened emotion and dramatic transformation.
The phrase, "after church," refers to the process of un- and re-making that sometimes overtake consecrated buildings and locales. Even when this process seems to propel a site from sacred to secular, "ghosts" and others sacral residues may remain. For this project I examine sacred buildings and sites that are variously in the process of closing, have been abandoned and falling into ruin, or undergoing transformation. Using a combination of ethnographic, visual, and historical methods, the research examines the social-cultural, aesthetic, and religious dynamics taking place at sacred sites selected to illustrate the range of transformative possibilities.
For more information, visit http://afterchurch.barrystephenson.ca