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New times for old churches

The two Catholic churches of New London and St. Paul Church in Waterford are about to step further away from the traditional structure of parishes when they formally consolidate as a new "faith community." This entity will have a new name, as yet unchosen; a single administrative structure; and shared finances, although each of the three churches will remain open.

It's a necessary move, if painful. Like Congregation Beth El and the First and Second Congregational churches, St. Mary Star of the Sea, St. Joseph and St. Paul just cannot stand alone anymore in buildings erected for hundreds or a thousand worshipers. They have shared a pastor and assistants for a couple of years, and have twice reduced the number of Masses. And while the demographics of the region have steadily shifted for more than a generation, the declining numbers don't reflect simply a preference for evangelical or nondenominational or different-language churches. America is becoming less officially religious, and New London County — traditionally heavily Catholic — is part of the trend.

In the past 10 years, the Pew Research Center found, the percentage of Americans who say they attend religious services at least once a month has dropped below half. Age is catching up. More than 75 percent of baby boomers describe themselves as Christian; millennials, just under half. Giving to religious institutions lags behind other philanthropy. This is happening as the Catholic and Southern Baptist churches have failed to resolve clergy sex-abuse scandals and the United Methodist Church, among others, is torn by whether to include LGBTQ people.

Small local congregations aren't responsible for the shift, but they bear the consequences. One after another has found it impossible to operate, even to support a rabbi or a minister. 

As a society we are separating into those who are loyal to an institution, however imperfect, and those who reject the idea that an institution can do better than they, in good conscience, can do themselves. Look at weddings and funerals, the major life ceremonies for which people used to depend on churches and synagogues. A funeral is now often a "celebration of life" held in a restaurant, and a wedding may be a destination, if there's a wedding at all. Those who want to hold either one in a religious setting often have to shop for a church because they don't belong to one.

My sense is that there is an important clue there toward understanding the churchy v. unchurched schism that has become such a force in American politics. It's not simply a matter of waning faith; 65 percent of Americans still describe themselves as Christian and more as "religious." And many of the "nones" practice the social justice and kindness to neighbor that organized religion would ask them to.  

People who used to go along to get along can now comfortably choose not to go. Yet their choice affects whom they and their children associate with and the ideas they are exposed to. And the more the churched and the unchurched think of each other as culturally and politically opposite, the greater the gulf between them.

Both sides should be able to agree that the great contribution of religious faith isn't the organizations it builds or the crusades it wages. The good that followers do for the poor, the hungry and those uncared for in any way is religion's real mission and the main reason why it has ever appealed to people. 

Local congregations in decline have to downsize because of economic realities, but a humbler presence won't detract from the real tasks of a faith community. It might even help bridge the culture gap.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.

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