A palpable holiness remains. The foundation stones and a few walls trace a jagged outline of daily monastic life. The arches of the abbey church reach up, roofless, their windows empty. You can see the clouds through them. The stone floor is gone; what’s left of the altar rises from a grassy carpet, kept neat by workers with hedge trimmers. Swallows swoop and wheel in the nave.

Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, England, is one of my favorite places anywhere. It’s quiet and lovely and melancholy, a poignant composition of stone, grass, and sky. Built in the twelfth century as a Cistercian monastery, the abbey reached the height of its flourishing in the thirteenth century, when 140 monks lived there along with many lay brothers, their days full of prayer and work. In 1538, Henry VIII removed the monks and sold the property to a favored courtier, who plundered it and left it to ruin. Today it’s a National Heritage Site with a shiny café and gift shop, a fine little museum, and an excellent, free audio guide.

It’s easy to skip, in my imagination, from the abbey’s halcyon days right to the curated loveliness of today’s aesthetically appealing remnants. But what about the stages between, the years of ugliness, the heartbreak of loss, abandonment, and decline?

This week I came across a website called Abandoned America. The site gathers the work of photographer Matthew Christopher, who specializes in photographing abandoned buildings, including churches. If you love the church, these photographs might feel like a gut punch. The church is not equivalent to its buildings, of course, but spaces matter. They are more than utilitarian—they are beloved, meaningful, even metaphorical.

And so it’s heartbreaking to see the once-beautiful churches in these photographs encrusted with mold and junk and falling apart. Plaster crumbles from sanctuary ceilings, organs molder, pews gather coatings of dirt and dust, stairwells collapse into piles of beautifully carved, jumbled pieces.

You can click through a photo gallery here. (Scroll down; use arrow keys.)

One photograph that just kills me depicts the nave of a high-ceilinged, gothic-style church, light streaming through its still-intact stained-glass windows. The nave floor, however, is completely buried in what can only be described as shit. Office chairs, books, file cabinets, scatterings of decaying paper, tossed and piled in a plaster-dusted mess. How did this happen? How did it get to that point?

Another photo shows a huge, deteriorating, all-white sanctuary emptied except for a lonely piano posed inexplicably in the center. Another dark-wood-ceilinged, red-carpeted sanctuary features a once-beautiful baby grand piano that looks as if someone commanded it to “sit” and the piano obliged. A heap of Bibles spills into the foreground of another photo. In another, a vine creeps in through a broken window, twining around two sunlit chairs. So many chairs: stacked, scattered, or still positioned at tables, as if ready for coffee hour in the ghostly fellowship hall. One photo shows a few rows of filthy pews from a side view, just the view you would have if you were about to shimmy into that nearest row there and settle down for the service.

I can easily imagine the love and devotion that went into building and inhabiting these churches over generations. But the people who prayed and expressed their devotion to God in these spaces, the people who gossiped and broke bread together and wrangled over carpet colors—those people are gone now.

Image credit: Matthew Christopher

Some have criticized photography like Christopher’s as constituting “ruin porn.” Critics point out that these images aestheticize the social ills and human suffering that lead to and result from abandoned structures, and at least some of these artists do nothing to preserve the background stories or offer anything to the communities in question. Instead, they practice a kind of artistic exploitation.

I can’t say that Christopher is guilty of exploitation or not. His website offers the opportunity to view some of the images for free, but a lot of material is only available if you are a Patreon subscriber or if you buy the books. I understand that artists have to fund their art somehow, so I don’t begrudge him that. Christopher is also a writer who evidently does record the background stories of these sites. It seems as if he cares.

Behind the images are tales of woe, of course. One story available online traces the rise and fall of Ascension of Our Lord Church in Philadelphia. After its heyday in the 1920s through 1960s, the church faced White flight, racial tensions, increasing poverty, and a clergy abuse scandal. Eventually, the church closed and the building was sold to a developer. After that, it became a haven for heroin users, who adopted it as a shooting gallery. Finally, in 2017, it burned down.

Third Presbyterian in Chester, Pennsylvania, also succumbed to economic shifts and a city’s decline. This story almost had a happy ending. To rescue the church from demolition, a historical society purchased the building. They began planning and raising funds to restore the place and convert it into a community center. Their plan was gaining momentum—until a fire burned everything in 2020. Likely cause: arson.   

“Abandoned buildings are vulnerable,” Christopher notes, so he often will label his photographs with a false name and refrain from disclosing a location. Apparently, people love to loot and burn and wreck places that are already falling apart. Christopher doesn’t want his work to contribute to that.

Will we be seeing more abandoned churches in the future? Probably. We have reasons to wonder about church decline in the United States these days. Pew Research data from as recent as 2019 famously documents the continuing “rise of the nones,” for example. If you want to define decline as numbers of people connected to churches, then the data shows that American Christianity is in decline, both in terms of percentage and real numbers. Meanwhile, numbers show Christianity on the rise in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The church waxes and wanes and shifts. The Renaissance writers I teach loved to meditate on “mutability,” the inevitability of change. Things decay and die, other things are born, change is unavoidable, time is not your friend. People like Spenser and Shakespeare drew from a long artistic tradition when they fought back against mutability by making poetry out of it. Aestheticizing decline doesn’t necessarily make it hurt less; it just helps us struggle for meaning in the midst of it.  

Are we on the verge of a new reformation? I rather think so, I even hope so. So much is falling apart in the American church at least, but sometimes falling apart is exactly what has to happen in order for something else new to grow. The process is always messy and bewildering and painful. But the process belongs to the Spirit, and that means surprises are always coming.

What the capital-C church will look like in a generation or two, no one knows. Maybe centuries from now, some beautiful church buildings of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, abandoned today, will somehow avoid being burned or razed, and they’ll get restored into scenic museums, remnants of an earlier age, complete with gift shops and audio guides. Maybe there will be some palpable holiness left, too.

I’ve written elsewhere about church decline in the United Kingdom. You can read that essay here. Rievaulx Abbey makes an appearance in that essay, too.

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