On Saturday, K, M and I drove down for a rainy workday in Talbotton, Ga, at a gorgeous little country gothic church. Zion Episcopal Church. Thanks to the rain, none of the needed exterior wood repair could be done, but we (a varied team of 20 or so people, pastor and parishioners from Hamilton, other locals, E and us three from the Trust) swept, vacuumed and scrubbed the interior. We had a service, celebrating the eucharist and singing some much-needed hymns to the elementary sound of notes picked out on an unfamiliar organ. We were fed lunch, visited, pulled a few weeds as the rain let up and that was that.
What now will come of this church? This finely crafted structure from the 1850s, with boxed pews and a balcony originally for the slaves[?] was built on much greater hope than it holds today. According to the recorded history of Zion, “the original members were professional men and community leaders of the city and county.” In fact, 20-year-old Talbot County in 1848 was the 5th most populous county in Georgia, today Talbotton is a sad little town, with no episcopalian congregation to speak of and the only thing that has saved this building thus far is that it is owned by the diocese of Atlanta. So, what purpose is this church to serve? what purpose is any little abandoned church to serve?
Perhaps it speaks to the history of the Episcopal church in the South. I think of the denomination as more forward-thinking and open-minded than Southerners are generally given credit for, but perhaps this is just old-school liturgy with its air of affluence. In any case, over the last 160 years, i think it can be said that Anglican congregations have dwindled in the South, especially in rural areas, and now it is curious that these congregations ever existed, but they did, and long enough to leave these tokens of their worship.
I put this question to the priest, and for its part, Zion Episcopal in the 21st century wants to be open to anyone, to ANY congregation. While he eagerly coordinates volunteers to restore the church to usefulness, its sanctuary looks for a transformation of sorts. But I want to push farther, I want to know why these unique little buildings can’t be sold to others, no white Episcopal congregation is there to support it, but surely another congregation would want to worship here? Church is still strong in the South, there are surely congregations looking for a permanent home. Is the upkeep of these small historic buildings is really so cost prohibitive to make a small congregation prefer a new building (a metal warehouse with a steeple perhaps) on the edge of town? what what what can we do to put these beloved structures back into circulation instead?? I ask this for Macon, Miss, as well as Talbotton, and all the other towns were tiny little churches struggle to keep their bricks in place and their stained glass from being broken.