Monday, 8 September 2014

End of the manse reflects change in society

You can call me a lot of names, but one I will own up to and honestly confess is "Preacher’s Kid".

My father was a United Church minister. The largest part of my life has been lived in church provided housing, or a manse.

Manses are a dying phenomenon in the Protestant churches. Once part of every community across Canada, the house where the minister lived, which went by names like manse, rectory or presbytery, are much, much less common today.

Manses were often located next to or nearby the church.

When I was a young child growing up in the manse in Aylmer Quebec, my mother was giving me a bath one morning. She was called away to the phone. In a flash I was down the stairs and out the door, heading for the church where I knew I would find my father.

But there was a meeting of church ladies in the sanctuary. In those days church women wore hats and gloves to meetings and tea was properly poured afterward. Children did not attend such meetings.

Down the church aisle I ran, naked as the day I was born, looking for my father. He quickly headed towards me, lifted me up in his arms and with a brief "Excuse me, ladies!" returned me to my mother, who had come after me.

Recently the United Church announced changes in its compensation system which made housing allowances the new standard. But they could not get rid of manses. It seems that the founding Act of Parliament of the United Church does not allow a minister occupying a manse to be charged rent. So manses, such as still exist, will stay.

In the assumptions upon which the United Church based their compensation changes it was discovered that 80% of United Church ministers own their own homes and do not live in manses. In addition, that same number commute to work in their church, sometimes up to two hours a day.

Losing the manse changes a community dynamic.

The very first manse I lived in after my ordination was on a main road accessing the Trans Canada Highway in New Brunswick. I could not understand why so many transients and travellers passing through knew where and when to stop to ask for a handout. Then I saw a picture taken a few years before. On the manse was a big sign with the United Church crest which said in bold, black letters, United Church Manse.

No wonder people knew where the minister lived.

I have lived in homes that I could never have afforded. In one, the view from the master bedroom down the Baie de Chaleur was postcard perfect. In another, the screened porch under a glorious maple tree was a fabulous place for a summer afternoon nap.

If there is a down side to manse living it is that the minister is at the mercy of the congregation. If they do not keep the manse well, like any good landlord would, then it can lead to hurt feelings and mistrust.

I have known colleagues who have had to evict the racoons from the manse before moving their family in or found the spring flood included the manse basement.

A minister is also responsible for taking care of the manse they live in, just like any tenant. I recall inspecting a manse where the minister and children had broken fifty panes of glass in the house windows.

The decline of the manse is a significant cultural shift in Canada. It has changed the nature of the community. And I think we are the poorer in community for that change. I can’t stop it, but I can name it. My own children are likely the last to grow up in a manse. And given my experience, that’s too bad.