Saturday, March 03, 2007

Declining Mass attendance and church buldings

[Via Catholic Citizens of Illinois]

Remodeling the Churches: As European worship steadily declines, many grand old buildings have fallen into disuse. What should become of them?
3/1/2007 10:14:00 PM
By William Underhill, Geriant Lewis for Newsweek -Newsweek

Pizza yes, Jesus no

For the Muslims of Clitheroe, collective worship has never been easy. It's been 40 years since the first Asians settled in the little town close to England's industrial heartland, but the 300-strong community has struggled ever since to find a suitable site for a mosque. No longer. In December the town council finally approved plans for the conversion of a handsome but derelict structure: a disused Methodist chapel. "There is a feeling of overwhelming relief and joy," says Sheraz Arshad, a local Muslim leader. "Just because it looks like a church, there's no reason why it can't be used as a mosque."

Given the shifting demographics of an increasingly secular Europe, the conversion makes perfect sense. Across much of the continent, churchgoing is in long-term decline, while a swelling-and devout-Muslim immigrant population needs ever more places to worship. According to a forecast by the British-based group Christian Research, practicing Muslims will outnumber practicing Christians in England within a few decades. More than 1,600 churches-about 10 percent of the country's total-have been formally declared redundant by the Church of England. And the English have recognized the new reality: if church buildings are to survive, new uses must be found. While a handful serve as mosques or Sikh temples, many more have found roles as cafes, concert halls, warehouses or chic apartments. The pious may fret but pragmatism will often prevail.

The same inexorable trend is at work across Europe, where church attendance is dropping precipitously even in the Roman Catholic countries. In France less than 5 percent of Catholics regularly attends church on Sunday; in the Czech Republic it's just 3 percent. Official policy on how to treat redundant churches varies widely, not only between Catholic and Protestant leaders but also from country to country. In the most clear-cut cases such as France and Germany, the law protects architecturally significant churches and cathedrals. But in a growing number of dioceses, dwindling congregations are forcing church authorities to choose whether to pay for the costly upkeep of an unused structure, demolish it or find an alternate purpose. In the Catholic diocese of Essen, Germany, some 100 churches are now destined for closure and reuse.

For a generation that's rarely set foot in church, preserving the buildings themselves matters more than saving faith. For would-be clowns, there's a circus school in the former St. Paul's Church in Bristol, England. Madonna has performed in the Paradiso, a long-established church turned club in Amsterdam. Diners in Rome are happy to eat at the Sacro e Profano (Sacred and Profane), a popular downtown restaurant housed in a medieval church, and a major restoration project in Dublin saw the once-derelict St. Mary's Church reborn as a high-end restaurant. "We do get some feedback from the customers, but it's mostly positive comments about the state of the building," says Peter Parkinson, manager of Zizzi, an Italian restaurant occupying a 19th-century Anglican church in Cheltenham, a sedate town in western England. Few even question the building's most striking feature: an outsize pizza oven standing on the site once occupied by the altar.

Still, there are those who find the practice offensive. "There are those in Berlin who say that it's better to demolish them than allow their use for profane purposes," says Angus Fowler, a British historian based in Germany who has championed the cause of Europe's disused churches. Last year students in the Czech Republic took to the streets to protest the government's sale of St. Michael's, an imposing 12th-century church in the ancient center of Prague, to a private company that has used the building for private strip shows and techno parties. "Its transformation ... is shocking and completely unacceptable," says Jiri Pesek, head of the European Center for Old Sacral Art. But protests often come too late. "People are just not aware of what is happening-until it happens to their church," says Brussels-based Chris Gillibrand, who runs a Web site called that opposes the conversion of Catholic churches.

It's not the first time Europe's churches have fallen victim to changes in the religious or political order. In the late 18th century, scores of underused places of worship in the Austrian Empire were closed by the imperial authorities in an effort to curtail the power of the Catholic church. The term "vandalism" was first used to describe the destruction of Catholic churches during the French Revolution. And then, as now, the same buildings sometimes served different faiths. In Spain, the fast-growing Muslim population is pressing for the right to share the Mezquita, the mosque in C-rdoba that's been used as a Catholic cathedral since the city fell to a Christian army more than 400 years ago.

Ebbing faith is not the only reason for the abundance of disused churches. The atheist communist regimes of the 20th century, war and demographic shifts have all played a part. Take Transylvania's grand "fortress churches," which once served the region's large German-speaking community, descendants of settlers from the west who came to Romania in medieval times. Mass emigration since the 1970s has reduced the population to just a few thousand, and Gypsies have often repopulated the deserted villages. "The new residents just don't have the financial capacity or the emotional need to look after these churches," says Csilla Hegedus of the Transylvania Trust, which is seeking to preserve the buildings. The government's not much help. "The Ministry of Culture gives us what it can, but in countries emerging from the poverty of communism, it's difficult for them to give all that's necessary," says Hegedus.

For some, the only answer lies in the property market. In the 1990s a single diocese in the Czech Republic-Hradec Kralove-sold off 150 vicarages to individuals. Now it's weighing what to do with about half of its 1,000 little-used churches; it prefers transferring ownership to local authorities for cultural use, but does not exclude selling some. A book issued by the Czech National Monument Protection Office lists 700 cultural monuments-including more than 200 churches and monasteries-in desperate need of repair, many of them for sale across the country.

Of course, the drift to secularism is far from universal. Some of the 90 churches in central Dublin owe their survival to the massive influx of staunchly Catholic Polish migrants in recent years. And Russia has seen the construction of 11,000 new churches and chapels since the collapse of communism. "The further you head east into the Orthodox world, the more you will find church buildings being repaired and new ones going up," says the Rev. Darrell Jackson of the World Council of Churches. In Poland, the only risk to old Catholic churches comes from swelling congregations, which are abandoning the historic buildings in favor of bigger new ones that can accommodate them.

Elsewhere, close historical ties between church and state have eased the financial woes, with taxpayers taking on the maintenance burden of underused churches. Most churches in France-those predating the 1905 separation of Church and State- are in the care of local communes and receive some government subsidy. In Denmark, citizens contribute an average of almost 1 percent of their incomes to support the national Evangelical Lutheran church. Sure, there are plenty of vacant seats-average Sunday attendance is down to less than 5 percent-but almost none has closed. "Danes just love their churches," says Jurgen Engmark of the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs. "They are part of the culture."

But it's a culture with a diminishing place for religion. Indeed, even tenants from other faiths may not guarantee a church long-term protection, for it's not only Christians who are falling sway to secular influences. Back in Clitheroe, Muslim leader Sheraz Arshad notes a drop in attendance among the Muslim community, too. "It's part of a wider move away from faith," he says. At this rate, tomorrow's generation may know the old neighborhood church only as the best restaurant in town.

With Tracy McNicoll in Paris and Katka Krosnar in Prague

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