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Report: Europe’s Old Churches Turn Into Bars, Eateries

February 8, 2007

From Newsweek International:

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 cafés, 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 catchcon.blogspot.com that opposes the conversion of Catholic churches.

(…)

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….

Full report here.

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