The Oude Kerk church in Amsterdam, c.1600. It is now in the middle of the city's red light district. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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What should happen to churches as religion recedes?

As church-going diminishes, church buildings are repurposed, many retaining vital functions.

There is a scene in Denys Arcand’s 2003 film The Barbarian Invasions, in which a young French antiques appraiser visits a Quebec Catholic church to size up some long unused religious artefacts the local priest is trying to offload. The priest shows her around a dusty lock-up and tells her: “Quebec used to be as Catholic as Spain or Ireland. Everyone believed. At a precise moment, during the year 1966 in fact, the churches suddenly emptied in a matter of months. A strange phenomenon that no one has ever been able to explain.” The irony of course is that churches would in time also empty, or at least become emptier, in Ireland and Spain. This scene however sums up eloquently the material legacy a societal decline in religious faith leaves. Stripped of their function in a thriving congregation, surplus ciboria, chalices and tabernacles of modest craftsmanship become items of largely worthless bric-a-brac. (It is interesting though that all three of those items endure as living, breathing examples of Quebec French’s wonderfully colourful profanity.)

In many Western countries (but clearly not all), the decline in church-going has seen the patrimony of churches threatened, particularly ones in smaller towns and villages that cannot harness their appeal as tourist attractions. About 30 Church of England churches are closed for worship every year and more than 1,000, of all faiths, have been made “redundant”, as church jargon calls it, since the 1960s. The decision is pragmatic, with the cost of maintaining the buildings to cater for dwindling congregations becoming prohibitive. The churches, once deconsecrated, find new lives as residential properties, village halls, bookshops, libraries, theatres, concert venues or gastropubs. They also sometimes become places of worship for other faiths – these days most often mosques or Evangelical churches. Not that that is an entirely recent development either – the Brick Lane Mosque started off as a Huguenot chapel in the mid-eighteenth century, and then became a Methodist church and a synagogue before taking on its current incarnation in 1976.

France, a country which has seen a similar decline in church attendance, has a different approach. The 1905 law ordaining the separation of Church and State ruled that all churches built prior to that date would become the property of the state, which would henceforth be responsible for their upkeep. It is an unusual responsibility to take on, especially in the light of the law’s avowed intention, but it works reasonably well, allowing the churches to benefit from the expertise and resources of state conservation agencies. The state is also now prohibited from funding the construction of new churches (except in Alsace and Lorraine, exempt because they were German in 1905) so organised religion is responsible for taking care of anything built since the law was enacted. Not that all churches have been saved from oblivion but only 400 out of some 44,000 are believed to be in material danger, which is not bad in a country where only 4.5 per cent of the population are regular church-goers.

France, which was already the epicentre of the flowering of great Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages, has also continued to build some great churches, with a stab at ecclesiastical architecture being de rigueur for many of the great French or French-based architects, such as Victor Baltard, Gustave Eiffel, Le Corbusier, Auguste Perret and Claude Parent; there were also renowned church-building specialists such as Pierre Paquet and Jacques Droz. Despite its testy relationship with organised religion, France loves its churches and they are indelibly embedded in both the landscape and the country’s cultural history. Churches also rarely end up being used for other purposes. Though the Jacobins and Communards both commandeered churches for profane uses (as did other iconoclasts such as Oliver Cromwell and Enver Hoxha), the Priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs (now the Musée des arts et métiers) and Jacques-Germain Soufflot’s Panthéon are among the few prominent churches that became permanently secular. Many of the aforementioned jewels of Gothic architecture, such as Notre Dame de Paris, Sainte-Chapelle, the Basilica of Saint-Denis and the cathedrals of Rouen, Chartres and Reims each draw hundreds of thousands of tourists each year (and manage to avoid admission fees such as St Paul’s Cathedral’s gobsmacking £18.50). But humble parish churches are also affectionate landmarks for even non-believers and non-Christians. When I first arrived in Paris, I was amazed to find a church in Beaubourg that showed art-house films on Sunday nights, and Jacques Delors, later European Commission president, in the 1950s ran a film club in the church I can see from my window in the eastern neighbourhood of Ménilmontant.

Even as they might administer to fewer parishioners these days, many churches in Europe still retain vital functions – they have become centres of both worship and socialising for immigrant communities, such as St Peter the Apostle church in Woolwich, and the Igreja de São Domingos in Lisbon, both of which attract African immigrants. Churches across Europe have also been literally refuges for migrants and refugees. And even among the more spiritually feckless, churches remain a favoured choice as wedding venues, though the superficial interest and opportunism often strains the patience of pastors.

Some churches are incongruous in their present locations, such as the 800-year-old Oude Kerk in the midst of Amsterdam’s red-light district, though there is a certain Bunyanesque aptness about a Calvinist church’s close proximity to sin. The “meaning” of a church has changed for many of us who don’t believe, but that doesn’t mean churches cannot be welcoming places – there is nothing I love more than to go into an unknown church and sit for a few minutes in the calm. There is an architectonic ambience imparted by churches, even the less spectacular ones, that few other buildings give off. There are churches in some unlikely places that I hold close to my heart, such as Sigurd Lewerentz’s red-brick Markuskyrkan, suffused with Nordic warmth, in a Stockholm suburb or Jože Plečnik’s concrete Church of the Holy Spirit in Vienna. As well as being architecturally fascinating, they feel faultlessly right. For this reason I am not a big fan of churches being converted for more practical uses when abandoned by the religious. The resultant effect is invariably kitsch or one of petit-bourgeois propriety. It is, of course, sacrilegious (from a conservationist point of view) to say this but I would sooner let them turn into elegant ruins or, as the French, those great connoisseurs of church architecture, have done so many times throughout history, knock them down and build something new in their stead.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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