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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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