Due to economic pressures and declining attendance, more and more church buildings in Germany will have to be closed or sold. However, the conversion of church buildings into alternative use sometimes leads to reactions even among secular-minded Germans, Joachim Guntner reports in the Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung (April 24).
The number of Roman Catholics going to church every Sunday in Germany was around 12 million in the 1950s and is now down to 4 million. Communities which become too small get merged with other ones, thus making additional buildings useless. In 2003, the German Bishops’ Conference released guidelines in order to help communities facing difficult decisions. When a church has to be sold, according to the guidelines, it should preferably go to public authorities rather than to fall into private hands; cultural purposes should be preferred to commercial use – although in practice this cannot always be avoided. Both Catholics and Protestants don’t want to have churches sold to Muslim and other non-Christian religious communities (except possibly Jews from the viewpoint of Protestants), due to the symbolical impact such a change of owners would create.
Among the alternative uses of church buildings, there are cases of conversions into centers for social work. But in some cases, there is no other route but for a parish owning two or three buildings than to tear one of them down; in most cases, the more recent buildings will be sacrificed, and the older ones kept for their historical value. Some architects warn about the risk that a significant percentage of church buildings from the postwar period might disappear in the long-run, because they do not yet enjoy protection granted to historical monuments.
When a church building disappears, the void thus created seems also to be perceived among people who are not otherwise involved in churches. According to Guntner, even secularized people may still remain attached to symbolic structures in the midst of a rapidly changing world and can appreciate a lasting reference to transcendent values in modern, functional cities. — By Jean-Francois Mayer