ARNHEM, Netherlands—Two dozen scruffy skateboarders launched perilous jumps in a soaring old church building here on a recent night, watched over by a mosaic likeness of Jesus and a solemn array of stone saints.
This is the Arnhem Skate Hall, an uneasy reincarnation of the Church of St. Joseph, which once rang with the prayers of nearly 1,000 worshipers.
It is one of hundreds of churches, closed or threatened by plunging membership, that pose a question for communities, and even governments, across Western Europe: What to do with once-holy, now-empty buildings that increasingly mark the countryside from Britain to Denmark?
The Church of England closes about 20 churches a year. Roughly 200 Danish churches have been deemed nonviable or underused. The Roman Catholic Church in Germany has shut about 515 churches in the past decade.
But it is in the Netherlands where the trend appears to be most advanced. The country’s Roman Catholic leaders estimate that two-thirds of their 1,600 churches will be out of commission in a decade, and 700 of Holland’s Protestant churches are expected to close within four years.
“The numbers are so huge that the whole society will be confronted with it,” says Ms. Grootswagers, an activist with Future for Religious Heritage, which works to preserve churches. “Everyone will be confronted with big empty buildings in their neighborhoods.”
The U.S. has avoided a similar wave of church closings for now, because American Christians remain more religiously observant than Europeans. But religious researchers say the declining number of American churchgoers suggests the country could face the same problem in coming years.
Here’s the key quote, late in the story (which, by the way, appears in The Wall Street Journal). The kid quoted here goes to the Arnhem church that has been turned into a skateboarding center:
Another regular, Pelle Klomp, 14, says visitors occasionally stop by to complain. “Especially the older people say, ‘It’s ridiculous, you’re dishonoring faith,’ ” he says. “And I can understand that. But they weren’t using it.”
That’s exactly the point, isn’t it: they aren’t using it.
What do these people expect? That the church will be there forever, in case they decide one day to return to religion?
We’ve recently been talking in this forum about the planned church closings in the Catholic Archdiocese of New York. There might be particular instances in which the planned closure is unwise or unjust, but there are folks who get bent out of shape over the prospect of any church closing. Who do they think pays for the repairs, for the utility bills? God? Where will the clergy from to staff them. From the WSJ piece:
When Paul Clement, prior of the Augustinian Order in the Netherlands, joined in 1958, the order had 380 friars; now it is down to 39. His monastery’s youngest friar is 70, and Father Clement, himself 74, is developing plans to sell its church.
“It is difficult,” Father Clement says. “It’s sad for me.”
I’m sure it is. I am not well-informed enough to know if sadness is a more appropriate emotion than anger, because I don’t know enough about the Netherlands to judge to what extent the churches there are victims of the times, or victims of themselves. But I do get angry at the kind of people who criticize the irreligious skateboarder for his impiety when they almost certainly rarely if ever darkened the door of the decommissioned church when their being there could have made the difference between life and death.
What I can’t work out for myself is if it is better to deconsecrate these churches and let them be put to some other use, or to tear them down rather than let them be used for something potentially sacrilegious. What about selling them to non-Christian congregations? Would it be better for a thriving Muslim congregation to worship in a former Christian church, or let it go to ruin, or to be sold to a skateboarding club? What about a coven of Wiccans?
[H/T: Reader DS]