Churches in retirement

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Churches in retirement

As church attendance declines across Europe, what happens to the former churches? Read on to discover how churches are desacralised and reused.

Churches in retirement

The streets of Oxford are dotted with an abundance of churches. These sights led English poet Matthew Arnold to refer to the city as one with “dreaming spires,” a term that has stuck [1] [2] If you were to walk down one such street – Walton Street – you would come across one such building. The insides, however, would be a surprise. In the remains of a 19th-century church, you would find a wine and cocktail bar, Freud.

As religious attendance and declarations of faith dwindle across Europe,[3] [4] sights like Freud are becoming more common. As such, more towns, communities, and religious clergy are facing the question: what to do with a place of worship when maintaining it is no longer sustainable?

Attendance decline and subsequent sales

As several other articles across the EARS website note,[5] [6] [7] religious attendance has been on the decline in the past few decades. The pandemic, it appears, has exacerbated this trend across Europe and the world.[8] For instance, churches in the United States report having only 85% of pre-pandemic attendance levels.[9] Some churches, too, have transitioned to an online platform, no longer requiring a physical space. In Poland, for example, the first completely online parish Catholic church opened in November 2022. There, parishioners can order a Mass or can sign up and go through with a confession.[10]

This has led to a series of moves by religious groups and churches, which have struggled to financially maintain themselves. Some have closed down; others have consolidated. Regardless, the moves have led to an abundance of properties – formerly used as churches – to require repurposing.

Repurposed bars, work centres, and hotels

In Flanders, for instance, the mayor of Mechelen, Bart Somers, who also serves in the Flemish regional government, has oversight over the repurposing of at least 350 former churches.[11] In Mechelen alone, Somers notes that churches have been turned into a brewery,[12] a hotel,[13] a library,[14] and a cultural centre.[15] [16]

In the UK, in addition to Oxford, London has seen churches reworked, too. In London, the Grade-I listed former church, St Mark’s, has recently had its own rebirth becoming a food market. Mercato Mayfair, as it is now called, is the centre of numerous bars and restaurants.[17] Similarly, the former St Michaels and All Angels Church in Hackney is becoming a work centre.[18]

Desacralisation of former churches

Before a Catholic church can be sold and converted, it must go through a deconsecration process. According to Canon law, “[i]f a church cannot be used in any way for divine worship and there is no possibility of repairing it, the diocesan bishop can relegate it to profane but not sordid use.”[19] [20]

The uptick in the de-sacralisation process led the international contemporary design and art gallery, Galerie Philia, to host an exhibition in a desacralised church in Milan earlier in 2023. The exhibition, ‘Desacralized’, coincided with Milan Design Week in April and included artwork from around the world that focused on items losing a sacred status.[21]

Uncertain future

Feelings about the repurposing of these former churches are mixed. For many, like Johan Bonny, bishop of Antwerp, Belgium, the process evokes a painful sadness. Yet, for him, the convoluted and tumultuous history of the church, which has gone through periods of popularity and relapse before, gives him hope for the future.[22] Others, however, may see a comforting symbolism in the process: witnessing places where people once gathered for worship being reworked into places where that social gathering can continue – albeit in a more secular fashion.

Tyler Mikulis

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[1] Thyrsis

[2] Oxford, City of Dreaming Spires

[3] Census: Less than half of Britons are Christian now

[4] Death and religion in a secularising Europe

[5] Skating in empty churches

[6] Census: Less than half of Britons are Christian now

[7] Exodus from the Catholic Church

[8] The world’s religions face a post pandemic reckoning

[9] Losing their religion: Why US churches are on the decline

[10] First online parish office opens in Poland’s Catholic church

[11] Europe Repurposes Churches as Faithful Dwindle

[12] Micro-brewery Batteliek

[13] Martin’s Hotels

[14] Library within baroque walls

[15] 17th-century cathedral in Belgium becomes hip cultural centre

[16] Europe Repurposes Churches as Faithful Dwindle

[17] There’s A Heavenly Food Hall To Be Found Inside This Restored Mayfair Church • Mercato Mayfair

[18] 150-Year-Old London Church To Be Converted Into Work Campus

[19] Can. 1222

[20] Desacralized churches

[21] Galerie Philia occupies a ‘desacralized’ church

[22] In Belgium, Empty Churches Are Being Turned into Businesses