Understandably, it elicited strong reactions among Christians. There is something viscerally upsetting about watching a place of worship being torn down. Many saw it as symbolic of the collapse of the faith in France – less than 5% of French people regularly attend Sunday Mass, compared to around 25% c.1960 – and the triumph across much of Europe of a forgetful, aggressive secularism.
Others, including a friend of mine, took what you might call a realist view.
They noted that Saint Joseph, while obviously attractive, was not a particularly outstanding example of Gothic architecture, and far from ancient by French standards (it was only built in the 1880s). They also made the point that there is a danger in clinging too tightly to the physical manifestations of past ages of Christian civilisation, when we are coming to the end of that civilisation and we need to think about how to build a new one. On this way of thinking, the glories of the past can become a kind of safety blanket, a way to avoid confronting the realities of decline.
If churches are empty, maybe we need to think about what we can do to fill them again.
They blind us to the true contemporary crisis.
However we react to videos of redundant French chapels being razed to the ground, the problem of what to do with empty churches is not going to go away for any British churches in the foreseeable future.
Although there have been signs in recent years that the inexorable decline in Christian observance may be levelling out, the age pyramid of churchgoers is rather top-heavy. By the middle of this century, a significant portion of current regular Sunday attenders will have died, and – absent a revival of the kind that this country has not seen since the early nineteenth century – it is not clear who will be taking their places.
Perhaps, on occasion, we will need to bite the bullet and call in the demolition crews. Churches often stand on valuable land, and maybe a cash-strapped church will not be able to be too high-minded about such trade-offs.
A lot of church buildings will no longer have a congregation attached. It is already happening. My own village, like many others, has a former non-conformist Chapel that is now a private home. Many cities now feature bars or clubs that were once thriving churches.
It is relatively common now for Catholic parishes to be amalgamated, as congregations dwindle along with the number of priests in ministry. A few years ago, there were heated and acrimonious debates in the northwest as bishops made some very difficult decisions about the best use of limited resources. In two or three decades’ time, we will be facing the problem on a hitherto unknown scale.
So, what is to be done?
There are various charities: the Churches Conservation Trust do great work, but they are already overstretched. There is the conversion option, as noted above. For understandable reasons, turning churches into hospitality venues or even private homes is unpopular. Perhaps, on occasion, we will need to bite the bullet and call in the demolition crews. Churches often stand on valuable land, and maybe a cash-strapped church will not be able to be too high-minded about such trade-offs.
The only lasting solution is evangelisation.
If churches are empty, maybe we need to think about what we can do to fill them again. If we don’t want a wave of Saint Joseph-style demolitions in our future, or don’t like the idea of barstools replacing pews, that should add some urgency to our living out of the faith.
Niall Gooch is a regular Chapter House columnist. He also contributes to UnHerd.
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