In Europe, the beautiful old Churches are becoming increasingly empty, according to Church of England statistics attendance in the UK has been falling, not as a percentage of population but the actual numbers from about 1.6 million in 1968 to barely 1 million in 2013. With that decline comes more and more Churches that are falling to disuse or a high degree of underuse. There are different opinions on what do to with those buildings since very few would like to see them simply tore down, given their beauty and the history associated with them. One suggestion is given by Simon Jenkins in an article published in the Guardian.
The writer seems to be a rather secular person, and see’s value in the concept of a Church building as a community centre of sorts. He argues that because these buildings were paid for by tithes the Churches belong to the people. Then he talks about underfunding of public programs, implying that the money is going to the Churches instead (as if the Church of England is the cause of the underfunding of public services, since all the money is going to them). His suggestion is basically that Churches be re-constituted as kind of non-religious centres of public life, economic activity or services.
He mentions things like this that are already happening (not only with Churches, but also with other non-commercial or state areas like Garden Squares) such as Wi-Fi Cafe’s, post offices, community banks and so on. He thinks these Churches should be centres of practical services, or perhaps places where multiple religions can worship, or should be put to economic use.
I completely admire the idea that these Church buildings should not be torn down; they are extremely beautiful and are likely to be replaced by ugly modern commercial buildings. However, why are these Churches so beautiful? Is it because people back then simply had better taste than we do in general? No. Churches were houses dedicated to God. They were a sacred space. These Churches were not build simply as pragmatic community centres, or a place where goods and services can be traded. The aesthetics of the church were not conceived of in a cost/benefit analysis, they were conceived of as pointing to the transcendent, they were places where heaven and earth met, where man could go to access the divine. Somewhat paradoxically however, that made then the perfect centres of community.
When there it is acknowledged that there is a higher power over man, that this power transcends our individual desires, and that it is beyond price, what you get is a base line for which an authentic community can build. This is why when people work on a project together they become friends, there is a higher purpose. Part of the Christian message is that we are all one in Christ, that we are our brother’s keeper, and that those who want to be first must be those who serve. These concepts and fundamental and foundational to many of our modern enlightenment concepts of solidarity, equality and democracy. However, it is naïve to think that these things, once attained, will simply stand without foundation.
What made these medieval churches so beautiful was the belief that their value transcended the mundane practical things that a church could do, including community services. Because it transcended those things, the community services it that it facilitated was enhanced. The good a Church did was not measured by simply whether or not more people got more out of it, it wasn’t measured on a cost/benefit analysis, it wasn’t measured by the profit it gained for itself or some company, or the political advantage it gave a government. It was measured against the eternal and transcendent values found in the Christian faith. When they were built, they were built with the glory of God in mind and the glory of God demands beauty beyond any individual human desire. The importance of the Church building, and it’s value, and thus the amount of effort and aesthetic attention put into its building, was not measured against a cost/benefit analysis of profit or even public service, it was measured against the glory of God.
If you take that away, i.e. the very purpose of a Church to begin with. What your left with is another cost/benefit analysis and a purely economic institution. A church may be beautiful, but if all it is inside is a coffee shop, a post office and a farmers market, it might as well be torn down and turned into something that fits those purposes better. In a Capitalist society, “it’s beautiful” is not a reason to use resources on something, unless that beauty can be exploited for profit.
This liberal/secular idea that somehow one can build a community of solidarity without any transcendence, without religion, is a pipe dream. When God is dead, each individual becomes his own God, seeking to maximize his own dominion and his own autonomy lest someone take it from them or dominate them. In that society and community is only valuable to the individual god when it can further their own micro godship, their own dominion.
A society like that has no place for beauty made for a transcendent purpose, it has no place for Churches, it has no place for authentic community. It is a society of strip malls, ghettos, gated communities, corporations and commercials. If you ask me, it’s not a society I would like to live in.