Thursday, February 14, 2013

The great German church selloff

Matthias Schulz
der Spiegel
Feb. 14, 2013


"Upon this rock, I will build my church," Jesus said with confidence. He said nothing, though, about demolishing those churches.

Two millennia later, churches are being forced to make dramatic cuts due to dire financial straits and declining membership. "Between 1990 and 2010 we closed 340 churches, and of those 46 were demolished," says Thomas Begrich, head of finances for the Evangelical Church of Germany (EKD), Germany's largest federation of Protestant churches. This, Begrich says, is only the beginning. "It may be necessary to give up an additional 1,000 buildings," he said.

Churches are being demolished throughout Germany. Take, for example, the city of Frankfurt am Main. In the 1950s, when Konrad Adenauer was German chancellor, there were 430,000 Protestants living in the city. Today, that number is 110,000. These declining numbers have forced the Church's regional authorities to close every fourth house of worship.

In Hamburg, meanwhile, a former Protestant church has ended up in the possession of the Muslim community for the first time, after a former church building in the Horn district of the city was sold in 2005 to a businessman who then sold the property to an Islamic center.

Church members were indignant over the transaction, but the EKD had little choice. If a buyer can't be found and a building is left standing vacant, eventually the only other option is to allow the bulldozers to raze it.

Things are no different for the Catholic Church. There are churches standing empty even in staunchly Catholic Bavaria, and one has even had to close in the famous pilgrimage site of Telgte, near Münster.

The central German town of Börssum, in the state of Lower Saxony, offers a typical example -- the Church of Saint Bernward here is facing demolition. The church is named for Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim, who lived from around 960 to 1022 and built defensive towers and forts to protect his followers from attacks by Normans and other non-believers.

Now, though, many of Börssum's own residents could fall into that category. The most recent figures show that only about 5 percent of church members in Börssum attend Sunday services. The laundry list of necessary repairs for the church buiding, meanwhile, has reached a total of €134,500.

There are also many church buildings in Germany that have already been used for other purposes, from art classes to sports courses. There are churches that serve as event locations or offer storage space for companies. St. Maximin's Abbey in Trier now serves as a school gym, while the Sacred Heart Church in Katlenburg houses a school for dance and Pilates.

When a local pastor announces that the time has come for a church to observe its very last supper, the declaration causes many a heavy heart among the congregation's members, who gather in the pews, contrite and often weeping, no one quite daring to strike up a hymn.


The situation for Catholic churches is particularly bad in the Ruhr region of western Germany and in northern Germany, places that saw an influx of refugees from the former German lands of Silesia and East Prussia after the Second World War. The church established small "branches" throughout these areas, so that there was always a confessional for parishioners within walking distance.

But now these small houses of worship, often built in an unappealing modern style, are at very high risk of being demolished. In the Diocese of Hildesheim, one out of every two churches is on the endangered list, while in the Diocese of Essen, 83 churches are slated for demolition and another 13 have already been torn down. The situation is the worst in Wilhelmshaven, where six out of nine Catholic churches are slated to be destroyed.


Full article at der Spiegel

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