Churches - sacred and profane

Blog — 01 Mar 2023

In the UK church attendance in the last decade has fallen from over 1m to 600,000, furthermore just 2% of those attending are 18-24 year olds. Over 2000 churches closed in the 10 years to 2021. It seems as if the decline of Christianity in the UK is rapid and irreversible.

I was thinking about this whilst in Amsterdam visiting among other things the Oude Kerk, built in 1306 it is the city's oldest church which now doubles as a contemporary art space.

In Britain there are 16,000 Church of England church buildings and we will soon have a lot of redundant ones, with that number accelerating as the church going demographic changes. Whilst it is always sad to see the dismantling of a national institution and the decline and loss of a tradition that many of us were brought up with, the immediate problem will be what to do with the consequent stock of large, inefficient and costly structures.

In 16th Century Holland the protestant reformation ousted the presiding Catholic Church. Icons and religious imagery were stripped from the interiors and the walls and structure painted white. These spaces are well known to us thanks to the contemporary oil paintings by artists such as Pieter Saenredem and Emanuel de Witte. These paintings were often commissioned to be hung in private homes to represent the piety of the owners. The protestant faith did not permit religious iconography or the idolatry of Christ, the Virgin Mary or the Saints for example, so views of church interiors were used instead.

What is interesting about these paintings is the story that they tell. These churches were extensions of the public realm, groups of people stand and chat whilst a grave digger is at work in the back ground, dogs run through the spaces and children play. The space of the church is bright, airy and uncluttered, a welcome refuge from the noisy medieval city beyond.

Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft - Emauel de Witte, 1650
The Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam - Emanuel de Witte cira 1671
Interior of the Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam - Emanuel de Witte,1657

Perhaps this offers us a clue, a way to reconsider how our-soon-to be redundant churches might work as public realm and community spaces that can be adapted to the multiple needs of the neighbourhood that they very often sit at the heart of.

Places to shelter, places to meet, play, perform, and relax. In our villages they could replace the shops, pubs and post offices that have been lost, they can house youth groups, creches and places for the lonely or troubled to meet. In cities too, the lack of investment in community infrastructure could be in part be met by opening these de-consecrated buildings up for use by all.

The Oude Kerk runs a programme that asks artists to interpret the building and interact with it, whilst on Sunday mornings worshippers still gather. Currently artist Ibrahim Mahama has blended casts of the gravestones that pave the interior with objets-trouve in his native Ghana. In 2018 Italian artist Giorgio Calo bathed the interior in red light, a reference to its Catholic past, as well as its location in the heart of the adult entertainment district. In 2019 Dutch light artists Children of the Light installed a beautiful kinetic light beam, a form that recalls the horizon, accompanied by music from Philip Glass.

Ibrahim Mahama – Garden of Scars
Giorgio Calo - ANÁSTASIS , 2018
Children of the Light - Between the light, 2019

The Church of England should take note, Amsterdam demonstrates that it is quite possible for a church building to become a public space whilst still fulfilling its sacred purpose.