Christianity Leaves the Picture

The shriveling of church institutions has had complex effects on European societies, most visibly in the form of deteriorating church buildings. When congregations shrink, it makes economic sense to combine parishes, but such a policy can strike a grave blow at religious sensibilities. This is a familiar story in American cities, when closed Catholic churches might represent ethnic and communal loyalty. But imagine the scale of the trauma when the building itself is several centuries old and stands on a site consecrated by Christian worship over a millennium or more. Moreover, the churches contain the monuments, art, and material treasures assembled by that community over the centuries. Great medieval churches were built to assert pride in the community and in the faith, and conversely, the sight of an abandoned or ruined church sends a powerful message about the eclipse of the faith that it symbolized. Across Europe, church authorities agonize over deciding the appropriate fate for disused buildings.21

The buildings of England's established church normally stood open and accessible through the 1970s, when concerns about crime and vandalism resulted in their being locked outside service times and thus less available to the curious or pious. Since then, the Church of England has faced constant problems about how to cope with a building stock designed for an utterly different religious landscape. Between 1970 and 2005, the Church closed 1,700 of its structures, over 10 percent of the total. Some have been demolished; developers have transformed others into warehouses and apartments, spas and pubs. The revolution has been just as marked, and as painful, for the nonconformist Protestant churches that coexisted with the Anglicans, the churches of the Methodists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians. Just since 2001, some five hundred London churches of all denominations have been transformed into private dwellings. In the 1970s too, British cathedrals began charging visitors for admission, a sound economic decision, but one that sent the disastrous message that these buildings were museums rather than living places of worship.22 Some ancient sites attract visitors uninterested in their orthodox Christian associations, as former abbeys and cathedrals have become centers of a booming New Age tourist trade. Seekers converge on Glastonbury Abbey or Chartres cathedral, or Scotland's Rosslyn Chapel, made famous by Dan Brown. Bowing to the inevitable, some French and German convents and abbeys try to survive by presenting themselves as retreat houses for the New Age-oriented market.

Other tokens of Christian decline are less tangible, but nonetheless significant. Abundant anecdotal evidence, supported by opinion surveys, suggests the depth of ignorance about even the most basic Christian doctrines. One British poll found that over 40 percent of respondents could not say what event was commemorated by Easter. Churches have been forced to respond with remedial measures that would have appalled earlier generations. The standard information leaflet offered to visitors at England's ancient York Minster begins by exploring, "What Do Christians Believe?" A sample:

York Minster is built in the shape of a cross to symbolize the most important Christian belief: that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died on the cross for our sins. . . . Some [crosses] will show Jesus at his Crucifixion to remind us of the terrible death he died. Others will be empty to remind us that death is not the end of the story: Christians also believe in Christ's Resurrection. . . . The principal service for Christians is Holy Communion. . . .

and so on. Art galleries can assume no knowledge of terms like Ascension and Transfiguration, any more than a casual visitor can be expected to understand the rituals of an Amazonian tribe. One Czech observer complains that her younger compatriots "don't know what Christmas is about. They are lost in art galleries when they see paintings of Jesus Christ. One girl looked at a picture of the Crucifixion and asked, 'Who did that to him?' Her friend responded, 'The Communists.' "23

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