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.
According to Schultz, the process of closing a church is different. He writes:
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.
Protestant congregations tend to take a simple approach: Collect the Bible, cross and other liturgical items, and the last one out shuts the door — that’s enough to close down and deconsecrate a church.
For Catholics, on the other hand, every house of worship is a holy place and must be officially deconsecrated. Only a bishop or someone delegated by a bishop has the authority to conduct this ritual. With the air thick with incense, the bishop or delegate first reads out an official decree, then rolls up the altar cloth, empties the tabernacle where the host is stored and extinguishes the eternal light.
The Spiegel article continues that, “Every cloud has its silver lining.”
Church equipment can be sold, Schultz continues:
There’s the opportunity for hard-up congregations to turn no longer needed items such as collection boxes and wooden altars into cash through new websites dedicated specifically for this purpose, such as “Kircheninventar-verkauf.de.”
Congregations can even sell the church buildings themselves online. The Archdiocese of Berlin is active on eBay, where it is offering for sale “a church in a popular residential area” in the nearby city of Brandenburg.
Yet many of these properties do not find a buyer. Most churches have cold floors and high ceilings of 10 meters (30 feet) or more, and lack kitchen facilities. Even give-away prices often aren’t enough of an incentive. The Maria Goretti Chapel in the small northeastern city of Demmin, for example, costs just €20,000, but no one wants to buy it.
Both the Protestants and Catholics agree on one restriction, when it comes to selling their church buildings. Schultz continues:
One point on which it seems both the Protestant and Catholic Churches can agree is that sects and other religious groups are generally not acceptable as buyers. A handbook issued by the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau says that in order to avoid increasing the “fog of religious diffusion,” the sale of church buildings to Muslims or Buddhists, for example, is “not possible.”
Where Muslim communities have nonetheless taken over former church buildings, they are generally properties that belonged to unaffiliated churches. In four cases so far, such churches have sold buildings to Muslim congregations. In addition, there’s the one former Protestant church in the Horn district of Hamburg that went through an intermediate step before then being bought by a Muslim group.
There’s no doubt about it — the Christian churches’ fighting spirit is a thing of the past. The publication Spirit estimates that out of about 45,000 churches in Germany, 15,000 soon will no longer be needed. These buildings are simply too opulent, too empty and too expensive to maintain, something akin to an aging grandmother still living in a mansion when just one room would do.
Can you imagine living or working in a church with a 30 foot high ceiling? I hope good uses are found for these old church buildings, full of stonework and great character.