The Centre for Religious Art and Culture (Centrum voor Religieuze Kunst en Cultuur – CRKC) is the centre of expertise for religious heritage in Flanders and Brussels. In 2012 a new Department was created within CRKC concerning Tangible Church Heritage. This new department was assigned by the Flemish government to create an inventory of the Roman Catholic parish churches. CRKC thus distributed an online survey to each of the Flemish church councils (Dutch: Kerkfabrieken, French: Fabriques d’église) to collect the necessary information. As of the 12th of March 2013, 1597 church councils have received the survey and 1472 have completed it in its entirety.
The aim of this project is to create a comprehensive inventory of the approximately 1800 main churches, as well as the so-called ‘adjoining churches’ (Dutch: bijkerken or annex-kerken) included in some parishes. At this stage we have recorded 46 adjoining churches, but this number may increase as the inquiry continues. The survey itself is divided into four sections: identification, inventory of the main church building(s), inventory of any other associated buildings, and the state of the movable heritage included in each parish. The survey has two main purposes: First, to provide church councils with a document to use when consulting with the municipality in preparation for multi-annual plans (which are required by law). Second, to serve as a collection of data for variable use. At the end of 2013 CRKC will release the final report.
Some preliminary results
Pending an inclusive report, we are already able to demonstrate some findings. Approximately one third of the church buildings are classified as protected monuments. Two thirds of the respondents indicate the general condition of the building as “good”. Almost all of the churches are still in use for Roman Catholic worship, with as many as 98 percent of the buildings holding weekly Eucharistic celebrations (mostly held on Saturday or Sunday). These churches are also used for rites of passage such as weddings, baptisms and funerals. Half of the churches remain open outside the hours of worship. Silence and reflection, followed by devotion and tourism, is the most commonly reported reason for visiting. Finally, 75 percent of the churches are also used for non-liturgical activities such as concerts and exhibitions.
Pilot Projects in Westhoek and Ghent
Geert Bourgeois, the Flemish Minister in charge of Religious Affairs and Heritage, has chosen two pilot projects to serve as an example for the future development of parish churches. In Westhoek (a rural area in western Flanders), there is a high concentration of parish churches (110 parish churches for 18 municipalities). Based on the fully completed regional survey, the municipalities will file a preliminary report on the current state of the church buildings. In the next phase, the municipality will establish an advisory board led by a moderator to prepare a conceptual strategy. The project in Ghent is an urban parallel to that of Westhoek. Following guidelines for the use of parish churches drawn up by the bishops, decisions will eventually be made as to whether each church will be preserved exclusively for Roman Catholic worship and which will be opened up to include various uses (such as additional Christian services or cultural events). In exceptional cases, some churches will no longer serve as religious buildings and will be completely repurposed.