Sormoen, Oddbjorn, “A future after Venice”

The Venice conference in November last year was indeed a boost to the FRH network. It opened our eyes, gave an overview of what goes on in many countries and put our own situation into a greater perspective. Meeting with international colleagues sharing the same vision but contributing with such different experiences, is always inspiring!

Religious heritage is not only about buildings. These buildings are often full of precious and beautiful objects, great craftsmanship, objects for practical use or parts of religious veneration.

We are working with religious heritage. Religion has always been fundamental to European culture, and it still is. Understanding the religious heritage, regardless of our personal encounters with religion, is important for someone who wants to appreciate and understand the European identities, history, literature, architecture, art and languages. Saving and opening up people’s eyes to this heritage is therefore important for many reasons.

The Venice conference brought many highlights. The simple fact that the peaceful and sunny event was sandwiched between two weeks of rain and “aqua alta” (high water) was an unexpected blessing. The presentation of don Gianmatteo Caputo brought in new perspectives that in some ways changed the tide of the conference, at least for me. He spoke about “opening the senses” so we can experience the religious heritage in a new and perhaps deeper way. Who will ever forget entering the San Marco basilica in total darkness, “listening” to the space and the many shapes of the room, feeling the steps of the millions that for centuries had wandered through the building, the silence of the holy place, sensing the remains of incense – and then seeing the mosaics above our heads: the apostles sitting with the burning, spiritual, human tongues above their heads, while listening to the story of Pentecost? Suddenly, the question was not only about new use, architectural values or of what is appropriate in such a building, but about letting the building convey its own message in its own language.

Seeing 86 delegates with many professional backgrounds from 24 nations mingling, reflecting, exchanging stories and ideas, I understand that FRH is alive, appreciated and needed. Listening to a Muslim scholar exchanging thoughts and ideas with a Christian clergy about what makes a building sacred, was also a fulfilment of one of my personal visions for the network: To bring people and knowledge together, to understand, inspire and point a direction for a better European future.

To me the term “Extended use” gives more sense than before. Many places of worship that struggle with finding sufficient resources for maintenance and development inhibit values and resources that in fact belong to the whole community and often the whole nation, whether they belong to the specific faith or not. Extended use can open people’s mental eyes so they can let these resources contribute to the enrichment of their lives. Often the owners are short sighted or blind to what others find so obvious. Working to save this heritage is finding the communicative link between the values and the people; make them see, understand and contribute to the future of these buildings.

We live and work in a turbulent time. The unemployment rate is climbing, the political equilibrium is in many regions shaking, and the resources are scarce. There is demand for initiative, creativity and optimism. The debate about new use and redundancy of religious heritage has also come to the Norwegian shores. The debate about who is responsible for this heritage, and for whom it is important has started. In Oslo one Lutheran Church was just a few weeks ago leased to a Roman Catholic congregation for the coming years, since the demography of the local community altered due to immigration. Another particularly beautiful and valuable church is being closed because of the merger of parishes, and there are other similar cases coming up in the near future.

These examples lead me to the topic of the next FRH conference, in Utrecht in November: Moveable religious heritage. Religious heritage is not only about buildings. These buildings are often full of precious and beautiful objects, great craftsmanship, objects for practical use or parts of religious veneration. They are often important for the appreciation of the building, the period they were in use, and the understanding of the liturgical or cultural context. This part of the religious heritage is more often in jeopardy, because religious buildings might not only be emptied and filled with new use. Those which live on with religious use might lose many valuable movables due to change of liturgy and taste, regardless of the quality of the objects and how important they once where for the actual interior.

A network like FRH definitely has a role to play in the years to come. I am already looking forward to meeting and making the next steps together in Utrecht in November!

Oddbjørn Sørmoen
Director of the Department for Church Buildings and Heritage Administration
KA Association for Employers in the Church of Norway and Church-related NGOs
FRH Networking Group Member
Chair of the FRH Venice Conference Committee

 

*Photograph borrowed form the Catharijneconvent, which will host the conference in Utrecht, 4-5 November 2013.