Fowler, Angus “Debate on German churches and community involvement”

A more positive and differentiated picture of the situation of churches in Germany and their preservation and use

In the August 2013 issue of the FRH Newsletter a drastic indeed sensationally bad picture of the situation of churches and other religious buildings in Germany was given with the English version of an article by with the title “The Last Supper – Germany’s Great Church Sell-Off” in the well-known German magazine “Der Spiegel” (the original article appeared in Issue 7/2013 of “Der Spiegel”on 9 February 2013). This article is written in a highly sensational, almost hysteric style and portrays the situation as catastrophic, comparable to that in The Netherlands and perhaps now also in Belgium, like that in England and other parts of the United Kingdom back in the 1950s-1970s. In reality the situation is more differentiated and tense only in a few regions.

Certainly a considerable number of post-war modern churches and also a few from the late 19th and early 20th centuries have become or are becoming redundant in Germany, and there have been panic reactions especially of the Roman-Catholic Church (200 churches were to be given up in the Ruhr Diocese of Essen, now perhaps some 100, in the Diocese of Hildesheim some 80). Some of the Protestant Landeskirchen (the territorial/regional Churches) are divesting themselves of modern church buildings, some now in poor condition, the repair/restoration of steel-concrete buildings cannot be justified being too costly.

Hardly, only grudgingly, mentioned in the article of Schulz, is the very considerable voluntary work of local church communities and non-governmental organizations, particularly local supporting associations for individual churches but also various regional associations, besides the work of the church authorities themselves and of major grant-giving organizations such as the Deutsche Stiftung Denkmalschutz (German Foundation for Preservation of Historic Buildings) for the repair and restoration of many churches, particularly in eastern Germany.

Already in 1973 the Förderkreis Alte Kirchen (FAK), a lobby for the preservation of endangered churches, was founded with its seat in Marburg in the Federal State of Hessen. At that time both Protestant and Roman-Catholic Churches in Germany had very large revenues from church taxes (only the Lutheran Churches in Scandinavia had similarly large revenues from church taxes) and were able to replace what were considered old fashioned buildings with new ones, at a time when effective preservation laws did not yet exist. In central, east and north Hessen many old timber-framed churches were threatened with redundancy and demolition.  Between the 1950s and 1970s some 150 churches in Hessen alone, some 60 of them timber-framed were demolished. The FAK in  Marburg was able not only to help promote the passing of a preservation law for Hessen in 1974 but also gradually by much publicity work  to stop this wave of redundancy and demolition  by the 1980s and itself took over four churches to prevent their demolition. Already in 1978 the FAK received for its work the highest preservation award in Germany, the Deutscher Preis für Denkmalschutz. Since the 1980s other local and regional organizations such as the association for Romanesque churches in Cologne were also founded in West Germany.

In eastern Germany as a result of great ideological pressure from the Communist régime the number of churchgoers fell considerably (perhaps only 20% of the population now officially belong to the Protestant and Roman-Catholic Churches). With insufficient finance – church tax was voluntary and not compulsory as in West Germany – many churches in villages and also towns were left to decay and were often in a very bad condition by 1990. Further secularization of society has since then advanced and the number of churchgoers continues to decline now in all parts of Germany

After German unity in 1990 the Marburg Förderkreis helped found similar regional organizations in the former East Germany of which the Förderkreis Alte Kirchen Berlin-Brandenburg (FAK BB)has been the most lasting and most successful, surpassing the Marburg FAK in activity, and now acting as an informal umbrella for the many local associations. There are now also two other similar active regional organizations in eastern Germany: Dorfkirchen in Not (Village Churches in Need) in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and the recently founded Verband der Kirchbauvereine (Federation of Associations for Church Buildings) in Sachsen-Anhalt. Foundations exist for the protection, care and inventorization of church furnishings in the area of the Protestant Church in Central Germany in the former Prussian Province Sachsen and in Brandenburg and the Silesian Upper Lausitz.

Compared to western Germany there has been an ever greater, quite extraordinary development of activity by citizens since 1990 in eastern Germany where the need was much greater.

Compared to western Germany there has been an ever greater, quite extraordinary development of activity by citizens since 1990 in eastern Germany where the need was much greater. After practically 60 years of repression and suppression under two totalitarian and basically anti-Christian systems and now in an ever more globalized world there is a strong yearning for local and regional identity (the Germans speak of “Heimat”, their local fatherland). Citizens, and in particularly many who do not formally belong to a Church, see their village church as their most important historic building, spiritual and social centre, heart and soul of their village, landmark and the main symbol of their identity for which they are prepared to struggle, organize themselves and develop concepts for suitable extended uses. Many local associations have been founded to help restore and use churches for extended cultural, social and touristic uses besides continuing religious uses at least 300 for the 1.400 churches alone in the Federal State of Brandenburg. The FAK BB has helped to found many of these local associations, it has initiated and developed the idea, taken from Sweden at the end of the 1990s, of “Open Churches” in Brandenburg, through which  some 900 churches alone in Brandenburg are now open to visitors in the summer months, it has also helped to develop projects for “Theatre in Churches”, “Music Schools open churches”, “Art and Culture in Churches”, generating many grants from authorities as well as private donations. From its own limited resources it has give over 1 Million Euros for urgent repairs to churches and their fittings to complement other financial resources and has organized now for many years an annual competition to support newly founded associations with innovative ideas with 6 grants yearly of a “Start Capital” totaling 12.500 Euros. The FAK BB has helped to prevent the demolition of some churches, unfortunately not those which have been destroyed with their villages for the exploitation of brown coal (lignite). Altogether some 20 churches have lost their religious function/been demolished in the area of the Protestant Church of Berlin, Brandenburg and the Silesian Upper Lausitz.

The FAK BB received a diploma from Europa Nostra some years ago in recognition of its long-term work for the preservation of the heritage and now In October 2013, like the FAK Marburg 35 years ago, it is to receive the highest German award, the Deutscher Preis für Denkmalschutz, nominated by the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (the Protestant Church in Germany) and the Brandenburgisches Landesamt für Denkmalpgflege (conservation authority for the Federal State Brandenburg). Church and State in Brandenburg now regard the FAK BB as indispensable for the work to save, restore and use churches.

Various territorial Protestant Churches in Germany have now developed and published criteria for the extended use of churches and also for cases of redundancy. It is therefore good that the forthcoming autumn conference, organized by the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht/Netherlands together with FRH, is focusing attention on the furnishings and fittings of churches, especially of those which become redundant. The next major bi-annual conference of FRH itself in the autumn of 2014, hopefully in Germany, should concentrate on the great voluntary work being done by local communities and organizations, especially in eastern Germany, to preserve and save their valuable old and often threatened churches and their often important furnishings.

Increasingly the preservation, maintenance and use of churches in Germany are coming to be seen as a common responsibility not only of Church, State but also with greater increasing participation of citizens. The FAK BB in particular seeks to initiate and develop a broad public discussion on the future of the Churches, their buildings and fittings, particularly in rural areas at a time of considerable demographic change, where many rural areas are losing their population. So long as this discussion takes place and work takes place to help church buildings there should be a positive hope for their preservation. The activity of the many local associations in eastern Germany, where the conditions which existed in 1990 were particularly difficult,  should be seen as a positive model for the better situated and wealthier societies in countries like The Netherlands, Belgium or Sweden and western Germany itself to help counter actual or threatened redundancy and possible demolition of churches.

Angus Fowler, Committee Member, Förderkreis Alte Kirchen e.V.

Bernd Janowski, Director, Förderkreis Alte Kirchen Berlin-Brandenburg e.V.

The church of Neuendorf (Kreis/District Barnim/Brandenburg) also granite 13th century with local association which has made great efforts to finance the restoration of a major altarpiece. The church is otherwise in reasonable condition. The photo shows members of the local association and young musicians drinking and eating together outside the church after a concert in the series "Music schools open Churches".

The church of Neuendorf (Kreis/District Barnim/Brandenburg) also granite 13th century with local association which has made great efforts to finance the restoration of a major altarpiece. The church is otherwise in reasonable condition. The photo shows members of the local association and young musicians drinking and eating together outside the church after a concert in the series “Music schools open Churches”.

 The church in Strehlow (Kreis/District Uckermark/Brandenburg) a granite building in core from the 13th century. Its condition still in 2003 was typical of many churches in eastern Germany in 1990, abandoned and often in ruins. In this case the  Mayor of the village deliberately had the church ruined and used it for building materials. The FAK BB was very active to save the church, helped found a local association and the restoration as from the State of Brandenburg, the district authority and probably also the German Foundation for Preservation. The church is now used again partly for religious services but also for cultural and social uses.

The church in Strehlow (Kreis/District Uckermark/Brandenburg) a granite building in core from the 13th century. Its condition still in 2003 was typical of many churches in eastern Germany in 1990, abandoned and often in ruins. In this case the Mayor of the village deliberately had the church ruined and used it for building materials. The FAK BB helped found a local association and fund the restoration, financed mainly by the local agricultural firm (former Cooperative) also by the State of Brandenburg, the local authorities and the German Foundation for Preservation (DSD). The church is now used again partly for religious services but also for cultural and social uses.