Secularisation and urbanisation processes have hit Estonia as hard as any European country. People move away from the countryside to bigger cities and less people are going to church for the services. Churches in the countryside have been hit the hardest and Sunday service (often on every second Sunday) with less than ten people in the church is reality for Estonian rural churches these days. Due to atheistic policy during the soviet occupation which prevented erection of new church buildings for fifty years, bigger cities have the opposite problem. The network of churches follows the cityscape of the 1930s but cities have grown considerably since then. Some new churches have been built during past decades but, obviously, there is room for more.
Estonia does not have a State Church. The biggest denomination in Estonia has traditionally been the Lutheran Church. Since the middle of the 19th century the Orthodox Church has had many followers, especially in the countryside.
Estonians consider themselves to be one of the most secularised nationalities in Europe. The 2011 Population and Housing Census supported this vision as only 29% of Estonian population aged 15 and older is affiliated with a particular religion. The variety of religions people follow is very wide, reaching from different Christian denominations to several new-age movements. The latest census showed that for the first time the Orthodox Church has more followers than the Lutheran Church. The membership numbers for both denominations are still very small – 16% of the Estonian population aged 15 and older declared to belong to the Orthodox Church and 10% to the Lutheran Church.
There are approximately 450 religious buildings in Estonia. The majority of those buildings belong to the Lutheran Church and are situated in the countryside. There are different conservation problems concerning churches – from leaking roofs to milder maintenance problems. Most of the churches in the countryside are unheated and due to that are not used during colder months of the year. Rural churches have grown too big for their congregations who are not able to maintain the buildings. To improve the state of the conservation of Estonian historical churches a national ten year programme “Preservation and development of places of worship” was initiated in 2003. This state funded programme financed big conservation projects (mainly conservation of roofs and spires up to 100% of the cost of the project), research, awareness rising and capacity building. The programme will continue 2014-2018.
With this national programme much attention has been paid to systematic preservation of historical churches. At the same time the debate about the future of historical church buildings has not started yet in our society. It is obvious that with those quickly diminishing membership numbers we will face the problem of closing down a church in coming years. Clergy is not willing to discuss the matter openly, yet. The state programme for churches has somehow backfired, leading denominations to the understanding that the state has taken responsibility for the conservation and maintenance of historical church buildings. Prolonging the programme will have to prove the opposite. The unwillingness to discuss the matter comes not only from the clerics. Estonians might be secularised but almost each and every one of us has a certain understanding of what kind of activities are proper in a church. To talk about extended use or change of function of a church building will wake many memories from the soviet occupation period when several churches were forcibly turned into gyms or warehouses. Only few neglected churches were reused in a more dignified way as a museum-concert hall or library.
However, the first signs of inevitably changing times have reached Estonia. The past six months have seen the first sale of a church. It was bought by another Christian denomination.
Conservation Centre Kanut, project manager