De Wildt, Kim, “From the centre to the periphery and back again. Sustaining rural religious heritage in a time of change”

De Wildt, Kim, “From the centre to the periphery and back again. Sustaining rural religious heritage in a time of change”

Dr. Kim de Wildt

From the centre to the periphery and back again. Sustaining rural religious heritage in a time of change

Traditionally churches used to be the centre of rural life. Rural churches did not just meet religious needs, but societal needs as well. They used to be the bricks of rural societies where people could build and shape their society. The classical example of the church service on Sunday which was followed by a visit in the nearby pub, structured the weekly life of the community and brought the worldly and spiritual life organically together. Not just the everyday life centred around the church, but to a no lesser extend the complete life cycle was elevated and celebrated in the church: children were baptised and confirmed there, adults got married and deceased got buried. Especially the weekly celebratory practices have become less evident not just in city life, but in rural life as well. Despite the popularity of celebrating the life cycle (rites of passage), here as well the church has lost its monopoly and is one of many providers in the market of life cycle celebrations. Besides the religious erosion in the country, there is also an erosion of social and commercial institutions. Modern life increasingly takes place in the city. To summarize it: processes of secularization and urbanization have led to a decline in church visits and the centre of life decreases to be the church: religion is no longer the centre of life but is pushed to the periphery. This trend seems to be irreversible and leaves us with the question what to do with our religious heritage.


Several answers are posted to this question: successful and less successful experiments have been initiated in order to sustain the church buildings and prevent them from being demolished or decayed. Often these answers are given from the side of architecture, art history, policy makers and so on. These answers are indispensable for the development of viable concepts for religious heritage. It is a logical development that besides religious institutions other stakeholders take up the responsibility for religious heritage, since religion increasingly loses its monopoly and becomes a peripheral phenomenon. The need for an interdisciplinary approach which also includes theological points of view is nevertheless essential in the development of new approaches. Religious buildings possess an intrinsic quality which does not equal other buildings. They are places of worship in which the life stories of people are intertwined with their relationship to the transcendent. Religious buildings still function as places of awe and contemplation even if the people visiting the religious sites are tourists and no longer members of the religious community.

From a theological point of view we are not advocates of a backward trend that states that we should insist on a weekly practice of churchgoing. But new concepts in which the religious dimension is an integral part of the complete concept still could meet the needs of the contemporary individual. It is not just a negative development that we are now experiencing, but an opportunity as well to reformulate the meaning and worth of religious heritage. Religious traditions have always tried to formulate their message in the current situation, and when this situation alters, the forms and formulations need to be adapted as well. Church buildings can provide meaningful experiences, precisely because they are unlike any other building. They are concrete markers that not only refer to a certain history but point to a challenging future as well. There are several possibilities to make these possibilities fruitful: church pedagogy, artistic expressions, functioning as a meeting house, diverse contemplative leisure activities. Diverse studies show that because of the religious dimensions of these buildings they have not lost their attraction, but on the contrary even attract people who are not religiously socialised. These buildings could be appreciated in their function as a place of refuge, as an asylum. In this diaconal concept they could be at the centre of our lives once again and build a bridge between past functions and future perspectives.

This featured article is on the same theme as Dr. de Wildt’s contribution to the FRH conference in Halle (Saale), 29 Oct – 1 Nov, “Sustaining Europe’s Rural Religious Heritage”.

Dr. Kim de Wildt
Liturgical Science Seminar – Faculty of Catholic Theology
Am Hof 1
D-53113 Bonn
University of Bonn

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