Church struggling with empty pew syndrome

Proposals to close churches spark debate over what to do when the parishioners are gone

A contentious new proposal calls for the closing of state churches across Denmark, including nearly half of the churches in Copenhagen.

Reducing the number of churches in the city from 70 to about 35 will save millions of kroner and make worship better for Copenhagen's 350,000 tax-paying members of Church of Denmark at a time when both membership and attendance is dwindling, according to Copenhagen diocese budget committee chairman Torben Larsen.

"There is not enough money for all of the churches," Larsen told Berlingske newspaper. "It is better that they merge and create a more meaningful worship experience."

Nationwide, about 80 percent of Danes are tax-paying members of the church. In Copenhagen, that number is about 60 percent. Only about 20 percent of members attend regular Sunday services.

Those figures have led to suggestions to close an undetermined number of the country's more than 2,300 parish churches. Church officials note that the subject of closings has come up before, but that new rules and budget restrictions mean that closings become a reality this time around.

As rumours of the church closings continue, a flurry of suggestions for how to rescue the parishes has arisen.

One of them, a 1.2 million kroner initiative by a group including the Church Ministry and the Church of Denmark, creates a uniform design scheme for churches across the country to use on their websites, magazines and correspondence. The backers say the idea is to strengthen the church's voice by creating the impression of a unified church.

Sociologist Peter Fischer-Nielsen told Kristeligt Dagblad newspaper that the move is a good one.

"It can be hard for the church's voice to be heard. A common platform improves the flow of information."

Inge Lise Pedersen, the president of the Lindevang parish council in Frederiksberg, suggested in an interview in Berlingske that churches need to start charging for some services.

"Just because an arrangement happens in a church, it shouldn't necessarily be free," Pedersen said.

She doesn't believe that people should pay for what she calls "a quiet moment" but says that some of the country's churches that are also tourist attractions should charge an admission fee. 

She also believes that those that are not members of the church should pay for events like weddings and funerals.

"If you are a member of the church and pay the church tax, you have a right to religious ceremonies. But if you are not a member, it is perfectly reasonable to charge a fee."

Rev Charlotte Chammon, pastor of Nørre Herlev parish church, near Hillerød, says a successful church must respond to the needs of its parishioners while respecting tradition.

"I think it is important for a church to be responsive to its congregation and be innovative without compromising tradition," Chammon told The Copenhagen Post.

She said that interest and attendance has increased in her church and that the Helsingør Diocese is actually building churches to keep up with population growth in northern Zealand.

Chammon said that although she realises that church closings are hard, the state church must be aware of economic realities.

"Like any other ‘company’ we have to look at the possibility that we have too many ‘branches’.”

As the prospect of closings becomes a real possibility, the debate is heating up about what to do with the empty churches.

If it is up to the nation’s bishops, deconsecrated churches will not be used as pubs, discos or supermarkets.

"I do not believe God has a problem with beer," Roskilde Bishop Peter Fischer-Møller told Politiken newspaper. "Once a church is out of service, it is not a church anymore. The bricks are not sacred, but the church has been the site of many emotional experiences and those memories should be respected."

The bishops hope that empty churches can be occupied by other Christian groups or become homeless shelters or public facilities like concert halls or community centres.

Even with the steadily dwindling attendance in the Church of Denmark, only nine of its churches have closed since 1849.

Among those that have closed, the former St Nikolaj Church, in Copenhagen is now used as an art gallery, while Vesterø Havnekirke, on the island of Læsø, became a spa in 2008.

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