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German churches face closure as membership falls

26 May 2023

iStock

A view of Würzburg in Bavaria

A view of Würzburg in Bavaria

DWINDLING membership will compel Churches in Germany to give up one third of their properties, a new report has found. Many face demolition unless converted to other uses.

“Although Christian Churches are aware of their shared responsibility to preserve their great cultural heritage, their common stock of buildings far exceeds future pastoral needs,” the report in the academic journal Kirche & Recht said. “This will remain the case given the continuing decline in Church membership, clerical staff and available financial resources.”

The report, by Adalbert Schmidt and Karl Schmiemann, legal experts from the Evangelical and Roman Catholic Churches, said that about 40,000 rectories, community centres, and places of worship would have to be abandoned by 2060.

It urged monument protection officials to devise nationwide procedures for negotiating alternative uses for the sites with Germany’s 20 regional Evangelical Churches and 20 Roman Catholic dioceses. “Church-state co-operation varies greatly and is sometimes problematic,” the report said.

“Large sections of society and politicians also claim a public interest and right of participation because churches naturally affect the local atmosphere. . . Future-proof protection can only succeed if State and Church are given equal and joint responsibility.”

Churches in Germany have merged and reorganised parishes and sold off assets over the past two decades, in the wake of declining membership and revenues. The Evangelical Church of Hesse and Nassau has confirmed plans this week to withdraw funding from almost half its 900 community centres, and close up to ten percent of its 1200 churches.

The Roman Catholic dioceses of Wurzburg and Eichstatt also became the latest to announce drastic real-estate reductions: the former plans to sell four of its ten schools.

In their report, Schmidt and Schmiemann said that 80 per cent of the 42,500 Evangelical and Catholic churches in Germany were officially listed. They said, however, that at least 1200 had been boarded up in recent years, and warned that many others would face demolition unless rapidly converted into cultural and residential centres.

In March, the Evangelical Church of Germany (EKD) said that its overall membership had fallen during 2022 by 2.9 per cent, bringing the total to 19.15 million, or 22.2 percent of the population.

Revenue from its annual Kirchensteuer, or “church tax”, currently about €6 billion, is forecast to halve in coming years — a trend paralleled in the German Roman Catholic Church.

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