Churches in the Netherlands are empty. People are renting them for all sorts of events. We explain why modern times demand the separation of the temple from its original metaphysical purpose.
It is almost midnight and we are at Sint-Laurenskerk, a beautiful Gothic church in Rotterdam. We are not in a Misa de Gallo. It is October, the month of El Señor de Los Milagros. While Lima turns purple for the festivities, we travel to the other side of the world.
We find ourselves ten thousand kilometres away from our City of Kings, meeting Marcelo, a Peruvian student in the port city of Rotterdam. He has left hoodies for parkas, trainers for boots, and he even has an umbrella! He met us at 11:30 p.m. And in a country where timeliness is essential, we are both half an hour late (you can take us Peruvians out of Peru, but you cannot take the Peru out of us Peruvians).
He told us that this church has a special place in his heart. And while we think he is talking about religion, that could not be further from the truth. “The best parties during the orientation week were here,” he smirked. We were nonplussed. “Going to church is fun?” one of our correspondents jokes. We were fish out of water. Churches are meant to be places of worship, for the sacred connection between person and creator. This is why they are serene, decorated and peaceful. The antithesis of parties.
How can this happen in the country that birthed legendary theologians such as Erasmus? Marcelo told us that this was not a “unique event.” Churches are being used as venues throughout the entire country. The Dutch are known for being practical. Their typical lunch is as complex as a cheese sandwich. And government services are relatively easy, largely done online.
Therefore, it is no surprise that churches now serve a secular purpose.
Data from Statistics Netherlands show that Christianity is on the decline. Irreligion has become the creed of the majority, and less than one in five persons aged 15 and older go to church more than once a month. This trend is mirrored in many European countries. Even Peru’s latest census shows a decline in religious affiliation. Therefore, the number of churches going vacant is expected to grow.*
However, in the Netherlands, instead of letting the buildings remain empty, these can now be filled with wine. This is the case of the yearly festival hosted in the northern Dutch city of Groningen, a city in the northern part of the country with more bikes than people. At the festival, there are various stands where people can taste the wines, get information about them, and enjoy food pairings.
Marcelo could not attend, because his mother begged him not to go. She found the event disrespectful to God. In the Bible, Jesus did expel sellers from the temple, whipping cattle away and overturning traders’ tables. However, the use of churches as venues is different.
Take the carnival as an example. The tradition has locals dressing up in costumes, and in Schiedam, it has taken place in the church for the past two years. People are coming together as a community. How is this different from the church-sponsored “love thy neighbour”?
Looking back through history, churches have not been used solely for mass or religious purposes. Around the globe, they have provided asylum to persecuted peoples, space for libraries, and safekeeping for art. Lima’s cathedral guards the remains of Conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who was far from a saint. “Surely, allowing God’s house to remain empty is an insult in itself,” Marcelo eventually responded to the correspondent.
We stand, looking at the magnitude of the Gothic tower of Sint- Laurenskerk. Marcelo rings Lucas, a former worker of Little V, a Vietnamese restaurant just next to the church. Lucas reminds us of the need for limitations to the use of temples as venues. With a serious face, Lucas told us:
“The people attending the party at Laurenskerk were all aged around 50, definitely not younger than 40. They were high on pills and coke, and very drunk. I saw some of them throwing up right next to the church. So disrespectful.”
Situations like these are undesirable. Even if religion is on the decline, it is existent. Some people can be gravely insulted by seeing their places of worship being defiled. This is illegal, even in the Netherlands, which is known for its tolerance of cannabis. How then should the churches be used?
To answer this question, we met with Father Ignatius, a Catholic priest in The Hague. Even if it is not the Dutch capital, here we find the seat of government. Father Ignatius is blunt. “The church can use the money from non-religious activities, but these should not violate the principles of the church. If someone wants to rent out the garden for a family barbecue, great, that money can be translated into new books for Sunday school.”
The proposed solution seems to work, so long as an order governs use of the temple. But what about abandoned churches? “In those situations, all of our symbols should be taken out. That building should be considered no different from other abandoned buildings. There should be no connection to the institution of Christianity,” Father Ignatius responded.
The phenomenon of empty churches may seem far from our reality, as the 2017 census found that 95% of Peruvians are either Catholic or Evangelist. However, as religion dwindles globally, we must keep an open mind toward the use of the churches. More and more countries will need to find an answer for the forgotten temples. The Dutch have shown that renting them can work — though there is the need to put limitations on the practice.