by Loren Seibold
It always interests me how little is reported about religion in the press—unless a celebrity says it.
Webber’s not said much about his own faith, but he is a member of the Church of England, the son of a church organist, and author of two religion-themed musicals: Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar. He’s also been a leader in raising money (including some of his own fortune) to preserve Britain’s now-lightly-used historical churches.
This opinion came in a rambling interview with the Daily Mail. “‘I want to get every church in the country on Wi-Fi,” he told Cole Moreton. The justification for it, though, is odd: “Once you do that, the church becomes the centre of the community again. They should go back to the medieval tradition, which is that the nave of the church is always used for local business.” He thinks the UK government should pay for it.
Webber may be a bit behind the times: most churches in the US already have wifi, and many in Europe. It hasn’t necessarily made them business hubs. But in truth, with faster mobile connections, even wifi may soon be an artifact of the past, as obsolete as 5.25” floppy disks. The bigger problem for most churches is too many people on their phones and tablets while the minister is attempting to lead a solemn ceremony. One priest in Italy even installed a cell-phone jammer in his church.
Is the salvation of the church in making it a place of business? There, too, I suspect Webber’s reasoning is flawed. It is one use of a house of worship of which Jesus unhesitatingly disapproved. Webber’s mistake is supposing that people have to come to a church to connect, when the genius of the information revolution (becoming increasingly clear with ubiquitous mobil connectivity) is that it can happen anywhere.
Business may be coming to churches in a different sense, however. A recent Wall Street Journal piece notes that hundreds of empty European churches are on the market, and they’re not being purchased for religious use. One in Arnhem, Netherlands has been converted into an indoor skateboarders park. “In Holland, one ex-church has become a supermarket, another is a florist, a third is a bookstore and a fourth is a gym. In Arnhem, a fashionable store called Humanoid occupies a church building dating to 1889… In Bristol, England, the former St. Paul’s church has become the Circomedia circus training school. Operators say the high ceilings are perfect for aerial equipment like trapezes. In Edinburgh, Scotland, a Lutheran church has become a Frankenstein-themed bar, featuring bubbling test tubes, lasers and a life-size Frankenstein’s monster descending from the ceiling at midnight.”
Communities don’t want to attend their churches, but they don’t want to lose them, either. “But the properties are usually expensive to maintain—and there is a limit to the number of libraries or concert halls a town can financially support. So commercial projects often take the space.”
This isn’t a small problem. Says Lilian Grootswagers, a Dutch activist for church preservation, “The numbers are so huge that the whole society will be confronted with it. Everyone will be confronted with big empty buildings in their neighborhoods.” The C of E closes 20 churches a year, and the Catholic church shut 515 churches just in Germany in the past decade. In the Netherlands, the prediction is that within a decade 1000 Catholic and 700 Protestant churches will close.
So in an odd way, Webber may turn out to be prophetic.