It is a pretty Romanesque church like so many in France. Perched on a hill in the village of Bonnesvalyn, in Aisne, Saint-Martin is the pride of its 216 inhabitants “who are very attached to it”, says the mayor, Stéphane Frère. But now, the municipality, its owner, needs 700,000 euros to restore the bell tower, the apse and the portal. Fortunately, subsidies from the State and local authorities cover almost 90% of the amount. However, raising 80,000 euros still remains too difficult for the municipal budget. Above all, “should we put so much money into a building which opens, in total, seven days a year for a few rare ceremonies? » asks the councilor, nevertheless well aware of “the essential need to preserve such places”.
Thousands of mayors are faced with this dilemma. And they will be more so in the future: “Mergers of municipalities are increasing and municipalities do not see how to justify to their citizens the maintenance of four, five… and up to twenty-five churches, while the practice continues to decline and the priest himself very rarely comes,” testifies Armelle Dalibert, delegated curator of antiques and objects of art at the Calvados departmental council.
For her, the solution lies in opening these buildings as wide as possible. First, this will allow “as with houses, rising damp, roof leaks and even possible burglaries to be identified more quickly if churches are visited regularly”. To facilitate their opening, there are now modern means of remote surveillance or inexpensive key boxes. But that won’t be enough. “Beyond the arrival of believers and curious people – which it is essential to maintain – it appears urgent to organize other uses in addition to worship in these places built by and for the community,” insists She.
A range of possibilities
The term is dropped: “shared uses” or rather “uses compatible with worship”, as the bishops of France prefer to say. Precisely, the latter launched their States General of Religious Heritage last September… in Bonnesvalyn, well aware of having to give concrete orientations to the needs of these monuments. Because the expression “uses compatible with worship” covers a range of possibilities going well beyond traditional concerts: use of the nave or an aisle for exhibitions, hosting of association meetings, charity meals, music conservatory classes that lack space, or even the creation of student accommodation in unused attics… For his part, Stéphane Frère imagines a tourist “tour in the light” in Bonnesvalyn.
Although such experiments are being tested throughout France, they are still very far from becoming the norm. “The assigned priests remain decision-makers. However, they are very cautious when it is necessary to give authorization to a contemporary artist to exhibit or allow a group of young people to meet sheltered from the rain, notes Armelle Dalibert. Young people who could be empowered to open the place. » On the ground, the curator finds that things are moving too slowly.
However, “a formidable and unprecedented convergence between the State, the Church, the associations and foundations supporting these monuments is occurring,” rejoices Benoît de Sagazan, director of the Pilgrim Institute of Heritage. It lists: the report by senators Pierre Ouzoulias (PC) and Anne Ventalon (LR) recommended, a year ago, the extension of these compatible uses; the presidential plan in favor of religious heritage, announced in mid-September, also insisted on this point; not to mention the new prize, the aptly named “Sesame”, from the Heritage Foundation. This institution has just rewarded eleven initiatives compatible with worship (eight of which concern Catholic churches). Bertrand de Feydeau, vice-president of the foundation, explains: “We were struck by the quality and diversity of the solutions proposed. » The idea is of course to promote them so that they can be emulated.
A vocation to bring together
All this supports the States General of Bishops for which this question is fully part of the current Synod on synodality, according to Mgr Alain Planet, bishop emeritus of Carcassonne and Narbonne (Aude), president of the steering committee: “The churches of France belong to the nation as a whole and their Christian vocation is to bring people together: they are common houses, “basilicas” in the original sense of the term. We have the material key, and we also have the key to the meaning of the building that we must pass on to future generations. » Only condition: to be able to reach again these younger generations who often no longer enter!
Mgr Planet also recalls that the Church is not new to the question of shared uses: “For centuries, people have certainly come to mass, but also to chat with their neighbor, to see their girlfriend, it is was a way of crossing the city by a shortcut… Just look at the medieval paintings showing the reigning animation. » But from the 19th century, “the sacred character of the building was overemphasized, making it mysterious, distant, impressive”. And for the bishop, this ends up being contradictory to the Christian message of welcome. Father Gautier Mornas, coordinator of these States General of Religious Heritage, adds: “Distributing a soup kitchen in a church does not even constitute a use compatible with worship, it is an extension of worship! »
Where to set the sharing limit?
However, are all uses compatible? And where to set the limit? A fairly simple line seems to be emerging: activities linked to art and the cultural and educational life of the municipality would prove to be compatible. On questions of reception too, the doors should open more widely.
Even if, as Bertrand de Feydeau recognizes, “it is simpler to organize choir rehearsals than to welcome asylum seekers. However, this is done at the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires church in Lille, in the Nord department. »
In other parishes, the priest could fear sharpening a political divide with the town hall or residents on sensitive social issues. “Each place will find different solutions. You have to trust! And the most fraternal ideas often come from the Christian community itself,” encourages Benoît de Sagazan, director of the Pilgrim Institute of Heritage. He also cites the example of the solidarity grocery store for young people at the Saint-André church, in Lyon (Rhône), at the initiative of the Society of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul.
“Some parishes even share their church with other Christian denominations,” adds Father Gautier Mornas. This is a compatible ecumenical usage. And the survey that we have launched will reveal other ideas, particularly around environmental preservation. » On the other hand, commercial activities or activities that have no meaning for the community should not cross the threshold of the church…
The work of the States General of Religious Heritage should also result, in December 2024, in the publication of two tools to help priests find their way: a guide to good practices and a standard agreement to sign with the mayor and the organizer of the new use in order to ensure compliance with the established rules. Initiatives – including Pilgrim And The day of the Lord are regularly echoed in their series “Churches to live” – could then become commonplace and participate in a new sociability… which would reconnect with the evangelizing mission of places of worship.
“It is high time to act,” warns Armelle Dalibert. Or else, we will have to accept that within one or two generations, we will deconsecrate a good part of the churches. And this will open the way to their sale, to their transformation into stores, into apartments, as is already the case for many convents in France, and as is happening abroad where parish buildings do not belong to the communities. After all, why not if it avoids the inevitable destruction of places of worship which are no longer used at all? » As if to provide the beginning of a response, the launch of the Estates General of Religious Heritage, which was to take place at the Bonnesvalyn community hall, was moved to the larger church… The future is undoubtedly there, in a shared use integrating into the life of the community, without taboos or trumpets.
What is an assignee?
According to the law of separation of Church and State of 1905, the assignee is the beneficiary, free of charge, of the church and its movable objects, for the public exercise of worship. In other words, the priest assigned to the parish on which the building depends.
Desacralization, disassignment, what are we talking about?
Desacralization constitutes the loss of the sacred character of the place. Decommissioning is the legal consecration of this desecration. It can only be done by prefectural decree with the agreement of the bishop. This is a specificity of French law linked to the 1905 law which proved protective for churches.
Our bell towers, “historical monuments”?
- Are “classified” among historic monuments, churches “whose conservation presents, from the point of view of history or art, a public interest”. This is the highest level of protection.
- Are “registered” those which, “without justifying a request for immediate classification, present sufficient historical or artistic interest to make their preservation desirable”.
- These protections can be total or partial: gate, facade, roof, etc. Among the 50,000 religious buildings “where worship is practiced”, only 10,500 are protected today.
- The President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, announced that the Ministry of Culture will propose new rankings. They are open to state aid for restoration (between 20% and 50% of the total cost).
- 3,000 to 5,000 places of worship are in “very poor sanitary condition”, according to the government.
How many religious buildings in France?
- 40,000 Approximately parish churches belong to the municipalities.
- 2,000 approximately are held by the dioceses.
- 60,000 Churches and chapels around are the private properties of convents, hospitals and individuals.
- 87 cathedrals come under the state.
- 8,000 temples, synagogues and mosques, approximately, belong either to municipalities or to religious associations.
Sources: CEF and Ministry of Culture.
What resources to restore and open your church?
- Obtaining the support of two major foundations who help with the restoration of churches, particularly those located in rural and unprotected areas. They bring their expertise to the files and support compatible use projects:
- Moonthe Heritage Foundation, is also responsible for the “major national collection” in favor of religious heritage.
- The other, The preservation of French art, is the leading patron of churches for over a hundred years, partner of the Estates General of Heritage of the Conference of Bishops of France (CEF).