ISSN 2330-717X

Rules Prevent Churches From Expanding Their Role

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To become more socially relevant, more and more congregations are trying to expand their role and open church facilities to more people. But contradictory rules and different interpretations of cultural heritage preservation are slowing this development, according to a new study from the University of Gothenburg.

Secularization, loss of members and deteriorating finances is leading the Church of Sweden and ecclesiastical heritage to face numerous challenges.

“The Church’s buildings are in good condition and are well protected by legislation. But today, many people no longer have a natural reason to visit a church, and many churches are empty. This is something that congregations need to address,” says Maria Nyström, who recently presented her doctoral thesis at the Department of Conservation at the University of Gothenburg.

Churches want to expand how they are used

The doctoral thesis explores a growing movement to address the negative trend for the Church, where congregations are trying to expand how they are used and leverage ecclesiastical heritage as a resource in the community. For example, this could involve opening church facilities for concerts, exhibitions, associations or educational activities.

“These are initiatives in which the local church can be used in more ways and be considered a resource by the community. In some cases, this can require renovations or new construction, but it could also involve less extensive initiatives.”

Her doctoral thesis examines two initiatives focused on the use and development of older Swedish churches.

  • The Cathedral Hill Project in Strängnäs is working to create a church setting that brings together different groups. Among other things, there are plans for a minor renovation of the cathedral and a new multi-purpose building next to the church.
  • The Hamra Project is based on Hamra Church in inland Hälsingland province – an area with a sharply declining population. The goal is to open the church for activities associated with the area’s wilderness-related tourism, as well as natural and cultural values.

Contradictory rules and interpretations

The projects share a close collaboration between the Church and public heritage institutions, as well as a desire to be part of community development. But Maria Nyström has discovered obstacles that could slow these and similar initiatives. Primarily, she sees intrinsic contradictions in the rules governing the management of the Church, as well as different interpretations of cultural heritage preservation.

“The Cultural Heritage Act is focused on preserving ecclesiastical heritage, and currently government funding, primarily goes to maintenance and restoration of churches. At the same time, cultural policies and strategies clearly support a broad use of cultural heritage. This creates a conflict. How much can be developed and done? Can church activities be seen as part of ecclesiastical heritage? The fact that different actors have different roles contributes to differing perceptions and challenges.”

Nyström argues that clearer guidelines are necessary for actors from the Church of Sweden and heritage institutions to create effective management. In addition, she sees a need for more contexts in which the different parties can meet on neutral territory.

More initiatives in the future

Several other European countries have made more progress in broadening the role of the Church and its cultural heritage, but Nyström believes we will increasingly see similar initiatives in Sweden in the future.

“Even though my doctoral thesis demonstrates obstacles that are slowing progress, ecclesiastical heritage has broad support today, and there is good potential for people to participate in it in new ways.”

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