Disused churches: the decline of public spaces

Since long before the oil price drop, Union Street in Aberdeen has seen better days. It looks tired and run down. The shops fronts not boarded up are either betting shops, American candy stores or one of a score of express supermarkets.

It is even less inspiring on a Friday night, although some respect is gained for the Samaritans who sacrifice their evenings to hand out emergency blankets and bottles of water to the inebriated locals at the taxi ranks.

If you walk up from the Holburn Street end, about a third of the way you will come to a large church on the junction between Union and Bon Accord Streets. Beyond its size what is most striking about the church, known as the Langstane Kirk, is the colour of the stone. Unlike the unremitting grey of most Aberdeen architecture, the church is a soft mixture of red and yellow, more akin to the sandstones of Edinburgh and Glasgow. It is over 140-years-old and B-listed. What is also quite striking is the bouncer who stands outside the gate most nights, for over a decade ago the church was converted into a bar and casino, now known primarily as Soul Casino.

The Church of Scotland sold the Langstane to developers in 2001 (perhaps an ill foreboding for The Kirk in the region) and part of the agreement was that elements of the building would be preserved, including the stained glass windows and original organ. According to Historic Scotland, it seemed the Kirk had no choice but to sell the building if they wanted to preserve it:

Unless funds were available to retain a redundant ecclesiastical building in good repair, the acceptance of a suitable alternative may be the only means to preserve both the building and its character.

So now, before knocking back a third shot of tequila and lime, you may well catch the reproachful eye of a shepherd in the Nativity; or perhaps there are those who ponder the scene of Jesus before Pilate and draw parallels between it and their own streak of bad luck at roulette.

Losing our religion

At the last census in 2011, almost half (48.1%) of Aberdonians claimed no religious affiliation – an increase from 42% in 2001. Those who affiliated with the largest Christian denomination, the Church of Scotland, fell even more sharply, from 37.4% to 25.3% over the same time period. All of these findings are well below the average across Scotland as a whole, making Aberdeen the least religious area in the country.

However, you need not wade through statistics to draw a similar conclusion from first hand experience. Along with Soul, a walk down Belmont Street will present a dime-a-dozen churches, all of which are now bars and nightclubs. In the city centre you are more likely to find a church converted than still used for its original function.

Priory, Slain's and Musa; all former churches, now bars in Aberdeen
Priory, Slain’s and Musa; just some of the churches converted into bars in Aberdeen’s city centre

In the past few years, it is not surprising to see more churches across Scotland beginning to face uncertain futures. But the cultural and historical significance churches continue to hold beyond their religious use has meant new life will always be found for these buildings – it is not a matter of when will churches disappear, but of what will they become.

Owing to their high ceilings many have seen new life as climbing centres, such as the MacIntosh Memorial Church in Fort William – with over £40,000 raised through crowdfunding to help kick start the project. Others, like St George’s Church in Lamlash, have been converted into flats. Perhaps more notably, however, was the purchase of St Stephen’s in Edinburgh by Rockstar North president Lesley Benzies.

Benzies, who is originally from Aberdeen, bought the church in order to preserve it as a community arts centre. Unlike some churches that have been bought and renovated in an effort to save them from collapse, the future of St Stephen’s was never in any doubt; more than fifty developers showed an interest in the building, many of whom were keen to convert it into private flats or a restaurant. In this sense Benzies did not buy St Stephen’s to save it from decay – he saved it from transformation.

Of things to come

A growing number of our public spaces, particularly in city centres, are becoming ever more private or inaccessible. The gradual shift in usage of our churches is but one of many visible manifestations of our growing secularity – and one we remain unsure of how to adequately fill.

Architecture is unique in that seldom is it an artefact of times gone by, but a living, breathing aspect of culture – places to be used and experienced, not merely preserved for their own sake. With historical buildings in particular we are often faced with a difficult contradiction: we recognise the importance of these buildings, and yet why do we find it so hard to make good use of them beyond more bars, restaurants, shops or luxury flats? Public life and society are governed by the spaces we interact in, and to see more and more of these spaces centred on economic or material grounds, putting a price on social activity – the cost of a coffee, the need to buy something in order to just sit and talk – changes our reasons and incentives for interacting in the first place. To be rid of free public buildings like churches (even museums and libraries) to a largely private sphere risks becoming the equivalent of exemplary works of art being hidden away within the collections of billionaires – only for the pleasure of those who can afford it.

Part of me feels that the way we struggle to find good use for our churches in particular is down to a decline in the kind of public setting that is dying along with religion: why would anyone spend time in a space with people they do not know, with this antiquated idea of community which means the people we just happen to live close to, much less like?

The values of our current society are often vaguely defined, to the advantage of those who would use them as license for dubious actions – just what are British values, for example, and how do they differ from the values of others? Issues like defining our values only appear complicated when we do not know enough about them. It was in guidance through these complications, however misguided the results, that religion aspired to position itself. With the unfurling of religion comes the opportunity to reset the moral compass, to reassess what life in our society really means, to better understand what sort of spaces we want to interact in beyond those of commodity and materialism.

Or perhaps at the end of a day’s long hard graft, all we really want is another stiff drink.

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