Religious Heritage as Shared Space: an interview with Elza Kuyk

22 June, 2023

Birgit Meyer interviewed Elza Kuyk about her new book ‘Tussen erfgoed en eredienst’, which just appeared with Amsterdam University Press (link)

The book is available open access (link).

It is based on her PhD-project, that was conducted under the auspices of the Religious Matters program, and investigated interactions between religious and other user groups in four multiple-used city churches in the Netherlands.

June 2023

Birgit Meyer: How did you develop the idea for this research project?

Elza Kuyk: I have a longstanding interest in religion, culture and history, with a special emphasis on architecture. This led me to focus on multiple-used city churches in the Netherlands. There is a lot of interest in the full closing down of churches and their use for other secular purposes. But forms of cohabitation that involve secular and religious actors have received much less attention. In a way my subject was a bit of a surprise to myself as well, as I had a limited idea at the start of what I could encounter. I developed the research project rather intuitively. The first working title was ‘the breath of the church building’, but I considered it difficult to capture something like ‘breath’ or ‘spirit’ in the church building. Of course, sacredness is something that visitors of church buildings refer to. I wanted to focus on the church building and some user groups, investigating their references to the church building and to their respective interactions. I also wanted to take the church building itself into account: its history, its location, its former communities, its public functions, etc.

I shared my plans in a long talk on the phone with you, when you were in Berlin at the time, and you welcomed me in your project ‘Religious matters in an entangled world’. That was the best embedding I could have for what I wanted to explore and to learn. The sociological part was well covered by my co-promotor, Hijme Stoffels (VU Amsterdam). After the admission procedures I could register as external PhD-student at Utrecht University in June 2016. I had a half-time job so I had spare time for doing research.

BM: Can you briefly introduce the four sites?

EK: The Geertekerk in Utrecht is a church building that ever since the remonstrant community choose the – then ruined – church for their future worship in 1954 and got it restored, welcomed other forms of use next to worship services. Remonstrants represent a rather liberal protestantism. The (re)construction and the interior design show how the remonstrants experience their own church building and which connection they see between aesthetics and spirituality. The other actors invited to use the church for, a.o. concerts, fit in well with their own preferences.

5 juli 1954, dakloze Geertekerk – foto L.H. Hofland, Utrechts Archief 100287

The Sint-Joriskerk in Amersfoort spotlights the historical relationship between the local congregation and the interior of the church building. The central position of the pulpit underlines the focus on the bible and the predication. The interior supports the church attendants to keep concentrated and not distracted from that. This makes use by secular actors less smooth. The multiple use of this church building is a good example of the increasing visibility of its Catholic past, partly due to the influence of tourism.

27 april 2019, Sint-Joriskerk – foto Elza Kuyk

The Grote Kerk in Zwolle presented itself since 2017 with the brand name Academiehuis. Striking here are not only restorations and alterations, but also changes in the administrative structure. The worshipping community in the late afternoon or early evening is hardly visible or mentioned for those who are unaware of it. In the research period changes in ownership structure and user agreements took place and informed me about the current developments of that time.

11 mei 2022, Academiehuis Zwolle – foto Elza Kuyk

The series concludes with the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, which has not been in church ownership already for a long time. The faith community identifies as protestant-ecumenical and this is well reflected in the liturgy. Since 2003 the high choir is included in weekly services and thereby fit better into the church’s architecture. The Oude Kerk is unique in that is acquired a museum status and has a strong profile as a cultural institution. Here art and religion come very close and potentially are in conflict with each other. (See some of my blogposts, e.g. 

Not only the church community, but also (local) heritage organizations react to events and exhibitions that take place.

2 september 2018, Oude Kerk, ‘Anastasis’, Giorgio Andreotta Calò – foto Elza Kuyk

BM: How did you conduct the research?

EK: What I did most was visiting the church buildings at any possible time and attending many events that I had access to. The pictures I took during my participant observation turned out to be important sources of information. Apart from a few formal interviews, I had numerous chats with church musicians, church wardens, visitors, volunteers, members of the different faith communities, entrepreneurs, heritage experts and basically anybody who related to the church buildings.

The university seminars and a whole lot of guest lecturing helped me to present my findings and developed ways to interpret them. I was part of a research school (NOSTER). The religious matters-program offered me a lot of seminars and a space to write blogs. I went to international conferences and a summerschool in Groningen. This helped me to connect to academic debates and to develop skills.

27 november 2016, Oude Kerk, tentoonstelling Marinus Boezem – foto Elza Kuyk

BM: What are the findings that surprised you most?

What I really liked and what surprised me as well, were what I called ‘creative interactions’ between user groups, such as a worship service interacting with an art exhibition. 

It was quite obvious that protestants do not seem to take the materiality of their own faith and practices very seriously. But multiple use challenges that attitude, because to share space means that communities somehow need to reflect on what they are willing to accept from others or how to react when the building does not serve them in the way they have been used to. When users stick to their own rights and ideas, conflicts easily arise.

Sometimes experiments can help to explore new ways of relating to the church building. To me it was helpful to get away from common explanations about dechurching and secularisation as that does not take new initiatives well enough into account. It is too simple to frame the faith community as ‘representing religious use’ and any other user as ‘representing secular use’.  Some approaches in heritage studies and sociology of architecture offer more helpful insights for understanding the dynamics that can be traced in multiple used church buildings.

One effect is also interesting and that is that references to Catholic ritual easily seems to re-appear in these church buildings. Practicing silence (or meditation), events on All Souls day and other Catholic holidays, lighting memorial candles and similar practices can often be found. I do not overstate when I observe that the Catholic past of the building is gradually manifested again.

BM: Can you sketch the meaning of the title “Between heritage and worship”?

EK: There are several possible layers in this title. First, it refers to groups which identify with either the heritage character of the church building or with the worship practices. It seems often that the faith community and other users do not relate. They first of all focus on their own activities. It is only over time or when they cannot avoid each other any longer that interaction starts to take place. When the attitude is that of a single ownership of any group, it is easy to struggle about the use of the church building. Then issues about ‘proper use’ are causing disagreements. Second, it refers to the church building itself. The church building can be considered to host and welcome any person or group who feels attracted to it, be it to its heritage – or religious character – or otherwise. Third, it might refer to the fluid character of relating to a church building. Members of faith communities can also be impressed by the history of the building or its architecture. Those who enter the enter church building other than for worship services, might experience something that they refer to as something sacred. The church building itself is multilayered and can evoke feelings and memories of many kinds. Connections such as between heritage and worship, between sacred and secular, between the past and the present, are all rather fluid and should not necessarily be fixed in an either-or position.

And in the end, isn’t it just an attractive title for a book like this?

Tussen erfgoed en eredienst. Meervoudig gebruik van vier monumentale stadskerken is uitgegeven door Amsterdam University Press, 280 pp., rijk geïllustreerd in kleur, genaaid gebonden, ISBN 9789463726092, €29,99. Voor een open access exemplaar:

English summary

This study contains an exploration of four multiple-used city churches where Protestant faith communities share the church building with other secular users. The issue of the future of church buildings receives much attention in both national and local news. The attention is usually focused on Protestant (and other) denominations that are struggling with the future of their church buildings or on church buildings that have been reallocated. However, there is also an intermediate category of church buildings in which both issues come together: multiple use, in which continued religious use is a part of it. This provides an excellent angle from which to examine developments in these church buildings and to analyse how they present themselves as cultural and religious heritage. For the religious communities concerned, multiple use means that they can continue to worship, but that the conditions for this are subject to change. They react to the presence of other users or to the objects that are visible during worship. The response to (often slight) disturbances between users can often be traced back to their specific relationship with the church building.

The focus of this study is on the interactions between the owner, the religious community and the church building. The owner can be an independent other party, but the owner can also be the religious community itself or a building and/or facility manager acting on its behalf (beheerder). The maintenance of monumental city churches requires intensive exploitation, in which a broad social basis is a condition for success. The public functions of church buildings are increasingly emphasised through multiple use. Due to their multiple use, religious communities have to relate to secular actors, such as those involved in art and heritage. Conversely, owners must ensure the conditions for worship, in accordance with the specific agreements. The focus on the tangible aspects of the process of secularisation provides a surprising picture of the way Protestant religious communities operate in the church building.

This study offers a unique insight into the connection between the history of the use of the specific church buildings, the architecture, the specific Protestant community, the chosen legal model, the urban embedding and the chosen profile for multiple use. Based on the descriptions of regular worship services and some forms of multiple use, the friction between users is mapped out. The reactions that are evoked back and forth expose the dilemmas, but also contribute to new developments. Underlying legal relationships explain that owners ultimately have the most say when users have different interests. In addition to the dynamics between users, the church building itself also plays an important role. Users individually have a specific relationship with the church building, but these relationships are not interrelated.

After an introductory chapter on the multiple use of church buildings, chapter 2 deals with the Geertekerk in Utrecht, where a relationship is established between the history of Remonstrant use and the current exploitation model. The (re)construction and the interior design show how the remonstrants experience their own church building and what connection they see between aesthetics and spirituality. The multiple uses chosen fit in well with their own preferences. Chapter 3 of the Sint-Joriskerk in Amersfoort reveals the historical relationship between the local congregation and the interior of the church building. In the Sunday celebrations the interior fulfils an emphatic function, among other things by focusing on the word. This church building is a good example of the increasing visibility of its Catholic past, partly due to the influence of tourism. Chapter 4 discusses the development of the Grote Kerk in Zwolle, which presents itself with the brand name Academiehuis. Besides restorations and alterations, the changes in the administrative structure are striking. The worship life is limited mainly to vespers. In the period 2015-2020, several developments took place in this church building, which gave rise to changes in ownership and in the user agreement. The objectives of the foundation in question have also changed. Chapter 5 concludes the series with the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, which has not been in church ownership for a long time. In this church building, worship services have been adapted to the architecture since 2003. Since then, the high choir once again occupies a prominent place in the liturgy. The relationship between worship and heritage is emphasised in several ways by the arrangement of the liturgy. In terms of multiple use, the Oude Kerk occupies a special position as a cultural institution with museum status. The commonalities, but also the frictions, between religion and art were clearly revealed during specific exhibitions and related events.

This study shows not only that multiple use fits in very well with the history of the church buildings, but also that the church buildings have a great capacity to appeal to various users. Through the multiple use and the restorations, the pre-Reformation Catholic past is strongly and tangibly brought back. The intensive exploitation contributes to an intensive and varied use at many times and in several places within the church building, also at the same time. The interactions between users increase, but the users do not know from each other how they relate to the church building. Through all the care and investments, church buildings are becoming more accessible and prominent in their respective cities. Ownership is gradually becoming less unambiguous. Those involved realise that they depend on each other in their efforts to keep the church building in good condition.

One effect of the multiple use is that the religious communities become more aware of the relationship between their liturgy and the church building, precisely because the availability of all the space and the objects of their own is not always optimal. This is somewhat in contrast to Protestants’ own preference not to give the church building a prominent role. A church building is ‘more than wood and stone’ and, for Protestants, refers to something that is spiritual in character. In their own thinking about the church, for example, community building is often much more central. ‘House of God’ may be a qualification for the church building during worship, but the building itself is not seen as holy. It is remarkable that some other users boldly name and appropriate the sacredness of the church building. The latter also applies to the two foundations that emerged as owners in this study.

De-churching has concrete consequences for faith communities as they might gradually lose previous user rights when they cut down their activities in the church building. Other users allow themselves to be boldly addressed by what they find in the church building and possibly express themselves in religious terms or in rituals. De-churching is also visible in a shift in determining ‘proper use’ of the church building: no longer faith communities and church institutions but new owners and other interest groups (like heritage organisations) decide about what they consider proper use. As for rituals, a general trend is that Catholic holidays, silence and music are often chosen as starting points.

On a broader level, this study contributes to an understanding of the effects of secularisation on choices regarding religious heritage. If owning a church building is no longer an option for a religious community, then multiple use, including the continuation of worship services, becomes an attractive option. This does not stop secularisation but creates room for new dynamics related to a new place for religious heritage in Dutch society. Reflection on the religious past is part of the policy that is developing in a network of stakeholders. Based on long-term ethnographic research and a detailed analysis, ‘Religious Heritage as Shared Space’ shows the struggles and dilemmas of the various users.