Wim Heynen is owner of the popular bookshop De Markies. In this time of plummeting church attendance, he says, churches have more importance as cultural-historical monuments than as centres for the active participation in religious rites. In an opinion piece in De Morgen, Heynen gives an example from his own trade: the Selexyz bookshop in Maastricht, widely known as one of the most beautiful in the world, is housed within a Dominican church. “This new function offers an exceptional chance to allow a contemporary look at the feeling of social cohesion,” he wrote.
Tim De Mey, a priest of the cathedral in Antwerp said that “a cathedral is and remains a church. Only religious services take place here. We do not want to open the door to other services than traditional Catholic celebrations.”
That view, according to Jan De Zutter, a lecturer in comparative religion at the University of Antwerp, is historically inaccurate.
“The mediaeval builders of the cathedral…would look askance at that argument. A cathedral was not an oasis of quiet devotion. A cathedral was a lively and noisy centre of city life. Markets were organised, pilgrims found shelter, the sick were looked after…. Cathedrals were a manifestation of society, a place where farmers, artisans, merchants, nobles and clerics could meet each other.”
Paintings from the city’s Baroque golden age are evidence of that, such as in the detail pictured left from a painting boy Pieter Neefs the Younger: people begging, children running around, a nobleman taking a tour, and people apparently out for a stroll. And a few visitors are paying attention to the priest in the pulpit.