Posted by a Contributor in November's Magazine
Les vacances have been and gone and, oh la la, the battle to stop a 12th century church in rural France from being demolished continues. What’s the latest? Well, the mayor (the villain of the piece) had apoplexy at being named and shamed not only in local papers but also on the radio and regional TV. Apparently, he can’t even walk into his local boulangerie to buy a baguette without some random stranger giving him a nod and a wink and asking if that old church is still standing!
However, despite or perhaps because of this, he agreed (albeit reluctantly) to reconsider his decision to demolish the eglise. Provided of course the rebels raise the much-needed funds to restore it. Pas de souci, as the French would have it. Turns out France is rife with heritage organisations whose job it is to advise small associations on how to raise funds to restore medieval churches. All we protestors had to do was form our own ‘Friends of the Church’ association and we’d be laughing. Easy peasy.
Well, not exactly. At 7pm on the last day of August – a week before my part-time French husband and I were due to return to Scotland – we rebels met to set up the association. Even given the French capacity for eloquence (no French person uses one word when twenty will do), I was confident the association would be set up in no time. I anticipated being back in our lovingly restored house in plenty of time to watch an episode of Maigret on the telly before drifting of to sleep safe in the knowledge that the village church – and our house – would still be standing when next we returned.
However, that was to think like the uninitiated. While the villagers were united in wishing to save the church they were not united about anything else, especially about who should be the president of the new organisation. Everyone had a grievance against everyone else: neighbours disputed land boundaries; donkeys had wandered into another’s field and no apologies had been made; years ago Mr Y had questioned Mrs Z’s method of preserving green beans; no one would work with the owner of the dogs that barked at three o’clock in the morning, or with the owner of the cockerel that cock-a-doodle-doo-ed long before dawn; elderly Madame Y would not work with younger Madame Z because her children were not well behaved and absolutely no one would work with the person whose crumbling garden wall continued to spoil the harmony of the village entrance.
In fact the only person the rebels would agree to work with was my part-time French husband, Marc. We were stunned. How could he be president, we were leaving for Scotland in a week? He protested. The rebels were adamant. If Marc refused to be president there would be no association. Without the association there would be no getting valuable support and funds and there would be no church. Oh! Dis donc! And so, Marc, part-time French person, became le Monsieur President of the Association of the Friends of the Village Church!
And how has this worked for the village? Actually, courtesy of the Internet, not bad at all, or pas mal, as the French would style it. A board was formed, the association set up and a bank account created. The first donation of fifteen euros has been received and two heritage organisations have pledged support. A violin concert is being arranged to raise more money and a mountain of virtual bricks are on sale online for a euro.
Does this mean the fight is over? Not exactly. The Catholic Church (remember them?) is still demanding that the building be knocked down. And while the final decision lies with the mayor (boo hiss!) who is still reconsidering, the local bishop (grrr!) also exerts considerable influence. In other words, until Monsieur the Mayor finally makes his mind up we can’t be sure of anything. And why is the Catholic Church so adamant it wants to destroy a 12th century building? Well, while France is often thought to be a Catholic country, apparently only five per cent of the country would identify as such. Indeed seventy-four per cent of French people have apparently never opened a Bible.
Enter stage right the Evangelical Church, which sees France as ‘something of a spiritual wilderness, especially in the rural areas and small towns where worship leaders are harder to find than fish and chips’. Determined to address this ‘paucity of preaching’, the Evangelical Church are planting a new church somewhere in France every 10 days. For the first time since the 1950s French Protestants now make up close to 3 per cent of the population and half of them are under thirty-five. And guess where these new evangelical churches are being planted? Yep, you guessed it, in the old, disused Catholic Church buildings. It appears the Catholic Church would rather practice a scorched earth policy than be upstaged by the Evangelical Church. It seems the fight to save the village church has a long way to go yet – I feel a book coming on!