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Churchgoing on its knees as Christianity falls out of favour

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Churchgoing on its knees as Christianity falls out of favour

Church attendance in Britain is declining so fast that the number of regular churchgoers will be fewer than those attending mosques within a generation, research published today suggests.

The fall - from the four million people who attend church at least once a month today - means that the Church of England, Catholicism and other denominations will become financially unviable. A lack of funds from the collection plate to support the Christian infrastructure, including church upkeep and ministers' pay and pensions, will force church closures as ageing congregations die.

In contrast, the number of actively religious Muslims will have increased from about one million today to 1.96 million in 2035.

According to Religious Trends, a comprehensive statistical analysis of religious practice in Britain, published by Christian Research, even Hindus will come close to outnumbering churchgoers within a generation. The forecast to 2050 shows churchgoing in Britain declining to 899,000 while the active Hindu population, now at nearly 400,000, will have more than doubled to 855,000. By 2050 there will be 2,660,000 active Muslims in Britain - nearly three times the number of Sunday churchgoers.

The research is based on analysis of membership and attendance of all the religious bodies in Britain, including a church census in 2005.

Coming just months after the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that the introduction of aspects of sharia into British law was unavoidable, the report is likely to fuel calls for the disestablishment of the Church of England.

Martin Salter, the Labour MP for Reading West and a member of Reading inter-faith group, said: "I think all faiths could be treated equally under our constitution. These figures demonstrate the absurdity of favouring one brand of Christianity over other parts of the Christian faith and the many other religions that grace our shores."

Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary with responsibility for community cohesion, said: "We will look at these findings very closely. Britain is a secular democracy with a strong Christian tradition but many faiths have a home in Britain."

The report makes it clear that Christianity is becoming a minority religion. It also reflects the changing nature of religious practice worldwide and will further aid the stated aim of the Prince of Wales who, on his Coronation, hopes to become Defender of Faith rather than Defender of the Faith.

Only in the large, evangelical churches of the Baptist and independent denominations is there resistance to the trend, but many of these churches also show some decline. One small area of growth is in Northern Ireland, where the enthusiasm of Pentecostals and other independents has led to a slight increase in numbers of churches - a trend expected to continue to 2050. The three growing denominations are the Orthodox, Pentecostals and smaller denominations, all dependent to a degree on immigration.

The crisis is particularly acute for Methodists and Presbyterians, as many worshippers are aged over 65. The report predicts that these churches might well have merged with others by 2030. "The primary cause of the decrease in attendance is that people are simply dying off," the report says.

By 2050 there will be just 3,600 churchgoing Methodists left in Britain, Christian Research predicts. Anglicans will be down to 87,800, Catholics to 101,700, Presbyterians to 4,400, Baptists to 123,000 and independents to 168,000.

The national breakdown shows similar declines across England, Wales and Scotland. Churchgoing across all denominations in England will fall from about 3 million today to about 700,000 in 2050. In Wales it will tumble from 200,000 to 42,000 and in Scotland, from 550,000 to 140,000. The figures take into account the recent boost to Catholicism from the number of Polish immigrants to Britain, particularly in Scotland.

The report predicts that by 2030, when Dr Rowan Williams's successor as Archbishop of Cantebury will be approaching retirement, there could be just 350,000 people attending just 10,000 Anglican churches, with an average of 35 worshippers each. The next Archbishop after that could find his position "totally nonviable", the report says, with just 180,000 worshippers in 6,000 churches by 2040.

David Voas, a professor of population studies at the Institute for Social Change at the University of Manchester, said: "The difficulty is in retaining the children who have churchgoing parents. So long as churchgoing is something that gets you laughed at, so long as there is a social stigma attached to being a churchgoing young person, it will be difficult to reverse the trend." He said that young Muslims operated in a different environment. "Being religious is a way that you show you are different, that you are proud of your heritage. One of the ways young Muslims assert their identity is by being more observant than their parents."

The Church of England disputed the forecasts last night. Lynda Barley, its head of research, said: "These statistics represent a partial picture of religious trends today. In recent years church life has significantly diversified so these traditional statistics are less and less meaningful in isolation.

"There are more than 1.7 million people worshipping in a Church of England church or cathedral each month, a figure that is 30 per cent higher [than the Sunday attendance figure used by Christian Research] and has remained stable since 2000. We have no reason to believe that this will drop significantly."

— Hundreds of churches are protesting at soaring water bills, with some parishes facing increases of up to 1,300 per cent. Senior churchmen from the Church of England, Methodist and other churches are meeting officials from Ofwat, the industry regulator, to argue their case against the charges today.
Churchgoing on its knees as Christianity falls out of favour

Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent



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