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Will the last person to leave the Church of England please turn out the lights

Thanks to mmurray for the link.

As the faithful look forward to Easter and the Archbishop of Canterbury prepares to officiate at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, it may seem inappropriate to be discussing the future of his Church. But this Easter week, I can't help feeling – more than ever – that the Church of England will not survive my children's lifetime and quite possibly not even my own.

It's not the archaism of state occasions that makes me doubt the relevance of the CofE, nor the sight this Lent of a dozen or more clergy crossing the floor to join the Roman Catholics that has made me despair of its future. Nor is it the statistics showing an ever-diminishing number of English attending their services, although these are bad enough. It's not even the spectacle of the Church wrapping itself in knots around the issues of ordaining women and gay bishops.

These are certainly signals of an institution in decline; a community turning in on itself as its relevance diminishes. But the Church has been here before and revived.

If that were all, one might envision – some of its members do – a leadership coming in to revive its fortunes, re-energise its priests and refresh its doctrines, as happened in Victorian times when Darwinian science and atheism threatened to overwhelm it.

No, the real problem of the Church of England is the factor which no-one seems ready to discuss in public – its role as the established church of the country. For humanists and atheists, this is an outrage; a remnant of a political past that should be dispensed with as soon as possible.

To the broader mass of an increasingly secular public, it means very little – some exotic clothes and ritual prayers on state occasions.

What is really worrying for the future of the Church, however, is that its leaders themselves seem to have ceased to believe in it. A sizable number of clergy and several bishops, would be much happier without the burden of establishment. Free of it, they feel the Church has a better chance to reach out to the young and claim its relevance to modern life.

Even the Archbishop of Canterbury and very likely the Archbishop of York, I suspect, are half, if not wholly, of this view. As for Prince Charles, who will become head of the Church when (and if) he succeeds to the throne, he seems thoroughly uncomfortable with the role in his search to be a popular figurehead for all religions and none.

You can see the temptation. In a multi-cultural Britain, why not a head of state that represents all religions? And in a secular nation, why not a church that can battle for souls without the encumbrance of all the conservative connotations of being the established church? I can see Prince Charles inducing a sigh of relief among the bishops – and a cheer from many vicars – if he announced he wanted to do away with the whole thing.

Only that begs the awkward question of what then does the Anglican Church in Britain amount to if it is not the established church? To listen to some in the Church, you would think it a thriving community that is only being held back by its political branding. The truth may well be the opposite. It is only its position as the established church of the country that keeps it going at all.

Born out of political necessity (as Henry VIII saw it), it has survived by reasserting itself constantly as a nationalist bastion against Roman Catholic Europe in its early centuries; as an arm of imperial ambitions in the 19th century and as a spirit of Britishness during the wars of the 20th century. It was what made us different and decent.

That is not to underestimate its social contribution. As the established church it offers the services of priest and place for the rites of passage – birth, baptism, marriage and death – which remain fundamental needs for people, church-going or not. When tragedy hits a community; there is a killing, an accident, a natural disaster, it is still to the church that people go.

Nor is it to deny that in urban parishes there aren't priests who have manage to reinvigorate their congregations through updated services and community action, or that in rural communities the church does not continue to act as a the focal point of village life. It may not be any longer the "establishment at prayer" that it once was, but it remains the "The Archers at prayer" still. The CofE, as with the Anglican communities in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, has long been associated with class and tied to privilege, but it has had a presence throughout society and that has mattered. However, it is no good any longer pretending that this is good enough to enable it to survive into this century.

Rather like the monarchy itself, it has survived less out of the enthusiasm of the public at large, or its affection, but out of a general sense that, given the alternatives, abolition would seem more trouble than it was worth.

So with the Church. The majority of people are quite happy to profess themselves Christian and Anglican. It's easier to accept than asserting a different faith. But they are not so happy to go to church services or take an active part in its activities.

The figures are truly dire. While non-Christian faiths have grown stronger and the evangelical Christian churches flourish, the story in the Church of England has been one of almost continuous decline since the war.

Despite a series of initiatives such as Back to Church Sunday and some improvement in the numbers of young people participating in church activities, attendance figures amongst Anglicans have dropped by some 10 per cent over the last decade. Only 1.1m people, some 2 per cent of the population, attend church on a weekly basis, and only 1.7m, or 3 per cent, once a month. This in spite of the fact that around half the population still profess themselves Anglicans.

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