CofE faithful fall to new low

CofE faithful fall to new low

THE Church of England is facing a fresh crisis as a new study suggests that congregations have dipped below 1m for the first time and continue to plummet at a rate of more than 600 a week, writes Christopher Morgan.

It is claimed the figures show that the numbers who regularly attend church on Sunday fell below the 1m threshold in 1996 and have slumped further since. This means that Anglican church attendance has diminished by more than half in the past 50 years.

The church has refused to publish official statistics for the past two years, claiming that attendance figures do not give a fair picture of the numbers involved in regular worship. George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, recently insisted: "The picture is significantly more robust than we paint. We are a seven-day-a-week church serving God and the community in so many different ways."

The Prince of Wales, prominent among church supporters, is said to be increasingly alarmed by the collapse of the congregation. Although he has not spoken publicly about the crisis, friends say he fears that the Anglican claim to be the national church will be weakened if the haemorrhage of its members continues. If the decline persists, by 2000 the church could have lost more than 300,000 worshippers in just 10 years.

The study, compiled from published and unpublished church sources, is disclosed in the June edition of New Directions, a magazine which represents the views of Anglican conservatives. According to the journal, the church has been losing 625 members a week since 1994.

George Austin, Archdeacon of York who will be retiring in the autumn, claimed the figures confirmed that increasing liberalism in the church was undermining its popularity. In an article in the magazine he lambasts the "watered-down socialist drivel offered in sermons" and blames it for turning people off the church.

Church of England attendance experienced its biggest drop in 20 years when the 1995 figures were published. Average Sunday attendance was recorded at 1,045,000 then. A spokesman said the claim that figures had fallen below 1m was "extraordinary", adding: "We collect those statistics for financial reasons but we certainly don't want them used as indicators of our health."

In an independent survey, Professor Leslie Francis of Trinity College, Carmarthen, found that clergy in rural areas were overestimating Sunday attendances by an average 40%.

When the house of bishops of the Church of England meets tomorrow it will have to take account of a further worrying development: the drift of clergy into the Roman Catholic Church. Since the General Synod voted in favour of women's ordination in 1992, 481 priests have left the Church of England. It is expected that more than 300 of them will become Roman Catholic priests.

Cardinal Hume, Archbishop of Westminster, ordained another six former Anglicans on Friday, five of whom were carried. It is the first time since the 11th century that the Catholic church in Britain has had married priests running parishes. Soon there will be 100.

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