Dire warnings about the future survival of the Church of England have been sounded by the authors of the annual book of church statistics Religious Trends which is produced by Christian statisticians.
The finding that most newspapers headlined was the forecast (not particularly new) that within a generation there will be more people in Britain attending mosques than Christian churches.
The fall in attendance at the CofE is so precipitous, the researchers say, that it will soon become financially unsustainable. As congregations age and die, there will be no money from collection plates to support the Church’s infrastructure and keep on paying the pensions of retired vicars and bishops. In contrast, the number of actively religious Muslims will have increased from about one million today to 1.96 million in 2035. (In a population of, by then, 65 million, that is still pretty small).
According to Religious Trends, a comprehensive statistical analysis of religious practice in Britain, published by Christian Research, even Hindus will also 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 an analysis of membership and attendance of all the religious bodies in Britain, including a church census in 2005. The findings are bound to fuel calls for the disestablishment of the Church of England.
Even the much-trumpeted growth in evangelical churches is beginning to slow and, in some cases, even starting to decline. The numbers of people who are actively involved in religious organisations of any kind is now very small.
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: “It is difficult to see how the Church of England’s special status as the established church can be justified. It is a tiny denomination of a dwindling religion. The other religions are also tiny, so even though it’s projected that there will be more Muslim worshippers than Christians by 2050, that doesn’t mean to say that this will be a really significant number. The numbers involved in all these religions pale into insignificance beside those who declare they have no religion. And yet still we have MPs who are arguing that the CofE should be disestablished in order to give all religions equal status. For instance, Martin Salter, the Labour MP for Reading West and a member of Reading inter-faith group is quoted in The Times as saying: ‘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.’”
Terry Sanderson replied: “Mr Salter’s approach is the very worst of all worlds. No religion should be given special status and nor should all religions be given it. We should have a complete separation between religion and the state. This would be a much more accurate reflection of the nature of this country and by privileging no-one would be much fairer.”
Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary with responsibility for community cohesion, has said that she will “look closely at the findings”. She said: “Britain is a secular democracy with a strong Christian tradition but many faiths have a home in Britain.” The question now becomes: What kind of secular democracy does Ms Blears think Britain is?
Predictably, the Church of England tried to rubbish the figures. Lynda Barley, its head of research, launched a counter-attack, saying that the findings were “dangerous and misleading.” She 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.”